Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cultural Hoo Haw

The longer I thought about it, the more I wondered, "How does one distinguish between borrowing/sharing/influencing and appropriation? "Appropriation" means (among other things) taking without permission. But who can give permission for a culture? All at once I think of Disney protecting its copyrights and trademarks.

The Buddhist art of Afghanistan was influenced by Greco-Roman art. Major west-east trade routes went through ancient Afghanistan, and Greco-Roman bronzes have been dug up at Afghan archaeological sites. This Buddhist art -- Gandharan art -- it's the same word as Kandahar, the city now known from war reporting -- influenced the Buddhist art of northern India, which in turn influenced the Buddhist art of China, Korea and Japan.

As far as I know, no one along this line of transmission asked for permission to borrow.

The French Post-Impressionists were influenced by Japanese prints. Early 20th century European artists, such as Picasso, were influenced by sub-Saharan African sculpture.

Ojibwa bead work got its floral patterns from European fabrics, brought by the voyageurs.

Contemporary Native American art is full of borrowing -- from white culture and from many different Native traditions. Jingle dresses, used in powwows all over the country, are Ojibwe. Dream catchers are Ojibwe. I have a lovely bracelet made by a Lakota silversmith who lives on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. He studied in New Mexico, and the bracelet looks like Pueblo or Navajo work to me.

All of this seems like acceptable borrowing to me.

But Patrick points out a problem. There are white people who decide they really are Native American and end lecturing other people, including Native people, on Native culture. This becomes creepy. This is unacceptable borrowing, I think. It's also lying or a delusion. If you geniunely think you are a reincarnation of Princess White Plume, then you are a bit nuts as well as culturally inaccurate.

Anyway, a fuzzy topic. I think the core issue is disrespect. If your borrowing is a way to diminish other people, then it is not a good idea.


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