Compliment or theft?

At a literary festival in Brisbane last year, Lionel Shriver faced a backlash when she argued that accusations of cultural appropriation threatened “our right to write fiction at all”. It remains a contentious issue. At this year’s Battle of Ideas, Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, introduced a talk at the Barbican in London on whether “cultural appropriation is a compliment or theft” (as if it can’t be a bit of both) with the example of a Canadian magazine editor, Hal Niedzviecki, who proposed in a comment piece an “Appropriation Prize” for the “best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him”. He and two journalists who tweeted in his support later resigned. Fox described this case in tones of outrage, and the audience seemed sympathetic.

Six speakers went on to address the event’s young and diverse audience. Sameer Rahim, managing editor at Prospect magazine, recounted the story of being invited to a wedding in Amman. “Like a typical British person, I was expecting great authenticity from the experience”, he said; but he encountered the bagpipes instead. He explained that bagpipes came to Jordan through British imperial culture, via Scotland and England, but they may have been invented in Egypt. “For me it’s not an argument about whether cultural appropriation is right or wrong, but how can we analyse objects in a way that takes account of their multiplicity and complexity.”

The historian Bijan Omrani argued that talking about “appropriation” or “theft” involves the idea of ownership. But who owns culture? It strikes Omrani as “a chilling notion that some authority in a community would try to tell anyone else in the world not to use [its] ideas”. “We’re told we can’t reference the cultural initiation processes in America, or native Australian artistic motives, because the spiritual experience belongs exclusively to those people. But what if those ceremonies prompt within me or any other artist anywhere in the world a new access to the spiritual? Surely, this is a universal.”

And if culture belongs to individuals, what if individuals disagree? Omrani’s father is Iranian and his mother English – does that give him “mandate enough to allow the use of ideas from Iran in an English artistic context?” And if so, does it extend beyond contemporary culture to include ancient strands? And how does oppression play into it? The Persian Empire was both invaded and oppressive to others. Omrani concluded that cultural appropriation has been “the salvation of cultures”. Ancient Greek poetry and myths were appropriated by the Romans and form the Western canon. The idea that that constitutes theft is “deeply conservative”, he said, “and stands in the way of the individual, creativity and culture”.

Dr Sarah Cheang, a writer and senior tutor at the Royal College of Art, spoke about fashion history and the global flows of textiles, referring, for example, to Romans wearing silk from China, and India exporting cotton. She argued that while fashion elicits passionate responses from people in relation to their identity, “you have to have an awareness of transnational complexity of fashion, and that it is impossible to isolate cultures”. Being half Chinese and half white British, she strongly resists the idea “that cultural appropriation is either compliment or theft”. “When I see white American celebrities wearing the qipao, I thinkwhy are you wearing my grandma’s dress?” But she emphasizes that that’s merely a personal response; everyone has their own perspective.

Kunle Olulode, director of Voice4Change England, and creative director of Rebop Productions, deems it odd that in an era when technology is expanding our horizons, we should be having a discussion about how to limit ourselves. But he said that it would be unwise not to take ideas about cultural appropriation seriously. He recalled the time he staged a production of The Lion and the Jewel by Wole Soyinka with white actors playing Africans. “Seeing the reaction of the black people who attended, there were almost fights after the first session.” Reactions varied, however: in general, “people from the Caribbean and North America expressed their views in stark terms, but Africans were not fussed about it”.

The writer and broadcaster Tiffany Jenkins said that cultural appropriation is “integral to the arts, and also to being human”, as culture is communally forged. She spoke about Scaffold”, a controversial sculpture, now dismantled, by the artist Sam Durant, which represented gallows used in US state-sponsored executions. (Durant told the Los Angeles Times in June: “It looked at the state monopoly on violence, of which the execution is the ultimate symbol”.) It was met with protests by a Native American tribe “because he’s white,” said Jenkins, “so Durant doesn’t have the right to represent their pain”.  In her view, this argument “puts people into boxes; it silences people, and tells them they can’t speak up on behalf of others”; it doesn’t allow for solidarity across ethnic lines.

While it was a stimulating discussion, it’s hardly possible to call it a battle of ideas; there were no dissenting voices. The broad consensus was that cultures have always appropriated from each other, and that more is gained than lost that way.

I left the talk reflecting that while structural racism in cultural institutions still exists, power relations need to be exposed and history needs to be told from various perspectives, it’s surely preferable to live in a world where writers and artists are encouraged to experiment at the risk of getting it wrong, than to live in one that encourages cultural purity and separation.

This article was originally published in the Times Literary Supplement on 29 November 2017: