What factors determine cultural appropriation in the arts?

 Hello everyone!

   In this round of research , I will be looking at examples of cultural appropriation in visual art and film. Cultural appropriation has impacted all the arts in some way at some point, and I want to look at different types.

 * I also want everyone to be aware that this post will contain brief mentions of racially motivated violence and other sensitive subject matter. *

   Much like in literature, visual arts and film grapple with cultural appropriation, and both sides of the argument ceaselessly emphasize their points: should we portray cultures we don't know, or should we leave something alone because we don't have the rights to it? The same "rules" to cultural appropriation in literature apply to the other arts, though we still cannot quite determine what those "rules" are. 

 Visual Art 

 There was one particularly controversial situation in which a white artist named Dana Schutz produced a painting called "Open Casket." The painting depicted an African-American boy, Emmett Till, who, in the 1950s, was tortured and beaten to death by white oppressors. Schutz claimed that the purpose of this work was to show how "America still needs to change," (1) and the piece may have been inspired by a shooting of a black male by white policer officers. She said the painting was titled "Open Casket" because "[the boy's] brave mother chose to display his face so the world would know what happened." (1) 

  However, Schutz received a lot of backlash for this work. Several people still want the painting to be destroyed, and say that since Schutz is a white person she shouldn't have the right to "depict black suffering." (1) 

  •  A British writer wrote to the curator of the museum where the painting was displayed, saying that even if Schutz meant well, the painting is "an abomination," (1) and also suggested that Schutz was making a profit by turning other's suffering into artwork and leeching off other's pain. (1)
  • Some people went to even more extreme lengths, such as artist Parker Bright, who spent a week standing in front of the painting to block it with his arms folded. He called the piece "an injustice to the black community" (1) and said someone more well off shouldn't be speaking for the less fortunate. He concluded that this example of cultural appropriation really wouldn't change anything. (1) 

  Cultural appropriation continues to be a serious issue in the visual art community. An art gallery in Toronto recently took away work by a local artist, Amanda PL. Her work deals with nature, animals, Indigenous spirituality and medicine, and she continues to be inspired by the woodlands and nature. Since the artist is white, her work evoked anger and offended several Indigenous people. (2) (3) 

  •       "You can't just take Indigenous... culture and claim it as your own," (2) says Jaimie Isaac. Isaac is an Indigenous artist from Manitoba. She pointed out this piece as an example of cultural appropriation and that the artist had little respect for the culture.
  • As well,  Joshua Whitehead, an Indigenous poet, explains that the offence he takes from cultural appropriation comes from “a place of pain” and personal triggers. Whitehead says, "When I think of appropriation ... it's linked to assimilation, it's linked to the residential schools my father was in, it's linked to the '60s scoop, the murder of my grandmother." (2) 

 

 Film 

  As well as heavily impacting visual art, there are some painful examples of cultural appropriation in film. (Many of the films I looked at are from the early 20th Century, which explains why they are so offensive, and even though it reflects the time it is still hurtful to the culture, and, in my opinion, not necessarily an excuse.) Many early films heavily rely on stereotypes to portray other cultures, and the results are, in many cases, sad, hurtful, and frustrating. In my social justice class last year, we looked at some examples of this, particularly relating to First Nations and Native Americans. 

 Author Thomas King in his non-fiction novel, The Inconvenient Indian, discusses the portrayals of Indigenous North Americans in films. There were many films that cast white actors as Indigenous people in these films (p. 56) and many stereotypes and offensive content thrown into them. This was very common in the early 20th Century, especially in silent and western films. 

  • As well, King describes certain products named after Indigenous North Americans, but the products were targeted at white people (p. 57)
  • People would buy these products because the “Indian” was a very popular character (p. 58)
  • People gained a preconceived idea of “real Indians” through offensive stereotypes, which is dangerous. (p. 64)

 Adding on to this, the 2009 documentary The Reel Injun, (I apologize for the racist word, but that is the actual title. I would also like to point out many of the filmmakers of this documentary are Indigenous.) shows a history of Indigenous people portrayed in film, and the impacts this had on their culture and the world. (5) 

  • Stereotypes - Natives were usually portrayed as either noble or savage. There was stereotyping of genocides and massacres also. The film writers and directors often made them seem "mythological.” (5) 
  • There were sometimes armed guards on the sets of films so the Native American actors wouldn’t “cause problems.” (5) 
  • In many films the Native Americans and weren’t very well developed characters. (5) 
  • The Native actors often didn’t speak the actual script in their traditional language, because the producers just needed to sound non-English. One actor said something along the lines of, “You’re a snake crawling in your own [expletive deleted]” instead of what the line was supposed to sound like. Because the directors couldn’t even tell what he was saying, they ended up including that out-of-context line in their film. (5) 
  • There was an ideology in these films that the Native characters would always die, which gave indigenous youth a false perception of their own lives and heritage. (5) 

  There are even cases in which cartoons that are seemingly innocent can have horribly racist scenes, such as Looney Tunes (5) and even a lot of Disney movies (6). That's right, even the classic cartoons some of us grew up with contain a lot of content that is painfully racist and offensive!

  • Peter Pan, Pocahontas, Fantasia, Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, The Aristocats, and many more animated films are horribly offensive and rely on cultural stereotypes for humour. (6)

I find this rather sickening, even if these movies are old, the hurtful content in them is terrible! If that's not bad enough, these movies and cartoons are aimed at young children. The fact that the producers were projecting these racist and narrow-minded messages at kids is awful - nobody should be raised to believe such a horrible thought about cultures, whether it's another or their own. With a target audience so impressionable, it's important for the messages to be respectful, not hurtful. (7) 

 Many of these movies and cartoons were censored when they came out on home video decades later. (7) In fact, Disney went to some extreme measures and even banned one of their 1940's films, Song of the South. The film had a terribly racist plot line and the trailer alone was just downright painful to watch, to say the least. (7) (Fun fact, the Disney ride "Splash Mountain" was based off of this film, but "Splash Mountain" itself isn't racist, at least not from my perspective.) (7)

  What do I make of all this? Well, in terms of visual art, I definitely think the same "rules" of cultural appropriation apply. I don't necessarily have solid opinions on the works that I talked about, but I do agree that nobody should be taking ownership of a culture to which they do not belong. Schutz and Amanda PL may have done this a little, and I wouldn't say I agree with them.  In terms of films, the ones I looked at contained more elements of blatant racism than cultural appropriation. It is important to mention how films use stereotypes and how that is judgemental and wrong. 

Sources: 

(1) https://www.spikeartmagazine.c...tom-art-world-malady

(2) https://www.cbc.ca/news/indige...tion-prize-1.4118940

(3) https://www.cbc.ca/news/indige...th-artists-1.4478461

(4) The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King, pages 56 - 64. 

(5) The Reel Injun, 2009 Documentary, Produced by Neil Diamond. 

(6) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENDnqHjBalM

(7) My own knowledge and ideas. 

Images from top to bottom: 

(1) https://www.google.com/url?sa=...ust=1545447766777710

(2) https://www.penguinrandomhouse...s-king/9780385664226

(3) https://www.amazon.com/Reel-In...-INJUN/dp/B003TWEM8C

(4) https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/219128338094763866/

(5) http://www.traditionalanimatio...s-song-of-the-south/

  Phew! Sorry that was a pretty long round. I had a lot to say on this topic and I greatly thank anybody who takes their time to read this. In my next round, I'm going to look at where to draw the line in regards to cultural appropriation, as well as the idea of appropriation versus appreciation. I will also look at the laws in Canada regarding hate and discrimination and see where artistic pieces fit into that. Since I'm researching just Canada, I'd love to hear from students in the U.S.A./Kenya/other countries about this to have a broader perspective. I hope to be done my research by December 23rd, but I don't know if that's going to happen, so I make no promises. 

 Thank you to everyone! 

Attachments

Photos (5)
Original Post

Hey Sophie!

Job well done! Honestly, this was a very interesting round to read and I learned a lot. I was a bit aware of cultural appropriation, but did not know this much about it and the extent that some people to go to stop it! I think you're great at discussing about cultural and society-based issues, so I highly suggest some future topics could be based on this or something happening in our world today. 

Again, great job!

Add Reply

×
×
×
×