Last Friday, commentator Cathy Young published a piece for PostEverything criticizing the way people sometimes talk about cultural appropriation today. As is often the case when I read her, Young seems to have more faith that a new world order is at hand than I do, and she has no shortage of examples to draw on here.
“The hunt for wrongdoing has gone run amok,” she intoned grimly. “The recent anti-appropriation rhetoric has targeted creative products from art to literature to clothing. Nothing is too petty for the new culture cops: I have seen them rebuke a Filipina woman who purchased a bracelet with a yin-yang symbol at a fair and earnestly discuss whether it’s appropriation to eat Japanese, Indian or Thai food. Even Selena Gomez, a Latina artist, was assailed a couple of years ago for sporting a Hindu forehead dot, or bindi, in a Bollywood-style performance. … I once read an anguished blog post by a well-meaning young woman racked with doubt about her plans to pursue a graduate degree in Chinese studies; after attending a talk on cultural appropriation, she was unsure that it was morally permissible for a white person to study the field.”
For all the extreme examples that Young cites, there are still plenty of cases where asking whether or not something is cultural appropriation might be a useful gut check for personal behavior. Thinking about throwing that racially or ethnically themed fraternity or sorority party? Leave the sombrero or conical hat on the shelf at the costume store. Contemplating gushing over how cute something is without context or even clear understanding of what the object or practice actually is? Show your enthusiasm by actually learning something and being able to talk in some detail about what an object or practice means to you.
As a critic, my concern isn’t really that overreaching charges of cultural appropriation are about to bring to an end to millenniums of cultural exchange and the monetization of one community’s culture by another; I think there’s little danger (or in some cases, hope) of that. And if some overzealous advocates are speaking for communities who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, well, that’s hardly a new problem, either. Instead, I worry that if we reach a place where a charge of cultural appropriation becomes a trump card, instantly condemning a work of art, a fashion line or a fitness craze, we won’t delve deeper on the important questions raised by cultural exchange. What is it about the cultural image, practice or artifact in question that make it so powerful outside of its original context? What are the accused appropriators doing with the culture they’re allegedly making off with? And what are they looking for in someone else’s culture that they feel they lack in their own?
One of the best illustrations of this idea I’ve ever seen appears in the text for “China: Through the Looking Glass,” the terrific exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that’s on display through Sept. 7. Early in the show, the curators introduce Edward Said’s ideas about “Orientalism,” which show up in Young’s piece, too, before taking them in a different direction.
“Through careful juxtapositions of Western fashions and Chinese costumes and decorative arts, [the show] presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. The ensuing dialogues are not only mutually enlivening and enlightening, but they also encourage new aesthetic interpretations and broader cultural understandings,” the curators argue. “As if by magic, the distance between East and West, spanning perspectives that are often perceived as monolithic and diametrically opposed, diminishes. So, too, does the association of the East with the natural and the authentic and the West with the cultural and the simulacrum. As these binaries dissolve and disintegrate, what emerges is an active, dynamic two-way conversation, a liberating force of cross-cultural communication and representation.”
This mission statement isn’t meant to excuse the potentially harmful impacts of embracing another culture without paying attention to the context from which art emerges. “China: Through the Looking Glass” is blunt about the racism that put a hard ceiling on Chinese actresses’ careers in the United States, and the exhibit discusses the way fashion designers continued to see “Zhongshan suits” as expressive of both Chineseness and social utopianism long after the garment became less common and the brutal failure of Chinese communism ought to have been clear.
“This exhibition is not about China per se but about a collective fantasy of China,” the curators continue in a subsequent gallery. “It is about cultural interaction, the circuits of exchange through which certain images and objects have migrated across geographic boundaries. Moreover, it points to the aesthetic importance of exploring all the products of our cultural fantasies. As opposed to censoring or disregarding depictions of other cultures that are not entirely accurate, it advocates studying these representations on their own terms, appreciating them from the outset as having been infused with creativity, and discovering in this complex dialogue of elided meanings, a unified language of shared signs.”
It’s just simply not enough to say that this “collective fantasy of China” — 0r any other attempt to adopt or remix something from another person’s culture — amounts to cultural appropriation or that it’s racist. Without looking at precisely what it is that Western designers and artists take from China and examining exactly what they do with the cut of a suit, or a reproduction of a porcelain pattern, we can’t know what it is about Chinese art, design and tropes that travels across geographical and cultural boundaries, or what happens to those things when they arrive at their destination and begin the process of transformation.
If we look at a white woman wearing a qipao or a kimono, or a white designer making riffs on both of those garments, and say that it’s appropriation and that’s the last word, we’re missing an opportunity. It’s far more interesting to try to suss out the specific appeal these clothes might have for Western designers; what they might see in these forms that feels lacking in Western styles of dress; what versions of femininity they represent. Maybe the answers are stereotypes: Maybe white designers see either submission or aggression in Chinese and Japanese women that they think Western women lack.
But you can learn a lot about someone from their stereotypes, and you don’t have to adopt stereotypical views to try to understand where they come from and what they mean. And you can examine stereotypes and cultural appropriation without letting those things erase the real, vibrant people and originals they distort and borrow from. If Christian Dior looks at calligraphy and sees only a potential fabric pattern, rather than a discussion of digestive troubles, or if Yves Saint Laurent lets the opium trade become a stand-in for Chinese culture as a whole, those choices deserve careful examination for what they say about Dior and Saint Laurent, their curiosity, and the reach of their vision, rather than for anything they say about China.
Young’s wrong that we should stop talking about cultural appropriation. It’s just that identifying cultural exchange and cultural appropriation should be the beginning of our conversations, not our final verdict.