Appropriation. Panel discussion | esse arts + opinions

Appropriation. Panel discussion

Appropriation. Panel discussion
With Johanne Lamoureux, Stéphane Martelly and Caroline Monnet
Moderated by Jean-Philippe Uzel

Jean-Philippe Uzel: Why organize a discussion on artistic appropriation when everyone is talking about cultural appropriation? The subject might seem a bit odd, or even suspect. Is there a “hidden agenda” here? Isn’t the goal of artistic appropriation ultimately to justify cultural appropriation? I think it’s important to respond to these questions briefly, and, in the process, explain why we’re having this panel. First, it seems regrettable that “appropriation” has become such a loaded word, with “negative” connotations. Artistic appropriation is a sort of collateral victim of debates on cultural appropriation. That’s a pity, because the technique of appropriation in art, or what is also known as “appropriationism,” permeates all of modern and contemporary art and is central to understanding today’s art practices. So, it seems important to revisit the gesture of appropriation in the context of the art world. What is particularly interesting is that the artists who use appropriation embrace the subversive aspect of their gesture. They appropriate something that doesn’t belong to them — generally an image made by another artist, advertising creative, or designer — and assume the consequences, often legal, of this violent act. Yet, when it comes to artists who are accused of cultural appropriation, the violent aspect of their gesture is totally denied. I find this contrast significant, and I’d like to launch the debate with this idea: on the one hand, appropriation artists who take responsibility for their transgressive gestures and, on the other hand, artists who adopt an ethical stance by presenting themselves as allies of the cultures that they highlight, even when members of these minority cultures contradict them.

Stéphane Martelly: I could add to that right away. In fact, I was wondering about the relevance of connecting these two notions, which seem quite remote from one another. But at the same time, I think it’s interesting to bring them together. Also, to start, I’d like to propose a definition of cultural appropriation. I see cultural appropriation as the transformation of a culture that had previously been free to circulate as an object — a consumable, sellable, reproducible object. For me, it’s actually a reification of the cultural object. Cultural appropriation takes place because a cultural trait, practice, or object is used in a way that decontextualizes instead of making it more complex, that simplifies instead of enriching it; ultimately, it’s an act of power. An object that once had multiple ramifications and many layers of meaning is deconsecrated and decontextualized, simplified and reduced to a single thing. The act of power is intrinsically connected to the very notion of cultural appropriation: it isn’t just a sort of game of identity, musical chairs; cultural appropriation is a violent gesture that is made in the act of taking something from the other, of simplifying it and steering it back to oneself.

JPU: In a sort of decontextualization.

SM: In an extremely violent decontextualization.

Caroline Monnet: I wanted to add that appropriation is also an act of “taking something for granted.” It’s impossible to have a dialogue when there’s a total deadlock, when one person takes their relationship with the other for granted. It’s often easier to play dumb than to really make an effort and get to know the other, to go toward them and find out about them. It’s easier not to ask permission and to apologize after the fact.

Johanne Lamoureux: When I was invited to be on this panel, I saw the importance of discussing artistic appropriation at a time when its meaning and value have been challenged by recent controversies over cultural appropriation. It gave me a chance to reconsider different angles from which to approach the question of appropriation and of appropriation art. As an art historian, of course, I think first of appropriation in terms of the formation of avant-gardes, which appropriated fragments of the real or forms that came from elsewhere, as occurred in Dada practices. It’s clear that if these acts were welcomed, and retrospectively we’ve called them appropriations, it’s because they brought the real into the artwork. These fragments of the real were a way of challenging the autarchy and self-referentiality of the art world, and so they offered an opening. Appropriation reached a peak during the 1980s, and it was probably the most radical form of artistic appropriation. I’m thinking, for example, of the images by Sherrie Levine, who made identical reproductions of Walker Evans’s photographs, but also of all the objects that critically revisited the notion of the readymade. It was an attack against American formalism, the historicism of American formalism, which fetishized firsts — the first this, the first that, the first to — and these firsts created, or fabricated, ingenuity. It was an attack against the construction of artistic singularity. When it comes to cultural appropriation, the visual art milieu has been extremely vigilant about it since the 2000s. For example, in 2006, when the National Gallery of Canada held the exhibition Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon, of which I was co-curator, it started the season by programming Norval Morrisseau. The Gallery had consulted independent Indigenous curators to see if the initiative of the Carr exhibition seemed acceptable, and they were able to carry it off without major controversy.

It seems to me, in light of recent controversies in the theatre that I found really surprising, that one of the big distinctions from the visual arts is that we don’t really talk about appropriation of content. I think the real issue in theatre is that it’s the usurpation of place, rather than content, that’s being denounced. “Someone spoke in my place,” and it’s not so much what is said as the position, the privilege of being able to denounce what seems problematic. I hear Ariane Mnouchkine when she says, “But what are they saying to us? They’re actors: by definition, they take the place of — they embody someone else.” I’m very much in favour of theatre continuing to stick to this, but the situation must be reversible. Yet, as we can see, this isn’t the case: only white people can play everyone, all the time. True parity, true reversibility, would be the day when the roles for whites could be played by anyone.

I think that we have to distinguish and try to articulate and treat differently the issues of appropriation of content and appropriation of place, which goes beyond the problem of cultural appropriation in the sense that it’s really a problem of representation. Cultural appropriation also seems to me to be related to a general crisis of representation in society.

SM: I’m very sensitive to what you said, Johanne, with regard to the fact that the visual arts scene has already been having this discussion for some fifteen years, and the Québec theatre scene doesn’t yet seem ready for it. I’ll return to the question of place that you mentioned, the question of representation, because it’s very important. It brings to light the question of the audience: “Who are the narratives that are produced addressed to?” But also: “Who are the people who have access to the places that would permit them to construct these representations?” For me, the question of place is indissociable from that of content. Because, of course, if the person who speaks is not one who can claim this history, the content produced won’t be the same either. And, in fact, that was the reaction of Indigenous theatre people who saw the play Kanata in Paris; they said that an Indigenous person would never have produced that narrative, which is precisely the narrative of someone who is not Indigenous. I wanted to interweave these notions of content and place because they seem to me truly inseparable. That brings me back to this idea of simplification, because I believe that we can’t talk about cultural appropriation without raising the question of influence and absence. And so, I return to the audience. Cultural appropriation is possible only in the absence of people directly connected to the story or the cultural origin. It presumes that this absence is taken for granted. And that’s why, for example, you have some cultural content that is manipulated so carelessly, precisely because it is presumed, in the case of theatre, that there will be no black person in the room to say, “But no, in fact, that’s not my experience.” We presume that we are producing a cultural object already destined for an audience that is not involved, that is not racialized, and that doesn’t belong to or know about the culture being appropriated.

That’s why cultural appropriation is a type of cannibalism. There is something profoundly cannibalistic and parodic in the appropriative gesture, inevitably because of this absence and this decontextualization. Hence, cultural appropriation is the very theatre of power relationships.

JPU: We were just talking about Ariane Mnouchkine, who feels that cultures belong to everyone. This is a form of absolute negation…

SM: An absolute negation of the power relationship! But it is precisely the prerogative of power to exercise power while masking it at the same time. The metaphor of the mask is interesting here because the appropriative gesture needs to be denied in order to exist. It needs to say, “Oh no, that’s not what I’m doing! I’m doing something else. In fact, I’m in the process of giving you a place, but without you. And if you have something to say in response, it’s not legitimate — your words are not legitimate. You are necessarily outside of art and creativity. You are censors.” Whereas censorship, real censorship, is based on a power relationship. You have to be in a position of power to exercise censorship, in an institution that gags subversive and contesting voices. So, reversing the very meaning of censorship to say that minority or dominated voices are the ones exercising it — and to say this, paradoxically, from every platform — is a powerful gesture of denial.

CM: I have the feeling that the debate is taking place on two levels: there’s the symbolic debate and the political one. Indigenous People became the property of the queen, the king, and the Canadian government. They were dispossessed of their lands, languages, cultures, and freedom of expression. The entire debate is extremely political because we’re talking about claims that affect every sector of society. Of course, on the cultural level, we are more present — that’s where we can be heard talking about it the most — but the work of emancipation and self-determination really takes place at every level. Today, we are still a minority in decision making, in discussions, so it is hard to have a real dialogue, an egalitarian dialogue.

SM: What is also interesting to see, in the end — maybe that’s the position you touched upon in our discussion and that I want to make clear here — is the point to which cultural appropriation is not subversive at all. It’s really the contrary of subversion, as it returns the dominant to their place of dominance, while the dominated remain dominated, and so power relationships are not challenged at all… It’s the repetition of power relations.

JPU: Power relations hidden behind an ethical relationship.

SM: Always!

JPU: In the visual arts, the main defence of artists who are accused is to say, “But I’m an ally of the cultural minorities that I represent. I’m their spokesperson, I’m helping them, so I’m being put on trial falsely. In fact, I even consulted them when I made my artwork,” etc. This is a troubling ethical posture.

SM: It isn’t truly ethical, in fact.

JPU: No, it pretends to be.

SM: Yes, of course, it’s a pretense, so we mustn’t embark on this discourse. That is why it’s very interesting to truly understand the meaning of words. It’s not an “ethical relationship” when we speak of in the place of — it’s impossible. “Speaking in the place of” necessarily implies that you do not recognize the other’s place as subject. That is not an ethical relationship. True subjects have the right to express themselves about themselves. If you put forth a proposition and the subject resists it, that’s their role — they’re affirming their place as subject. And so, to challenge this contestation on the pretext of ethics is yet again a curious form of doublespeak in which words mean their opposite.

JL: But doesn’t that also create a paradoxical situation? I agree that it’s an act of power — I don’t think there’s any doubt about that — and yet it’s authors and cultural actors who are interested in the fact that there is a problem of non-visibility, that there is a story to tell there. At the same time, most people continue to act as if there were no problem, as if there were no “others” to embody.

SM: We must resist this idea that the choice we have is between the worst and the less bad. That can’t be. We can’t have only this choice. There is another option: that people can represent themselves — that they’re capable of doing so and have the skills to do it. To understand that there are voices that aren’t getting their say, that certain subjects are missing from the discussion, is not to take the place of, it’s to give place to.

JL: The time when people can represent themselves has not yet arrived, obviously. In the current situation, the absence of symmetry predominates, but Mnouchkine’s position, in which everyone could represent everyone, remains an ideal worth achieving.

SM: We agree on this, because in fact, in a truly postcolonial and post-racial society — which is not the case in the West, far from it — everyone would be able to do everything. But in the current context, marked by deep inequalities that destabilize the scene of representations, we’re not in a situation in which the body is not already marked. The great social narrative, the great cultural narrative, has already marked bodies and it’s impossible to act as if that weren’t so.

CM: We talk a lot about appropriation, but we forget the notion of responsibility. The artist’s responsibility is to look at the world, of course, to instigate dialogue and reflection — that’s central to the artist’s approach. But we should also ask about how to do things right. Perhaps my good intentions, unbeknownst to me, reproduce colonial powers or forms of oppression. Today, Indigenous Peoples have the means and the tools to be present, to be part of society, so it’s no longer possible today to say, “Oh! Sorry, we forgot you this time, but we’ll include you the next time.” There must be a true change, and institutions and artists must do real work so that inclusion takes place in a respectful and egalitarian way.

JPU: As an artist, Caroline, have you been confronted with problems of cultural appropriation?

CM: It’s a delicate question, even when one is an Indigenous person, because there may be acts of appropriation among nations and even within a single community. I use cultural motifs that were passed down to me by my mother-in-law. Am I appropriating these motifs? In my family, over the years, we have been dispossessed of our culture, our heritage, for four generations by the Indian Act. So, in appropriating traditional knowledge, am I overstepping my rights? If I’m asking myself the question in relation to my own culture and my own nation, it would be important for those who aren’t part of this nation to at least ask themselves the same question.

JPU: In fact, it’s paradoxical that you, of Anishinaabe ancestry, ask yourself that question.

CM: Yes, but that’s because it’s extremely important. You also have to remember, there are fifty different First Nations in Canada. So, I can’t appropriate elements of the Haida Nation or the Inuit on the pretext that we’re all Indigenous. We don’t belong at all to the same culture. Indigenous cultures aren’t one big bag, a cultural melting pot from which we can draw as we wish.

JPU: We saw this debate start up again last week at the Indigenous Music Awards gala, when a Cree singer performed Inuit throat songs. Everyone seemed to say, “But what is that?” Even Indigenous People are torn about cultural appropriation! But as you’ve just said, they are different nations and cultures.

CM: Different languages, different values, different ways of doing things, and so on. There’s specific protocol to follow with elders. We have to go and see those who have knowledge, we have to do long and painful work with them. We must have a dialogue, and it’s quite a process. It’s not just saying, “Okay, I’ll do it and then we’ll see what happens afterward.”

SM: Returning to artistic appropriation, what is significant, perhaps, is that artistic appropriation — and specifically appropriationism — shakes up the notion of authorship. In cultural appropriation, the notion of authorship is strengthened in a way: we sign in someone else’s place and reject all forms of contestation. In appropriationism, however, there’s a sort of awareness or recognition of the parodic or subversive nature of the signature, and that’s completely denied and masked in cultural appropriation. I wanted to underline this contrast.

JPU: And that’s why it’s interesting to challenge cultural appropriation with artistic appropriation. Because it in fact allows us to bring out these differences: the absence, or presence, of critical awareness.

JL: What I find fascinating is why the visual art milieu has a different history. Why is it that different kinds of artistic expressions do not have the same history with regard to questions of appropriation?

SM: I don’t have an answer, but I think that the discussion simply started longer ago in the visual arts. And also, I think that the discussion, in the theatre world, isn’t at the same point in every country. I don’t think that the discussion is at the same point in Québec and the United States, for example.

JL: Is it possible that it’s because the visual arts don’t have the same audience — that is, they address an audience that is a bit more closed than that of the theatre world?

SM: Yes, I think the issue is maybe more important in the theatre because the notion of the subject in relation to speech may be even more acute. It consists directly of the voice — truly, directly, the voice. I believe that the issue of the voice is particularly interesting here.

Audience member: At what point do you think we can consider something sufficiently representative to say, finally, “I have the right to speak about that”? What are the criteria for saying, “I have enough of that identity to represent so-and-so, or such-and-such content”?

SM: We mustn’t evade the discomfort of that question. In the end, we must also say that perhaps, sometimes, we should be quiet. The voices that have always held the monopoly will have to yield their place. This will be an essential step. I know that my answer is a bit direct, but I think that, necessarily, that’s what it means. It also means that artists will have to challenge themselves on the notion of the place of neutrality. Presuming that we have something to say on every subject is to presume that our position is perfectly neutral, that it isn’t situated in history, that it isn’t racialized. So, we will have to challenge all these assumptions, all these preconceptions. It’s crucial that the landscape change. And that we mourn the idea of occupying every place.

Translated from the French by Käthe Roth

This text is a summary of the L’appropriation artistique aujourd’huipanel discussion presented by Les éditions Esse on 27 April 2019 during the Papier art fair. The full recording is available at

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