Who Owns Emmett Till? Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.

Maori man’s tattoos circa 1784. White folks are getting tattoos like this now. Is it tribute, or cultural appropriation?

In the Arts section of the New York Times on March 28th there’s a piece by Roberta Smith in the “Critic’s Notebook” column (the online article is dated March 27). The title is “Should Art That Angers Remain on View?” It’s about the controversy over painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial.

The painting by Dana Schutz of Till in his coffin is titled Open Casket. She is white. The controversy centers on whether a white artist has any right to use what Hannah Black says is “black subject matter” that is off limits to whites. Black published an open letter to the Whitney biennial, signed by a number of other artists. The Times describes Black as a British born writer and artist residing in Berlin. Her letter has drawn considerable attention on social media. Black says the painting exploits black suffering “for profit and fun.” She demands the painting be removed from the exhibit and then be destroyed. [Hannah Black quotes are cited in the Times piece. Here is her letter , published on the ArtNews site]

Smith’s article is a full half-page. It is both description of and opinion about the controversy. She describes other controversies in art, such as the 1999 controversy over a painting by British artist Chris Ofili of the Madonna and Child that outraged then mayor Rudy Guiliani. Smith says the painting concerns an “…all-too American subject, that of hateful, corrosive white racism. Who owns that?”

This particular controversy is generating a lot of attention, but it is representative of other controversies. One group appropriating some of the culture of another is common. Here’s a Huffington Post consideration of several kinds of cultural appropriation  . Much of the story of American music is the appropriation of black culture by mostly white corporate America. I do not know music well, but my impression is that this has been going on for more than a century.

Personal anecdote. Years ago when I was in a humanities program in grad school, one of my classmates was a Native American woman. One day she was seething at a professor, who had done a version of a purification ceremony based on a traditional cleansing ritual, as I remember burning sage. I asked what was troubling her, and I got my first glimpse of anger at people appropriating some of the culture of another. She raged that he had no right to do what he had done. She thought his action trivialized meaningful culture.

On the surface, cultural appropriation is trivial. Deeper issues lurk. The current vogue for tattoos based on traditional Maori patterns is a cultural appropriation. The dashikis fashionable among white radicals several decades ago were an appropriation to more or less say “I’m cool” (I’m guilty of that one). Berets were once headgear for the Basque people. Picasso used African masks in paintings, masks that he saw in a French museum, masks that were actually loot seized from the owners, in a museum without context of whether they were sacred.

I’m troubled by this whole issue and cannot decide what is right and what is wrong. For example, I don’t see an issue in the whole world appropriating the sport of surfing from the native Hawai’ians. I don’t see an issue in geology appropriating Hawaiian words that describe lava flows (pahoehoe and a’a). Is there an issue with non-Hawai’ians using the ukulele? I once thought that, but now understand that the ukulele is in part a Hawai’ian development of musical culture brought by Mexican cowboys to Hawai’i—they were hired to help develop cattle ranches on the big island in the time of Kamehameha III in the 1830s. That kind of appropriation amounts to cross fertilization of cultures.

That kind of appropriation and development seems to me to be positive. But there are those deeper issues lurking. I’ve read that the Muslim hijab has been worn as a fashion statement. That could be done as a kind of action of solidarity, but it seems to me to take it out of context and ignore the actualities of being both Muslim and a woman. I am not sure if there is any divide between harmless and harmful appropriation. Some can be flattering—the adoption of Western work clothing in the form of denim blue jeans gone universal seems to me to testify the utility of the original, except that the origin is mostly unknown to the wearers.

But what about the appropriation of events that have become particularly iconic and powerful for African Americans, as the images of Emmett Till have become, appropriated and used by artists who are not black, as in Schutz’ painting? Are there events of such importance or so traumatic to one community as to make them off limits to another? Is there, as Hannah Black contends, black subject matter that should be off limits to whites? Should the use of images from the Wounded Knee massacre be off limits to all but Native Americans? Should the use of harrowing images of Auschwitz be off limits to anyone but Jewish people? Should the Armenian tragedy be off limits to writers not of Armenian descent?

I need some help in working this out, folks. I’m tempted to say that appropriation with respect is okay. I’m tempted to say that if the appropriation is trivial, then where’s the issue—but is it ever trivial? I’m tempted to agree with my grandfather’s saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But I don’t know.

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