A Propos To Appreciating Appropriate Appropriation
On Ringing And Being Rung, Then Wringing and Being Wrung
When a cultural force first strikes me I’m rung like a bell. If I’m struck hard enough it resonates within, becoming part of who I am, or who I want to become. The next time I sound out my voice it’s shifted toward the mode and/or pitch of that other. Each ringing feels like a rung down the ladder into deeper depths of understanding and a next rung up into higher planes of appreciation and respect.
From Gaping to Aping
Referencing earlier works of others had always seemed like a good move—a dialogue with the past. When I’m compelled to reference or imitate, echoes of the originator bubble forward in time, but it can create an incestuous inside joke loop that confuses and alienates potential recipients of a message.
Where Credit Is Due
As a visual arts teacher I ask students to immerse themselves in the marks or modes of the work of another that strikes and resonates with them. By working to recreate what moved them, they acquire greater skill in using the particular materials, but also sensitivity and respect. Part of that respect entails attribution, as in adding “(after _____)” in the title of the print, but not if they were to use it as a part of a larger work.
In the currently burgeoning online meme culture, people without formal arts training are able to take part in visual culture. Questions of authorship are less relevant than the new meanings concocted from found and repurposed imagery.
The concern over cultural appropriation can be effective at sensitizing those who might otherwise appropriate without ample consideration and respect. But we, especially art educators, should be careful to not dam off the free flow of ideas. My own art education was decidedly Western and male, so I find myself appropriating/repurposing ideas from people that are relatively close to me in skin color, religious indoctrination, and sex.
Digging a little deeper, one realizes our differences go well beyond those three variables, as do our similarities. From up close, it can seem like humans are discrete entities, with our own thoughts and feelings. Step back and it could seem we are one organism, like a layer of billions of individual slime mold organisms forming over the planet. Like the estimated 37 trillion individual cells in our bodies are to each of us, we could see each of ourselves as more a part of the whole of Humanity, as if we’re just appropriating from other parts of our collective self.
The Sincerest Flattery
It seems it’s usually a positive move—flattering, informative, boundary-questioning, new hybrid form generating—to adopt aspects of another person’s or culture’s work that feel right to the artist, with common sense etiquette keeping malice, mockery and disrespect in check.
I recall the spark of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, singled out for its bold rejection of the orthodoxies of French painting, and for his depiction of African mask-like faces. While Picasso and others are, in one sense, part of the colonizing force oppressing cultures, his own writing on the experience of visiting, in 1907, an exhibition of African masks in the Trocadéro Museum of Ethnography sheds light upon his respect and his discovery of what painting can accomplish:
A smell of mold and neglect caught me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately. But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them color and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It’s not an aesthetic process; it’s a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path.
I’m thankful for those who have dared to reach outside their comfort zones to cross-pollinate me with influences beyond what’s considered safe and inoffensive—liberally sprinkling cultural mutagens—hopefully helping me gain sensitivity and confidence to do more of the same.
* Image at top of page: Brian Reeves, Proposal for Thumb Vs. Forefinger World Heritage Monument, 10 x 11 in., poster markers, 2019.
An idea for a large scale public sculpture commemorating one of our most advantageous adaptations. Thank you, Claes Oldenburg