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Whose art is it? Line between cultural appropriation and appreciation not always clear

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Cultural Appropriation

When the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death rolled around in August, much of the coverage had to do with the cultural re-evaluation of what Elvis meant.

Even in pieces that celebrated him unabashedly as the “king of rock ’n’ roll,” there were mentions of cultural appropriation. What that term means, in Elvis’ case, was that he borrowed from black culture and became richer and more famous than black artists such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

It’s the same phenomenon Seattle rapper Macklemore dealt with in songs such as “White Privilege” and “White Privilege II” and in his public contrition after winning all those 2014 Grammys over Kendrick Lamar.

But cultural appropriation in art is not just an issue among superstars, and it’s not just an issue in music. Nor does it solely pertain to artists borrowing from other art forms; it can be an issue of who has the right to deal with what subject matter. Painter Dana Schutz, for instance, drew criticism this spring when her painting “Open Casket” depicting the corpse of Emmett Till was displayed as part of the prestigious Whitney Biennial. Schutz was criticized for painting Till, the 14-year-old victim of a racially driven murder in 1955 Mississippi, because it was a depiction of black suffering. Schutz is white.

And, in a more local example, Yakima-area musician Blake Noble drew criticism for his first visual-art exhibit, a collection of aboriginal-themed paintings. The show, which opened Sept. 15 at the Larson Gallery’s exhibition space within The Seasons Performance Hall, featured work done in the dot-art style of Australian Aborigines.

Noble, raised in Byron Bay, Australia, is a white non-aboriginal man. But he learned to play the didgeridoo, an aboriginal instrument, from Uncle Lewis Walker, an aboriginal elder in the Bundjalung Nation. And he says Walker gave him his blessing to spread aboriginal culture in the United States.

Nevertheless, the idea of a white man using something as spiritually sacred as dot art is to Aborigines raised eyebrows.

It also raised questions. When does a white artist have the moral authority to borrow a black art form? To tell a Latino story? To celebrate an indigenous culture without being of that culture? To profit from it? And, most central to the issue: Where is the line between appreciation and appropriation?

“That’s a complicated question,” said James Young, a University of Victoria (British Columbia) philosophy professor and author of the 2010 book “Cultural Appropriation and the Arts.” “I wrote a whole book on it.”

A lot of it has to do with intent, he said. If an artist isn’t misrepresenting their work as that of an actual member of whatever culture they’re borrowing from, and if they’re doing it with sensitivity and respect, that’s sometimes OK. In a case like that of Noble or Schutz, for instance, the intent seems to have been to do good through art — to expose people to a different culture in the former example, and to highlight the oppression of a culture in the latter.

Of Schutz, he said: “She is not the enemy.”

Of Noble: “It seems like in his case maybe there was an homage intended. But that’s not the only issue.”

Indeed, with aboriginal art there are spiritual aspects involved that may be best left alone by outsiders, Young said. Wayne Quilliam, an aboriginal artist who emailed me from Australia after reading about Noble’s show, echoed that viewpoint.

“As an aboriginal man from Tasmania, my artwork is influenced by my upbringing and connection to country, to the stories told and shared, to my spiritual connection to land and influence from other aboriginal people and places,” he wrote.

Yesenia Hunter, a Yakima Valley artist in a history graduate program at the University of Southern California, wrote a guest opinion piece for this newspaper in October that shared those concerns. The aboriginal story isn’t Noble’s to tell, she said in an interview this week. White Australians have a long history of subjugating and disenfranchising indigenous Australians, which makes a white man celebrating an art opening of aboriginal-style work troubling, Hunter said.

“What it’s doing, in that moment, is just continuing that legacy of colonization and power hierarchies that have already displaced a group of people,” she said.

Noble, who emailed Hunter after her opinion piece ran, certainly is aware of those issues. His art show, like his didgeridoo playing, was designed to spread the values of a culture he loves, he said in an email interview this week.

“Since moving to America, my goal has always been to bring awareness and respect to the aboriginal culture, which is why I sought out permission to do what I do before leaving Australia,” Noble said. “It was important for me to obtain a respected elder’s blessing to do what I do, which hopefully shows that I take the subject very seriously. It is important for me not only to share their culture through music but also to speak about the oldest continuous culture on Earth. This has always been done from a respectful, genuine place and I consider it an honor.”

Hunter acknowledged Noble’s good intentions, as well as his passion and respect for aboriginal culture. But that still misses the point, she said. If he really wanted to spread that culture, he wouldn’t be the star of the show; he’d be facilitating the work of actual aboriginal artists.

“We have these words — he used ‘passion for art,’ he used the word ‘respect,’” she said of their email correspondence. “Those are good, meaningful terms, and they say something about the individual. But he also said, essentially — I’m paraphrasing him — that he’s sharing the good news of aboriginal art. It’s not up to you to do that. We should be encouraging people to do that themselves.”

Larson Gallery Executive Director David Lynx, whose gallery coordinated the show and who praised it in his weekly Yakima Herald-Republic column, The Arts Scene, believes those concerns are overblown.

“I was very comfortable with it,” he said. “He had a lot of interaction with the aboriginal culture there in Australia. He learned the didgeridoo from them. I was totally comfortable with him exploring that.”

The concept of cultural appropriation is new to him, something he’s heard a lot about in the past few years but never before.

“The whole idea is kind of strange to me,” he said. “I think that (borrowing from other cultures and traditions) is just what artists do. People find ways to feel offended. I’m just not one of those people.”

In a broad sense, it’s true that the history of art — the history of society for that matter — is built on cultural exchange, said Young, the professor who wrote the cultural appropriation book. The idea, for instance, that blues or hip-hop is strictly a black American art form overlooks all of the similar art forms that preceded them.

“You can go down the line here,” he said. “Essentially what hip-hop is, is declaimed improvised poetry. But there’s been a lot of declaimed improvised poetry in a lot of cultures.”

That aside, a guy like Macklemore didn’t cop the affect of 11th century Andalusian zajal; he directly employed the style of black American rap. Even that, however, is not necessarily ethically off-limits, Young said. Eric Clapton, for instance, borrowed from black American blues. Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman borrowed from early black jazz musicians. They also credited those black musicians for their inspiration, which goes a long way, Young said.

Besides which, he asked, to whom does hip-hop belong more? A guy like Macklemore who attended largely black Garfield High School in Seattle? Or a middle-class black lawyer in Boston who grew up in a white neighborhood?

“Does he get to claim ownership of hip-hop music?” Young asked.

That hypothetical middle-class black lawyer, I’d wager, might take exception to that question, inasmuch as the black experience in the United States has common threads beyond the socioeconomic. But the idea of ownership of a particular artistic style is interesting.

“In my view, a style is just not an ownable thing,” Young said. “And to say that styles are ownable gets in the way of artistic progress.”

That said, there are right and wrong ways. Mass producing aboriginal spiritual art for profit, for instance, is clearly cultural appropriation and exploitation.

“You need to be very careful, especially when dealing with art elements or styles that have ritual or spiritual significance,” Young said.

Noble believes he has been careful in that regard. He’s aware of the exploitation of aboriginal culture and plans to give the proceeds from his art show to his mentor, Uncle Lewis Walker. He also apologized to anyone who may have been offended by the show.

“I have a genuine respect and love for Australian aboriginal culture,” Noble said. “It’s a fascinating, beautiful, ancient culture that deserves to be respected and shared, with the utmost respect for the people that created it.”

As with any culture, the question remains, however: Who has the moral right to share it?

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