Cultural appropriation has been a hot topic of debate among cultural critics and activists for decades, and comments relating to it now run rampant on Twitter and other social media platforms. Today, the art and entertainment industries are two areas of popular culture that receive the most backlash when it comes to cultural appropriation. For example, social justice activists and other social media users are quick to jump at white actors who play the roles of other races and white musicians who copy the music styles of blacks and Latinos. Activists see these actions as harmful in that they allow someone from a dominating culture to gain fame from groups of people who have been systematically oppressed. Pat Muir, a journalist in the entertainment and art industries, recalls that Elvis Presley’s controversial music style and performances in the 1950s and ‘60s led to accusations that Presley was appropriating black culture in order to gain wealth and popularity. Muir shows how this accusation and others like it in the fine arts raise the question of who has the right to deal with what subject matter.
Although this type of cultural appropriation in movies and music has been widely discussed, cultural appropriation in contemporary artwork has arguably not been discussed to the same extent. Similar to Elvis’s accusers, many art critics and historians may argue that artists should not copy or use the styles and techniques of cultures that are not their own because the art piece is bound to turn out to be unethical or an aesthetic failure. For instance, art critic Aruna D’Souza contends that artists of different cultures are not able to respectfully create a piece that “grapple[s] with the political, historical, and emotional implications” of the subject they are trying to appropriate (D’Souza). Many critics believe that artists should simply appreciate the styles, techniques, and subject matter of other cultures, not appropriate them. What they have in mind is for an artist to only represent their own experiences in their work. This way there is no chance the artist can appropriate the experiences of anyone else. For example, artists should precisely paint what they observe or experience from a culture without misrepresenting or offending. Alternatively, some critics believe artists should be able to create whatever they want, even if it offends others. These critics are nervous that censoring artists limits their creativity and free speech. Few critics, however, explain when exactly cultural appreciation turns into cultural appropriation in the world of contemporary art, and whether or not artworks that appropriate the content of other cultures should still be displayed in museums. If artists had a clear understanding of when appreciation for a culture becomes a degrading and offensive appropriation of that culture, then they could better avoid creating art that misrepresents or disrespects. This understanding is important because it will help determine how museums and artists need to adapt so that “art institutions are more accountable to their publics,” as Priscilla Frank has argued.
In this essay, through the example of Dana Schutz’s controversial contemporary art piece “Open Casket,” and the insights of experts in the museum industry, I will make apparent that appreciation is always a form of appropriation, and that appropriation of another person’s culture in the form of art will always be offensive to someone, though this is not to say that all appropriation produces profound offense or harm to other cultures. Moreover, I believe that appropriative artworks serve as reminders to both communities and art institutions that work still needs to be done to diversify both the artists that are exhibited in museums and the boards of curators that pick these exhibitions. This essay will also help guide museums on how they can educate the public about appreciation and appropriation without offending.
James O. Young, the head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Victoria, and the author of several journal articles on the philosophy of art, argues in his book Cultural Appropriation and the Arts that artists are always appropriating in some way but that appropriation is not always a bad thing. According to Young, appropriation is defined as “the making of a thing private property; taking as one’s own or to one’s own use” (4). Based on his definition, Young claims that “[a]lmost all artists engage in some sort of appropriation in that they borrow ideas, motifs, plots, technical devices, and so forth from other artists” (4). Young shows that appropriation does not have to be negative. The word simply defines what the act of borrowing and using others’ ideas is, and I think Young simplifies the meaning of appropriation in this way to soften the tension that is centered around the term cultural appropriation. This is not to say that the appropriation of all ideas, techniques, and styles is cultural appropriation, but instead Young points out that there are few original ideas nowadays. When artists create, they often appropriate the ideas, techniques, and symbols of the artists that came before them. Young defines cultural appropriation as when “members of one culture (I will call them outsiders) take for their own, or for their own use, items produced by a member or members of another culture (call them insiders)” (5). I believe this definition shows that any time an artist uses something from a culture that is not their own, they are culturally appropriating. Therefore, I will conclude that an artist cannot make artwork that appreciates a culture without appropriating it, because to show appreciation for a culture in a painting, an artist will use something from that culture. In summary, art that appreciates culture or uses something that originates from a culture that is not the artist’s own culture is always appropriating that culture.
One example of an artist who aimed to appreciate a culture that was not her own is Dana Schutz. In her controversial painting “Open Casket,” Schutz, a white artist, used a photograph from 1955 of Emmett Till in his casket as inspiration for her abstract painting. Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, was lynched by two white men after being accused of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi. According to D’Souza, the original photograph of Till in his casket, published by his mother, “made many white Americans aware for the first time of the horrors of racist violence” (D’Souza). When this photo was first printed it had an immense impact on Americans. Decades later, Schutz decided to paint this photograph because as a mother herself, she felt immense sympathy for Till’s mother. Schutz empathized with the trauma and grief that a mother would experience after seeing the result of violence inflicted on her son. Schutz states, “Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother” (D’Souza). Some may argue that the emotional connection that Schutz shares with Till’s mother is justification to represent Till in her artwork. However, Schutz has never experienced the death of a child herself, and being white she has never experienced racism or oppression similar to African Americans. It could be said, then, that Schutz is engaging in cultural appropriation because she uses experiences and a picture from a culture that is not her own. Though she empathized with Till’s mother, she did not necessarily empathize with the black community and remained ignorant of the larger racial issues that her painting represented. With that in mind, I believe Schutz’s painting matches with the definition of cultural appropriation mentioned earlier.
Because Schutz’s painting is based on a photo from the Civil Rights Movement, this image is emotionally, culturally, and historically significant to many Americans. Because the photo represents such a significant issue in US history, I think there would be criticism of whomever (white or black) used it as inspiration for art. It could be argued that appropriation in the face of cultural and societal issues is not problematic in nature. Schutz was responding to the horrors of racist violence in a way that people would respond to, but some critics would say that making an abstract painting based on a racially and politically charged photo is bound to trivialize the matter. Though I believe her intention was never to create such a controversy, her work brought much-needed attention to the larger issue of who is allowed to create what.
A significant challenge for artists is how to treat the subject matter they are appropriating with respect or sensitivity. It is easy to misrepresent a culture in a piece of art and, as a result, create something that is objectionable and harmful to that culture. In The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation, James O. Young and Conrad Grebel Brunk discuss the type of cultural appropriation that produces what they call “profound offense” or harmful effects. According to Young and Brunk, “profound offense is distinct from ordinary offense” because it “strikes at a person’s core values and sense of self” (5). They even write that “[o]ne could also feel profound offense if one felt that one or one’s culture is not being treated with fairness or with respect” (5). In other words, profound offense occurs when a person feels like key aspects of their religion, race, or culture is being attacked, harmed, or desecrated. K. Tempest Bradford, an African-American science fiction and fantasy author, defines cultural appropriation differently. Her definition focuses on the issue of profound offense within appropriation, and she credits this definition to writer Maisha Z. Johnson: “the act of an individual, but an individual working within a ‘power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group’” (Bradford). Bradford is arguing that all cultural appropriation produces profound offense because it takes advantage of a group that is already oppressed. According to Bradford, cultural appropriation differs from cultural exchange because “when artists appropriate, they can profit from what they take, while the oppressed gets nothing.” In Elvis Presley’s case, that is certainly what happened. Presley took influence from black musicians when composing his music and eventually made rock and roll a genre that mainly whites were profiting from. With that said, these definitions of how cultural appropriation can be degrading and harmful to the cultures and races being appropriated can be used to show how cultural appropriation in some contemporary art is morally objectionable.
For example, Schutz’s “Open Casket” uses crazy brush strokes to create an expressionistic image of Till in his casket, which she claims to have been creating because she feels a connection to Till’s mother. In an interview in The New Yorker, Schutz says she was uncertain how the painting would be received, but ultimately concluded that “‘any subject is O.K., it’s just how it’s done. You never know how something is going to be until it’s done’” (Tomkins). Similar to many artists, Schutz believes in the freedom to create any piece of work as long as the subject is respectfully conveyed. However, many activists and artists disagreed with the “respect” present in Schutz’s painting and accused her of portraying what they call “Black Death Spectacle” (Tomkins). The key problem with Schutz’s painting is that she uses the racially charged image of Till’s lynched body and puts it on display. This public presentation of “Open Casket” can be interpreted as a way for Schutz to earn fame and, potentially, income for herself. Even if Schutz meant no harm, she is still profiting from “a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by” her own race (Bradford). This is an issue not only for Schutz, but also for the Whitney Museum of American Art, which displayed her piece.
The two curators that chose “Open Casket” approached the controversy associated with Schutz’s piece by meeting with activists and changing the label next to the painting by acknowledging the controversy it had caused, and including a statement from Schutz “which concludes, ‘This painting was never for sale and never will be’” (Tomkins). Additionally, “[t]he museum has been fully supportive of the curators and the artist, and the painting will remain on view throughout the exhibition” (Tomkins). While I appreciate the Whitney’s efforts to appease the public’s concern and protect their curatorial work, I think more steps should be taken to talk about and learn from curatorial mistakes like this one. For example, the Whitney should have created an open public forum to discuss the issue, or led tours that discussed the definition and implications of cultural appropriation. This would not only be good for the museum’s public image, but also for society in the sense that it makes people aware of cultural appropriation and how it can affect others. I feel that more should be done to acknowledge the oppression that minorities have been through and to prevent profound offense from entering museums, which are meant for the whole community.
The display and use of another’s culture in a white person’s art can be not only offensive but can also prevent minorities from entering the art world. The difficulties minorities face in entering galleries contributes to the lack of diversity and representation in museums. When a white person displays art about racial violence, the curators and artists are preventing a black person from exhibiting their own artwork on the same topic. This is problematic in Schutz’s case because an African-American’s viewpoint on the racial violence during the Civil Rights Movement is an important perspective in American history that should be represented. Inhibiting minorities from exhibiting their artwork on the same ideas quiets the voices of those who were actually affected by racism, and keeps white culture as the dominating culture in art.
Even though it is apparent that cultural appropriation can be harmful and degrading to many cultures and races, this does not mean that museums can no longer display the works of, for example, Indigenous artists, or that artists cannot include subjects from cultures that are not their own. It simply means that in order to prevent misrepresentation, before the creation and exhibition of a work of art, sensitivity and research can be established by conducting open forums about controversial art pieces, and by diversifying the board of curators at a museum with people of different genders, races, and religions. In fact, some museums and communities have already started taking steps to create a conversation with the community to reduce the harm associated with cultural appropriation. According to Bradford,
The Australian Council for the Arts developed a set of protocols for working with Indigenous artists that lays out how to approach Aboriginal culture as a respectful guest, who to contact for guidance and permission, and how to proceed with your art if that permission is not granted.
These steps have prevented Aboriginal art and artists from being appropriated in museums, and they have set guidelines for artists on what parts of Aboriginal culture they can take inspiration from. By similarly creating a way to communicate with cultures as to what they deem as harmful and profoundly offensive, American museums and artists can avoid the degradation and oppression of those cultures. This is important because American museums are public institutions, so they have an obligation to curate exhibitions that are respectful and beneficial to the public.
When, if ever, is cultural appropriation done tastefully? The answer to this question is definitely a grey area, but I agree with Young’s answer that when “artists represent their own experience in their works,” it is usually not cultural appropriation (8). In other words, “in representing their experience, artists represent what is already theirs,” so they are not appropriating or taking another’s culture for their own benefit, and they do not need to appropriate anyone else’s experience (Young 8). This is still a controversial way of representing a culture, because if the artist does not know the culture well they could misrepresent the experiences of that culture and cause offense. Essentially, trying to convey any aspect of a non-dominant culture through art is difficult, and artists must be careful if they choose to appropriate or represent a culture.
To conclude, the issue of who is allowed to create what can be argued back and forth, as it is on social media, and this argument still causes real problems in the museum industry and the contemporary art world. It is clear that appreciation of culture in contemporary art is almost always appropriation and that it is extremely difficult to paint the subject matter of a different culture with the amount of respect it deserves. I believe this problem will not go away until museums, artists, and oppressed cultures agree to continually discuss controversial art pieces until they reach a consensus on what is deemed profoundly offensive and morally objectionable. In the future, museums and artists should consider that the museum and exhibitions are for the surrounding community and that the diversity present in the public should be represented in the museum.
Bradford, K. Tempest. “Commentary: Cultural Appropriation Is, In Fact, Indefensible.” NPR, 28 June 2017, www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/06/28/533818685/cultural-appropriation-is-in-fact-indefensible. Accessed 12 May 2019.
D’Souza, Aruna. “Can White Artists Paint Black Pain?” CNN, 24 Mar. 2017.
Frank, Priscilla. “Museum’s ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ Cancelled After Claims Of Racism.” HuffPost, 9 July 2015, www.huffpost.com/entry/museums-kimono-wednesdays-cancelled-after-claims-of-racism_n_559eb64ee4b05b1d028fe7e8. Accessed 12 May 2019.
Muir, Pat. “Where Is the Line Between Appreciation and Appropriation? It’s Not Always Clear.” Yakima Herald Republic, 2 Nov. 2017, pp. 4-5.
Tomkins, Calvin. “Why Dana Schutz Painted Emmett Till.” The New Yorker, 3 Apr. 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/10/why-dana-schutz-painted-emmett-till. Accessed 12 May 2019.
Young, James O. Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
Young, James O., and Conrad Grebel Brunk, eds. The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.