Who’s Guilty When It Comes to Crimes of Cultural Appropriation?

Why is a white artist disqualified from painting Emmett Till? Should under-represented cultures have their own monopolies on art, fiction, and style?

Jared Siskin/Getty

Dana Schutz is politely unrepentant. The artist knew she’d waded into controversial territory when she depicted Emmett Till, the African-American teenager who was famously lynched to death by bigots in 1955, in her abstract Open Casket painting.

“You think maybe it’s off limits, and then extra off limits,” Schutz says in this week’s New Yorker. “But I really feel any subject is O.K., it’s just how it’s done.”

Ever since the painting went up at the Whitney Biennial almost three weeks ago, it has become a lightning rod in the war on cultural appropriation, with protesters arguing in an open letter that Schutz, a white artist, had exploited black suffering “for profit and fun.” (Schutz, however, had previously made clear that she never intended to sell the painting.)

The painting, along with six other artworks, has been temporarily removed from view because of a water leak—and is due to be remounted today, Wednesday.

Within days of the Biennial’s opening, dozens of artists had signed an online petition calling for Schutz’s painting to be excised from the exhibition and subsequently destroyed, ensuring it never re-enter the art market.

“That even the disfigured corpse of a child was not sufficient to move the white gaze from its habitual cold calculation is evident daily and in a myriad of ways, not least the fact that this painting exists at all,” the letter read. “Even if Schutz has not been gifted with any real sensitivity to history, if Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.”

The letter was posted to Facebook (and later taken down without explanation), where the woman who created it—an artist named Hannah Black—explained in a Facebook comment that many of the original white signatories’ names had been removed because it was “better to include only black signatories.”

As Schutz faces her critics, so does Brooklyn Beckham for his new forearm tattoo of a Native American chief (his father has the same one), accused by one Instagram follower of “disregarding the violent history of indigenous people” for the sake of looking cool.

The fashionable members of the Kardashian family, too, are routinely accused of racist cultural theft for braiding their hair in cornrows, a hairstyle traditionally worn by African-American woman.

Each time Khloe or Kim or Kylie shares a cornrow selfie with their millions of Twitter followers, debates about whether they are celebrating or denigrating black culture spill over into mainstream media, with progressives concluding that the Kardashians are cultural criminals and conservatives calling out leftist hysteria in frequently hysterical think-pieces.

And it’s not just conservatives deriding cries of cultural appropriation. The issue is also pitting liberals against each other, as evidenced in the public reckoning with Schutz’s painting. Should an artist be prohibited from painting certain subjects because of her background, and what happens to the fluidity of culture if artists are fenced-in by their identities and ethnicities?

Does perceived injustice resulting from the appropriation of black suffering justify censorship? Or is the destruction of art fundamentally illiberal?

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The controversy has provoked heated, thoughtful debate about racial appropriation and representation in contemporary art, with ongoing conversation playing out in Facebook rants, countless think pieces, interviews with the Biennial’s curators, a segment of HBO’s Vice News Tonight, even poetry enumerating the ideological and emotional objections to Schutz’s painting.

From Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till to the Kardashians’ hair, the complex concept of cultural appropriation—who can paint that image, who can wear that hairstyle or headdress, who can write about that subject—is more fraught than ever before.

Increasingly, anyone who dares to step outside their identity lane and sample other cultural experiences or styles risks being labeled racially insensitive, if not simply racist.

Unsurprisingly, critiques of cultural appropriation have also flared up in recent years on college campuses, where students are frequently disciplined for dressing up as ethnic stereotypes during theme parties.

At Bowdoin College in Maine last year, for example, two student government members who handed out miniature sombreros at a tequila-themed birthday party were impeached from their leadership positions for racist acts of cultural appropriation.

In a sign that the campus crusade on cultural appropriation has reached a boiling point, a student at Hampshire College in Massachusetts faced charges of assault in court last month for allegedly attacking a member of a visiting women’s basketball team who refused to take out her braids.

Also last month, Latina students at Pitzer College in California implored white students to stop wearing hoop earrings, claiming that the accessory belongs to Latina culture and is diluted and misrepresented when worn by white women.

“If you didn’t create the culture as a coping mechanism for marginalization, take off those hoops…if you try to wear mi cultura when the creators can no longer afford it, take off those hoops,” one student wrote in a campus-wide email.

Dr. Mark Busse, a social anthropologist and co-author of Ownership and Appropriation, says that while cross-cultural pollination has historically occurred in the context of power imbalances, it can be problematic when certain ethnic groups or nationalities are possessive of their heritage. “The danger of claiming everything is cutting off what people call the ‘intellectual commons,’ which is important,” Busse said, adding that not every marginalized group resents being borrowed from.

Susan Scafidi, a law professor and author of the book Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, says the current furor around cultural appropriation correlates to renewed conversation about racism in America and the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter.

“Minorities are very much aware right now that they’ve historically been dealt an uneven hand,” said Scafidi, who defines cultural appropriation in her book as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.”

“Part of the resurgent desire to protect and own cultural property as a community correlates to a rise of the importance of intellectual property as our era’s primary generator of wealth,” said Scafidi.

Since historically under-represented cultures cannot rewrite a history that oppressed them, they’re focusing their attention on claiming cultural traditions and stories. “Stories in particular are very valuable—economically and psychologically,” Scafidi added.

When the concept of cultural appropriation first went mainstream, it was often discussed in the context of Native American culture, “in part because that’s the only part of cultural appropriation we addressed legally,” Scafidi said, noting that their land and intellectual property had been taken, and other customs were acculturated to the mainstream. “There was a sense of, ‘Enough already.’”

In the last ten years, for example, a number of instances of non-Native Americans wearing Native American headdresses have been condemned by activists and on social media.

In 2012, when model Karlie Kloss wore a fringed bikini and feathered headdress in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, outrage over the incident provoked an apology from the lingerie company. Over the next two years, several music festivals in Canada banned festival-goers from wearing Native American headdresses, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office stripped the Washington Redskins football team of their ethnically “disparaging” trademarks in 2014.

Western fetishization of Eastern exoticism—Katy Perry dressing like a geisha at the 2013 American Music Awards; Latin American singer Selena Gomez wearing a bindi at the 2013 MTV Movie Awards; Karlie Kloss in a geisha costume in Vogue’s diversity issue last month—has also been targeted by anti-appropriators.

The crime of appropriation has even extended to yoga and Eastern cuisines like sushi and pad thai.

In 2015, one Oberlin College student wrote in The Oberlin Review that the school’s food service vendor “has a history of blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines.” While Lena Dunham defended the offended students at her alma mater, others deemed them petty and misguided.

“I guess that means that as a native of North Carolina, I can ban the Thais from eating barbecue,” the novelist Lionel Shriver quipped in a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia last year, in which she defended the right—indeed the necessity—for fiction writers to borrow from other cultures. “Because the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction,” Shriver said.

The backlash to Shriver’s speech was swift, with the Writers Festival distancing itself from the novelist and a number of mainstream publications denouncing her remarks as insensitive, privileged, and arrogant.

Elsewhere in her speech, Shriver had remarked that “as a German-American on both sides, I’m more than happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song.”

To be sure, dominant white, Eurocentric cultures are hardly in danger of disappearing. Those who argue vociferously against appropriation are advocating for respect and accurate representation of their cultures.

They believe that reparations must be paid for the whitewashing of their ethnic groups throughout history. Yet taken to their logical conclusion, their arguments propose enforcing a new kind of racial or cultural purity.

They also fail to take into account the fact that cultures can learn about themselves by observing how others adopt and interpret their customs.

“It’s not always the case that the best biography is autobiography,” said James Young, a philosophy professor at the University of Victoria in Canada and author of Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. “Yes, outsiders can misrepresent and misunderstand aspects of a culture, but they can also have perceptive insights into that culture,” he added, citing examples in art and literature throughout history, including Picasso’s African-inspired art and Rudyard Kipling’s stories set in India.

“Kipling was an imperialist in many ways and misrepresented Indian culture, but he also had brilliant insights into Indian culture—and many Indian novelists recognize that,” said Young.

The arts in particular can provide ample opportunity for communication and insights between cultures. But where do we draw a line when policing who can and can’t incorporate ideas or stories from other cultures in their work? And does it matter if an artist sampling from another culture is doing so in a way that encourages empathy?

This brings us back to the Whitney Biennial, an exhibition designed to reflect America’s current socio-political climate through contemporary art.

Critics praised this year’s exhibition for deftly confronting issues like racism and economic inequality. Half the artists represented are nonwhite, and nearly half are women.

But when a white artist drew from black history in her work, striving to create art that is both woke and clever, she was upbraided for being exploitative and willfully ignorant.

The co-curators of the exhibition, striving to address inequalities and injustice in the U.S. with art that seeks to bridge those divides through empathy, have also been excoriated for displaying an abstracted painting of real black suffering.

At the museum, a wall text accompanying Schutz’s painting explains that she created it in August 2016, at the end of a violent summer that saw “an ever-escalating number of camera phone videos of black men being shot execution style by the police.”

Schutz invoked Till’s image because she believes the bigotry that led to his brutal murder is still alive and well in the U.S., as witnessed in the shooting of unarmed black men.

However, protesters maintain that Schutz’s claim to the image’s power mirrors the same white privilege that perpetuates racially-motivated violence.

The artist’s detractors have criticized her intentions as rapacious. Even if her heart was in right place, she has no right to draw on Till’s suffering because “white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights,” their open letter states.

Here’s where the crusade on cultural appropriation becomes harder to engage and reason with.

There’s no question that white people have benefited from freedom of speech in Western societies while other groups have been deprived their access and power.

But it is mystifying, if not alarming, to see artists calling for censorship of art and at least one prestigious academic justifying limited expression as a means of upholding morality.

Christina Sharpe, an English professor at Tufts University who signed the open letter demanding the Whitney remove and destroy Schutz’s painting, told Hyperallergic that while she doesn’t have a “strong personal stand” on whether it should be destroyed, she respects those who do.

Though she doesn’t “necessarily agree” with censorship, “there can be an ethical call to destroy things…people have argued that certain things should be destroyed because they work against making suffering particular and visible, and thereby unimaginable to perpetrate again.”

Sharpe did not respond to an interview request from The Daily Beast.

Whatever your stance on cultural appropriation, attempting to understand the opposite perspective can be productive, and the right to debate that perspective is fundamental to liberal democracy. Destroying art is not.