Pablo Picasso, Brick Factory at Tortosa. 1909 (State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

I’ve written twice before on this site about cultural appropriation, a concept that raises objections to the use of cultural artifacts, styles, identities, or forms by people who don’t belong to the culture those forms derive from. While cultural appropriation tends to surface most prominently in such pop controversies as whether it is appropriate for Kim Kardashian to wear cornrow braids, my original post summed up a contentious address given by the (white American) novelist Lionel Shriver, who defended the right of white writers to write black characters. Shriver ridiculed the notion that those writers are engaging in a kind of artistic imperialism, airily dismissing such strictures as part of what she viewed as the lamentable political correctness and identity politics on American college campuses.

In that first post I described the argument over cultural appropriation while mostly withholding judgment. But this past summer, revisiting the issue in light of further controversies—such as the casting of Scarlett Johansson as a trans man in the film Rub & Tug—I was less circumspect, and called some applications of the concept “misguided,” especially where performers, musicians, chefs, novelists, and artists are concerned, all of whom to some extent must make forays across lines of culture and identity. I myself, a white American, once wrote a short story with an African protagonist, and would be hard-pressed to see that action as improper. “For me the challenge in writing the story was not ethical but artistic,” I wrote; “not, Do I have the right, but do I have the chops? Am I good enough to do this persuasively?”

In a thoughtful response, Commonweal intern and Columbia student Nicole-Ann Lobo took issue with some of my views. The problem, she wrote, lies less in this or that individual artist or action than in the far larger matter of “systemic inequality” between parties to such cultural transactions. What is commonly called cultural “borrowing” is not really borrowing, Lobo writes, but taking. The American musician who popularizes African music; the Euro fashion brand that adopts the aboriginal boomerang and markets it as a luxury item; the two gringo women who go to Mexico, discover the best burrito recipes, then open a highly profitable food truck back in the United States; and, yes, the white writer who channels an African character for use in a fictional narrative published for American readers. Some of these efforts are undertaken purely for profit, while others represent an artist’s sympathetic act of imagination: but all are exploitive. “A disparity in power,” Lobo wrote, “is what makes it possible for one culture to appropriate another.”

Cultural appropriation, or cultural celebration and transmission? It’s clearly a legitimate question.

To illustrate this argument, she delves into a case I had brought up, the one concerning those two white women in Oregon who got called out for “stealing” their recipes during a trip to Mexico. My piece had implied that calling such culinary popularizing theft is exaggerated. Lobo disagrees. Noting that the two American women themselves spoke of “peeking into the windows” of restaurant kitchens to ferret out what was going on in them, she argues that the notion of borrowing “involves a respectful, balanced exchange,” and that “swiping the techniques and recipes without the permission or maybe even the knowledge of their owners does not constitute such an exchange.”

In this view, it is unfair that the American women can profit from the Mexican women’s know-how, merely by living in America and having access to the American market. Moreover, Lobo points out, even if the Mexican women were able somehow to get to Oregon and open their own place, “they would not have the same built-in advantages that allowed two upper-middle-class white people to bring a product to market so easily. Discrimination, a language barrier, the difficulty of assimilating into a white cultural framework in order to be ‘marketable’—these are the kinds of challenges people of color often are confronted with when navigating realms dominated by white people for centuries.”  

I don’t disagree with that: who could? But such advantages inhere in the reality of the world as it is. We can and should work to mitigate them; but what sort of system would eliminate them altogether? The judgments of cultural appropriation would seem to prohibit almost any kind of cultural interaction undertaken from the more privileged side of two groups of disparate resources. The Indian restaurants I go to, meanwhile, are all run by Indians—and, of course, these are Indians who themselves enjoy that same “built-in advantage,” by virtue of being here in America, over hundreds of millions of Indians who don’t have access to American markets.

More personally, it irks Lobo to see “co-optings of my culture by white Americans.” A turmeric milk that her mother would make her when she was sick “is now a $5 ‘golden milk’ found at the gentrified cafe,” and “traditional Indian apparel [is] now sold in upscale boutiques.” “In these cases, it is rarely Indian people marketing and selling Indian culture,” she writes; “it is privileged, mostly white Americans.” She recalls her sixth-grade teacher, returning from a trip to India and distributing bindis—forehead jewelry—to all the girls in class, who excitedly donned this “novel” ornamentation, Lobo writes, “as if it was just more bling.” She lays out the process by which such actions estrange those whose culture is being popularized, as mimicry turns the stuff of that culture’s daily life into “novelty”—into just more bling.

Any person who’s listening will feel the chagrin that her story conveys. Yet such stories, for better and for worse, are fundamental to the way modern commerce works, and to the way that culture is shaped within that commercial system. Given the fluid transmission of images and people in the world today, if something appears that catches the eye or the fancy of those with resources to spend (if there is a market for it, in other words) it will be produced,or imported, and sold. In time, the “novelty” gets assimilated into the general American vernacular. Like spaghetti and pizza; like rice dishes; reggae music; Gangnam style hip-hop; woven African shoulder bags; moccasin slippers. And on and on. Today’s new mainstream fad is yesterday’s subcultural staple. So what to do? Perhaps, along with fair-trade initiatives, a knowledge of the cultural pedigrees of such items is the most we can hope for.

There will always be a glass-half-empty, glass-half-full aspect to cultural transmission in a global capitalist consumer system. I think, for instance, about Paul Simon’s pathbreaking mid-80s album, Graceland. If you read the Wikipedia entry about this work, you’ll find that Simon had hit a period of creative ennui, during which he came across a bootleg cassette of South African bands. Excited, he headed to Africa, where eventually he collaborated with some of the musicians whose work he had admired, and produced an album “inspired by South African township music.” That album, Graceland, sold 14 million copies.

Seen through the prism of cultural appropriation, this appears as a typical outrage, right down to the euphemistic phrase, “inspired by South African township music.” Today Paul Simon is a multimillionaire in suburban Connecticut, while some of the South African musicians he listened to, and was inspired by, are probably still living in relative obscurity in the actual township. On the other hand, the rest of the world got to hear a kind of music it hadn’t much heard before: and some of those previously unknown artists, like the group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, are now themselves world-renowned and wealthy. The late South African musician and apartheid opponent Hugh Masekela praised Simon for helping to boost South African music; but jazz musician Jonas Gwangwa commented bitterly that “it has taken another white man to discover my people.”

Cultural appropriation, or cultural celebration and transmission? It’s clearly a legitimate question. But if you view the Simon work as exploitation, then the question is, what should he have done? Restrained his impulse to let his composition be informed and shaped by African music? Or simply not done it? Tried instead to get South African musicians into the U.S. mainstream, without himself acting in any musical way? But he’s a musician and a composer. He did what musicians and composers do.


Nicole-Ann Lobo’s piece helps me see that the issue of cultural appropriation is more than a mere list of do’s and don’ts; that we need to be talking about the structures of cultural production.

“Not everyone has the chance to represent themselves or their cultures on their own terms,” Lobo writes. Perhaps the two of us can agree that the solution to this problem is to give more the chance—not to create don’t-go-there categories for some artists, but to increase opportunity for others. Lobo says as much, stressing the importance of not merely trying to “to give voice to the voiceless” through the works of dominant-culture artists, but by enlarging the system of cultural production in order to “amplify the voices...that already exist.” I think this enlargement has been well underway for some time. Look at the pages of the New York Times Book Review, and you’ll see how much has changed after twenty-five years, in terms of what books get paid attention to, and who gets asked to do it.

I agree that it is an “imperfect process,” as Lobo writes. But it is happening. Last year I wrote a magazine profile of Kellie Jones, an art historian and curator who won a 2017 MacArthur award: and who, by a strange coincidence, is a professor of Lobo’s. Throughout her career Jones has championed what she calls “the underknown”—black, Latino, and women artists left out of mainstream accounts of art history. Abstract paintings by such artists as Al Loving, Norman Lewis, and Jack Whitten formed part of a 2006 exhibition she curated at the Studio Museum of Harlem, Energy/ Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980. And her 2011 show, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960–1980, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, presented the work of nearly forty artists in the community around David Hammons, the African-American artist who does fascinating street installations as well as paintings. Kellie Jones told me how impressively her field has evolved over the decades, with mainstream American museums now routinely hiring people of color to do diverse cultural projects, and African-American art history—once largely restricted to historically black colleges and universities—now taught widely. “I see a lot of changes,” she said.

Nicole-Ann Lobo’s piece helps me see that the issue of cultural appropriation is more than a mere list of do’s and don’ts; that we need to be talking about the structures of cultural production. But I’m still left with questions. How we are to decide what is proprietary in a world where information, objects, ideas, trends, and people themselves are constantly traveling, moving, and mingling? Viewing through a political lens, I can understand the critique of (say) Picasso as having exploited and profited from African masks and iconography, taking it all in (or taking it, if you will) and using it both to alter the course of Modernism, and to make name, fame and fortune for himself. I get that. But through an artistic lens I'm not sure what the lesson is. Should he have not done that?

As an artist you perceive certain intuitions, visions, sounds, and images, and you do your very best to follow them where they go. A postcolonial or neo-Marxist analysis of systemic inequities in cultural production won't (can't, shouldn't) affect that. I am not saying that one shouldn't be an activist in trying to change those inequities. One should. But for the artist, art comes first. Its challenges are already daunting enough, without one putting more obstacles in one’s own way.


To listen to Rand Richards Cooper and Nicole-Ann Lobo discuss cultural appropriation on The Commonweal Podcast, download the extended segment here.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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