Borrowing Without Giving Back

Sylvette Babin

Cultural appropriation takes place because a cultural trait, practice, or object is used in a way that decontextualizes instead of complexifying it, that simplifies instead of enriching it; ultimately, it’s an act of power.
Stéphane Martelly, p. 63

Appropriation art, for its part, seeks not to erase relations of power but to underline them.
Jean-Philippe Uzel, p. 17

The first instances of artistic appropriation in contemporary art go back to the 1960s and 1970s and the work of Elaine Sturtevant, who set the scene for artists interested in questions of authorship and intellectual property. Fully embraced, though not without legal consequences, these acts of appropriation are generally part of thinking critically about the art world. In contrast, cultural appropriation refers to the takeover of cultural codes, for commercial profit for example, or to the gestures of artists who intend to pay homage to a culture yet do not realize or recognize the resulting appropriation. By juxtaposing these two notions here, we wish to reveal what sets them apart.

The frequent debates on cultural appropriation have raised important questions on a wide variety of subjects such as the autonomy of art, the responsibility of the artist, freedom of expression, and censorship. These considerations are crucial in a society whose fundamental values are constantly transforming. However, the polarized discourses that have come out of these debates have glossed over the mechanisms of cultural appropriation and have led us to trivialize the consequences. As Jean-Philippe Uzel points out, “one of the most common strategies for defusing the political charge of cultural appropriation is to radically shift the meaning by giving it a positive connotation. It then becomes a synonym for ‘cultural exchange’ and is presented as a principle of artistic creation and ferment.” In parallel with such a romanticized and decontextualized conception of art, many opponents to the criticism of cultural appropriation claim the emergence of a victim-led censorship. Yet any discourse that seeks to discredit the claims of underrepresented communities contributes not only to denying the discrimination and existing power relationships, but also to reproducing them by divesting these communities of their right to express their outrage and of their power to act — in other words, it deprives them of their agency.

Stéphane Martelly rightly reminds us that “you have to be in a position of power to exercise censorship … 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.” Many have in fact spoken out in the media, magazines, and publications by well-established publishing houses both to defend the freedom of expression and to denounce political correctness or the rise of a new moral order. Although artistic freedom of expression should clearly be safeguarded from the slip-ups associated with a simplistic reading of artworks or the application, without any nuance, of an ideology motivated by empathy, the slippery remarks on its alleged disappearance are surprising. The idea that artists can no longer tackle delicate or controversial subjects often seems to be based on dystopic theories such as the advent of an art controlled by morality or the militant left, the disappearance of art’s autonomy, or even the end of transgressive art. Must we point out that criticism is not meant to be a gag order, but rather an invitation to examine the meaning and scope of our actions and our relationship to others?

Many misunderstandings persist among the most high-profile cases of cultural appropriation, particularly when they involve the appropriation of collective memory, intangible cultures, and ways of sharing such cultures. Caroline Nepton Hotte, one of the signatories of the open letter on Kanata, resumes the debate to discuss the background of this controversy, which has been by and large stripped of its context. The group’s criticism builds on the important process of decolonization and “cultural reappropriation” (biskaabiiyang, or “re-creating the cultural and political flourishment of the past”) of First Nations. Hotte emphasizes that although this reappropriation can and should be made by all citizens, it should first be inflected by Indigenous voices.

Ceasing to speak for the Other is likely a good place to start in thinking critically about cultural appropriation and decolonization. The idea of debating “among us,” that is among people who have privileged access to the main discussion forums, underlines another reality that involves access to visibility, dissemination venues, representation, and funding. In the art milieu, this also forces us to recognize the existence of an aesthetic framework defined by Western culture, to which artists from other cultures must (still) conform. Eddy Firmin calls “the directive, whether tacit or otherwise, to conform with the cultural canons prescribed by a group in a position of authority” the cultural imperative. This aesthetic framework has also led us to take what we please from a culture and neglect the rest, to choose a story, but rarely the people who are in the best position to tell it. This same framework also contributes to shaping the discourse when, in order to justify an act of appropriation, we replace the term with “borrowing.” Yet, we forget that for something to truly be borrowed, the person from which it is borrowed needs to receive something in return.

The ethical questions raised by cases of cultural appropriation cast a veil of mistrust on appropriation art, hence the importance of starting an analysis to better understand all forms of appropriation and identify different contexts. Certain examples examined in this issue consider the impact of the advent of digital technology and artificial intelligence at a time when the mass circulation of images and the creation of works made by machines lead to a confusion on the status of the author. The legal question of copyright is a notion that is interpreted in different ways and sometimes even used to legitimate misuse. A case in point is that of Mexican architect Luis Ramiro Barragán Morfín, as the Swiss foundation representing him has appropriated his work in a way. The issue also looks at the appropriation of spaces (or at expropriation as the theft of property rights, particularly in cases of urban development), and at the practice of misappropriation from the perspective of its potential to give back to citizens that which was taken from them. Perhaps in these cases, we can give appropriation a positive connotation.

The various legal disputes arisen from appropriation clearly lead to a calling into question or a withdrawing, and sometimes even to situations that seem unfair. Yet ultimately, the question of responsibility is what stands out. In appropriation art, this primarily involves facing the consequences (particularly, legal action) of one’s choices. However, in the more controversial and highly sensitive cases of cultural appropriation, responsibility has a completely different meaning. Defining the scope of this meaning is a challenge that still remains. For some, the artist’s responsibility means no longer ignoring the social and political context around a work. For others, it means embracing their position and defending the autonomy of art at all costs. Yet in all cases, while it is true that art does not necessarily come out of peace and consensus, we must nevertheless hope that it doesn’t become the expression of self-absorption. Being open to dialogue ultimately remains the best example of artistic and civic responsibility.

[Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei]

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