Many years ago, decades really, my friends and I were having a late night conversation. Wine, food, music, the need to change and improve the world. We talked about life, society, art, and somehow Hemingway’s Fiesta – The Sun Also Rises. From there we ventured into a different subject matter. Hunting and fishing, women, sex, and, inevitably, la corrida. Bullfighting. Cruel tradition or tradition tout court, animal cruelty, tourist attraction, we liberally shared our points of view until our Spanish friend proffered a different view.
You are not Spanish. You can’t understand. You should not judge.
We were an international crowd. We saw ourselves and each other as intellectuals. He was just being silly.
But he was not silly, he was avant-garde. He had, in our small circle, invented ‘cultural appropriation’. Avant la lettre.
Cultural appropriation, for those who do not know yet, refers to objections by members of minority groups to the use of their customs, culture or even characteristics of their ethnicity by artists (but also the public at large) who do not belong to those minority groups.
At the time, we waved away our Spanish friend’s criticism. Nowadays, we would be more belligerent. What if I am half Spanish, the son/daughter of a mixed marriage, one asks. What if my name is Spanish? What if, from my last incarnation I vividly remember the hooves, the Buddhist ponders? What if I know about ‘being cornu’, our French ami wants to know?
Last week, Lionel Shriver (We need to Talk about Kevin), speaking at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival was given a social media thrashing about her speech and appearance. Addressing her audience, donning a sombrero, she recalled a recent incident involving students throwing a tequila-themed party, wearing sombreros. The partygoers were placed on ‘social probation’, the hosts were ejected from their dorm and later put under investigation. Sombreros, it seems, are only fit for Mexicans. Meanwhile Ms. Shriver has been under attack for her latest book in which she features a black woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and is kept on a leash by her white husband. As Ms. Shriver says, are not writers ‘supposed to try on other people’s hats’?
Accused of arrogance and condescendence, one critic claims that ‘those from marginalized groups do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal’.
I can’t wear a kimono, can’t do yoga, or tae kwon do. White folks in Uppsala can’t eat spicy indian curries, the chinese are banned from coq au vin, all you non-Americans, get rid of that barbecue and don’t get me started on baked Camembert. As we are at it, no avocado for lunch, unless if you are from – where does my staple food originates from – and no coconut oil in your hair unless if you are Caribbean, or Indian, or, I don’t know, as long as blonds abstain. Oh, Mr. Shakespeare? Get rid of your Othello fellow! And as for Bond, James. Whites only, please.
Does this cultural appropriation not remind us of something else? Something we have fought hard to eliminate, are trying hard to exterminate?
Racism, yes, that’s the one.
Is my identity limited by the group I seemingly belong to? Can I only be thought of in terms of white, black, poor, rich, thin, fat, disabled, not-disabled. Is it the other who decides who I am and what I can do, think, feel, based on a few, often dualistic criteria? Am I only ‘either/or’, never ‘and’?
Information and communication works both ways. We express our ideas, we learn of opposing views. We have the luxury of being disputatious. Sometimes we offend. Sometimes we are offended. We live in a climate of scrutiny and often, in our disagreements, we become the victim of self-righteousness. Inadvertence is mistaken for deliberateness. Hurt becomes anger. Movements, based on antagonism, gather momentum. It is me against you. You against us. We lose perspective.
I believe in art in its widest form to bring down barriers, to allow us to crawl into somebody else’s skin, to seek and try to understand ‘the other’, even if most art is shit or, with the words of Ms. Shriver, ‘most fiction sucks’.
The real issue at stake here is the freedom of our imagination. It is our imagination that gives us wings, that allows us to explore, to boldly go where no man ( read no one, but I am a purist) has gone before. If we put shackles on our imagination, we will forever remain chained by the petulance of a few zealots, well-meaning or not.
Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.
As Marc Jacobs inspired ire with his models, fashioned into faux dreadlocks, does anybody vaguely remember his clothes?
Meanwhile, Ai No Corrida.
PS. Ai no Corrida is a song by the English singer Chaz Jankel, best known in its cover version by Quincy Jones. The title was taken from Ai No Korida, the Japanese title of the French-Japanese cult erotic film, L’Empire des Sens. Directed by Nagisa Oshima, the film deals with the story of Sada Abe who in the 1930s erotically asphyxiated her lover, cut off his penis and testicles and carried them around in her kimono.
Talk about cultural appropriation….