I’ll take you there

Dear reader: It would be good if you would listen to this recording while you are reading this. Twice, if necessary. You’ll see why.

Scarlett Johansson swoops and preens and dives off tall buildings and cultivates steely stares — all because she has the brain of a Japanese woman. In the original manga of “Ghost in the Shell,” the android with the brain of a Japanese woman was, well, a Japanese woman. But someone somewhere said, “we cannot make the big bucks with some unknown Japanese woman, let us get a real movie star!”

Real movie stars are English-speaking white people, except for a few English-speaking black persons and never ever an English-speaking Asian person. (A Japanese-speaking Japanese person: Are you kidding?) So is that what you call your cultural appropriation? It’s a somewhat amorphous category, but I’m going to say yes.

Now suppose you have a white painter doing a work based on the death of Emmett Till? That happened at the Whitney Museum in New York. The painter is a woman, which means she has her own victimization issues. Can you play the woman card there? I dunno. Is the black card worth more points than the woman card?  Whatever, the painting generated protests and angry essays and threats of boycott and several symposia (because that’s the way museums roll).

Some protesters pointed out that Till got in trouble when a white woman lied about him, and therefore…candidly, I did not follow that argument, unless all white women are somehow diminished by the lies of one white woman. That way lies madness.

Taiwan (12 of 26)

I’m not sure what the political situation was here, but it doesn’t look good.

The painter, Dana Schutz, is not a racist person, nor did she create a racist work  of art. You would not know it was created by a white person unless someone told you. Some protestors reacted badly on Twitter (“Burn This Shit Bitch”) while others adopted a more contemplative tone. A black woman  artist named Kara Walker posted on Instagram a short essay which included this: “Art often lasts longer than the controversies that greet it. I say this as a shout to every artist and artwork that gives rise to vocal outrage. Perhaps it too gives rise to deeper inquiries and better art.”

Of course, there are no definitive answers to these questions. There are no administration edicts defining the correct attitude for every questionable situation. In matters of cultural appropriation, it’s every human for herself.

As I understand the argument (always a cowardly way to begin a sentence), white Northern Europeans dominated the rest of the world after the 16th Century economically, politically and culturally. The invaders took what they wanted, sometimes literally (Elgin marbles) and sometimes less concretely. They took music and woodcarving and folktales and even vocabulary.  This is the crime that people who promote the idea of evil appropriation are referring to. It’s a real crime. And the question that hangs over every crime: What next?

You might say that New World slavery is the boldest act of appropriation ever.  Many African cultures uprooted and set to do the roughest of jobs, without pay, without freedom, without even a guarantee of family life.  And the music came with the Africans. And as the northern Europeans were listening and taking notes, the Africans were also listening. And those dual acts of appropriation created gospel, jazz, blues, rock and hip hop.

How can that be a bad thing? I understand it came from a bad thing, but what should be done now? The genie is not going back in the bottle, and hooray.

Put black jazz musicians together with the great mostly Jewish-American songwriters of the early 20th Century, and you get unimaginable genius. Were you to tell me that there was a movement on to ban Miles Davis doing “Bye Bye Blackbird” by white guy songwriters Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon, I would say that such a movement would be misguided.

And what about “Hamilton,” eh? A Puerto Rican guy celebrating the founding fathers, many of whom own slaves. But that seems fine, right? It sure does to me. But then, I’m very much of the opinion that it all seems fine.

I am also in favor of white rappers. Dr. Dre listened to the Slim Shady  EP and, after being told he was white, said “I don’t give a fuck if you’re purple; if you can kick it, I’m working with you.” Dr Dre, meet Kara Walker.

I think people of many ethnicities can agree that Picasso could kick it. He appropriated African masks and used them or the ideas they suggested in both paintings and sculptures.  Of course that’s problematic. On the other hand, the world is immensely richer because of it.  So…what?


Ai Wei Wei, Alcatraz, Lego portraits of political prisoners around the world

Here’s what I think.  We’re moving from a mono-cultural society to a multi-cultural one. And all the other multi-‘s you can think of: racial, ethnic, gender. Many adjustments are required; many conversations must be had. The pendulum wiggles back and forth. At the moment, there’s a Trumpish recidivist air in the country, as isolated people threatened by  change take a last stand against the inevitable. They want to appropriate the entire damn country. At the moment they’re getting away with it. I’m against that appropriation, because art will not be created. (Except protest art, which is swell, but it would be better if there were nothing to protest against).

Understandably, the cultural and academic worlds have swung the other way, creating and refining new definitions of “hate speech” and “trigger warnings” and “appropriate”. Everybody is offending everybody, so it’s no wonder things can get a bit testy.

This cacophony makes me proud. In a functioning democracy (I know; let’s pretend), ideas should be battling each other in the public square. Screeds should be written; marches should be held. These are the birth pangs of a new society; let us cherish them.  It’s gonna take a century or more; congratulations for being there at the beginning.

I’m sure of one thing: This is how art works. Appropriation is not only permitted; it is desirable. An artist is supposed to have open ears and open eyes, and to process everything in the environment. All of the data gets closer to what we might call  “the truth,” which is what art aspires to.

And art lasts longer. I have seen lovely pottery that’s 2000 years old. Under what political regime were these made? Were there struggling masses who needed help and somebody was making a damn pot instead? And the designs on that pot; were they inspired by similar and lesser known bowls made in mountainous Montenegro? Who’s to say, although the Montenegrins are still pissed off.

I know that cultural appropriation is a real thing, and I’m glad people are bringing it up. Maybe it would be useful to spend more time on advertisements that reach millions of people, which are often accompanied by music made by black musicians. So do I need to hear the Staple Singers shilling for a Japanese (!) automobile? The Staple Singers, for god’s sakes.  That offends me, and I’m old white guy.

Men stealing from women, whites stealing from blacks, Asians stealing from whites, the French stealing from the Italians, the Chinese stealing from the Persians, and the pottery and poetry all changes too. It doesn’t matter what you think of it, it will continue. The urge to share realities is just too great.

20121024Utahtrip0104atA Hard-hitting protest against inequality? No. Just Utah.

Photography by Tracy Johnston

Random acts of help by Michelle Mizera

30 thoughts on “I’ll take you there

  1. “I’m sure of one thing: This is how art works. Appropriation is not only permitted; it is desirable”

    Yes, and let me add my my usual, “Culture belongs to anyone who loves it enough to learn it.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OK, but this brings me back to the whole confederate flag thing. Artists get a free pass, but rednecks don’t? The great thing about the freedom of speech is that it is covers everyone and everything, even we who make statements that are abhorrent to others, and even the others who make statements that are abhorrent to us.


      1. Redneck artists get a pass, just like the rest — but the confederate flag controversy left the art world behind a hundred and fifty years ago to enter the realm of cultural politics. Even so, if you want to put the stars and bars on the bumper of your car, that’s your business, not mine — but for a state to fly that flag as part of its official emblem is something very different… and it the becomes everybody’s business.


  2. Seriously grateful that you are still you…but more-so and smarter. And using your words…to the betterment of us all.


    Liked by 3 people

  3. I cannot express it well but I feel that the appropriate term is not multi cultural but rather something all encompassing such as humanity culture in all its vibrant sharing and inter mingling. I recall years ago when I first visited Asia coming to the belief that “mixed” or is it ” multi racial” people were very beautiful and the same is true when sharing proceeds. Everything is more rich, more strong when we share and grow.


  4. I am reminded of Pete Seeger quoting Woody Guthrie on song writing: “Sure, that guy just stole from me, but I steal from everybody!”


  5. Well said, Jon. And thanks.

    On Mon, Apr 10, 2017 at 11:20 AM, Jon Carroll Prose wrote:

    > joncarrollprose posted: “Dear reader: It would be good if you would listen > to this recording while you are reading this. Twice, if necessary. You’ll > see why. Scarlett Johansson swoops and preens and dives off tall buildings > and cultivates steely stares — all because she has the ” >


  6. Such a smart column. ! I’ve been meaning to write after our lunch after which I found myself invigorated and cheered up immensely. Thanx my dear friend. And thank you for this column which says what many are thinking in ways they wouldn’t have thought of themselves. Or at least it works that way for me.

    l, k

    PS: But jeez– United Airlines has nearly ruined the sublime Rhapsody in Blue for at least a generation or two. Can’t anybody do anything about that?!?

    PPS: I can’t stop thinking about Cirque on Ice!


    Liked by 1 person

  7. Could it be that Art could be placed in 2 categories? One which exists in a cultural/political context rife with turmoil to which it is a reaction/response… And 2) One whose cultural/political context we have forgotten so we are left with just the Art…


  8. Like the seven cities of Troy, art builds on the foundation — or ruins — laid down by previous generations. It was and remains ever thus… but much like our fractious modern social/political culture, the world of modern art is replete with sharp elbows, fragile egos, chips precariously perched upon trembling shoulders, and serpent’s tongues eagerly waiting a target upon which to unleash their venom… and the result is usually much sound and fury, signifying nothing…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This reminds me of the whole dustup that occurred when Paul Simon released Graceland. I remember one interviewer making a comment about how it would have been better received if Stevie Wonder did it, and Paul Simon responded “but I did it.”

    Liked by 2 people

  10. May I suggest the name of Edouard Glissant as a guide in these matters ?
    I quote a nice paper by film director Manthia Diawara about Glissant’s Worldmentality.
    (…) “we have to take for granted that every “truth” and every “reality” did not just come to us as the regimes of scientific deduction and transparency would like us to believe, but that some of their manifestations come to us intuitively, like a sparkle of light in the dark. By asking us to look at difference differently, Glissant wants us to realize its essential role in the construction of the Tout-Monde. To paraphrase Glissant, we must not surrender to the partitioning of the world, nor to irreconcilable differences, binary divisions, opposition of species, and genres. We must fight the desire to divide ourselves into threatening diversities, which remove any sense of poetry and imaginary from our differences. The sparkle of truth and reality must not be isolated from the darkness and opacity out of which they emerge. Glissant was in no doubt that postcolonial discourse, like the master narrative of Eurocentrism that it opposes, has equally evaded this opacity, in order to reach easy conclusions. He felt this discourse took the side of reason against poetry, transparency over complexity, and thus contributed as much to the destruction of lives and the environment (nationalism, for example, leading to violence and immigration), as did their former colonizers and now economic and cultural oppressors. (…)


  11. People concerned with cultural purity should read Charles Mann’s “1493”. The book is about how globalization in the age of exploration exploded during the European exploitation of the Americas and changed cultures around the world, one item of which is the tomato sauce on your authentic Neapolitan pizza. The subtext of the book is that culture are constantly changing as they rub up against other cultures. Your supermarket is an encyclopedia of cultural appropriation.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. That, of course, should have been “The subtext of the book is that cultures are constantly changing”.

    I haven’t figured how to edit, post posting, on this system..


  13. How dare Jimmy Yancey and Thelonious Monk ‘appropriate’ from Chopin and Co. By ‘stealing’ the use of the diatonic keyboard?

    Whitewash casting seems like a damn’ clear issue. Unless you think about *requiring* that every tenor who sings Otello be black. Or every Madame Butterfly be Japanese. There actually WAS a soprano of Japanese descent back in the early 20th century (I can’t dig up the name off the cuff) and guess what role she was stuck with for her whole career?

    ScarJo as a pseudo Japanese character is pretty cut-and-dried idiocy. And the objection to non-Black artists referring to Emmet Till is, I feel, equally absurd and offensive. But real life doesn’t always serve up that much clarity.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. “Take that which is yours by right of understanding” said the photographer, thereby erasing all barriers. The Emmet Till piece? Wrenching, beautiful and not an easy piece of painterly task-setting in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. amorphous category … cultural appropriation … Scarlett Johansson … Picasso… Jewish-American songwriters … did i just read someone’s Anthropology 101 mid-term paper?


  16. Joan Wood 4-15-17
    Your comments are similar to Çalvin Tompkins’ article about this painter in the Åpril 10 New Yorker. Thanks.


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