The debate about the ethics of cultural appropriation was reignited recently when the Australian fashion label Perks and Mini (P.A.M.) were criticised for their use of African-themed designs in a fashion collection displayed in the Melbourne Now exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria earlier this year. The works – large, free-standing photo prints accompanied by video footage, depicting white models wearing the designers’ patterned fabrics – were defaced with stickers reading: ‘I’m just so bored of being white!’
The stickers were only one part of a larger online campaign to draw attention to what was deemed inappropriate use of Indigenous cultural emblems. A video, attributed to an anonymous user known as art:broken, was uploaded to vimeo and then circulated online by several local artists who expressed sympathy with art:broken’s concerns for Australia’s international artistic reputation. The video, entitled, ‘P.A.M. (it’s a white thing too)’, criticised the designers and the NGV for its support of artists who take from other cultures without having any apparent right or reason to do so: ‘For a group of people who freely use African textile patterns and traditional ornaments, put on performances using didgeridoos and dot painting, and casually deface images of black people, you might think they have some personal connection to the cultures they have profited from,’ the video states. The complaints about P.A.M.’s work provoked some mild handwringing in the art scene regarding the ethics of cultural appropriation. When questioned by the journalist Cathy Alexander for her article, ‘Selling Other People’s Culture at $184 a T-shirt’ the NGV responded by saying, ‘the influence of one culture on another pervades all art forms. Cultural appropriation is a highly complex and constantly evolving issue which requires discussion and debate’– and then it was back to business as usual.
This apparent cure-all response – ‘cultural appropriation is complicated’ – euphemistically skirts around a less pleasant truth: cultural appropriation is always, necessarily, an uncomfortable art. Consider, for example, the assumptions that are used by art:broken to support objections to P.A.M.’s artwork: that the exploitation of a culture for personal, commercial and/or artistic gain might be exceptable if the artists have a professed ‘personal connection’ to the culture in question. Beside the troubling picture this paints of the modern art world, art:broken’s emphasis on personal connection as justification for acts of cultural appropriation is overly simplistic. What constitutes a personal connection to another culture? Who decides which connections are acceptable? Is it ok to treat a personal connection as little more than a pass note into a culture? Is it even possible to engage with other cultures without absorbing their styles and habits?
‘To say, as many critics have, that whites steal from blacks who originate important work in music or fashion is beside the point,’ writes the American critic Hilton Als in his recent book White Girls. Taking cultural theft for granted, Als takes his readers miles beyond ‘the discussion and debate’ recommended by official institutions like the NGV. Als’ writing elucidates the uncomfortable truth lurking behind criticisms like those made by art:broken: ‘[t]he subject of blackness has taken a strange and unsatisfying journey thorough American thought: first, because blackness has almost always had to explain itself to a largely white audience in order to be heard, and, second, because it has generally been assumed to have only one story to tell – a story of oppression that plays on liberal guilt.’
Als is a staff writer for the New Yorker and has a declared self-interest in the cultural theft that marks the everyday art of living for many individuals. A gay, black man working at one of the most prestigious publications in the world, Als has a sense of what it means to use culture for personal advantage. The premise behind his ideas is disarming and difficult: to complain about stealing from another culture is too simple. Cultural appropriation must be acknowledged as a socially useful, if politically problematic, way of reorganising one’s position in society. According to Als, a musician like Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem) can be understood as more than just a white boy appropriating black music. ‘Unlike many of the whites he grew up with, Mathers never claimed whiteness and its privileges as his birthright because he didn’t feel white and privileged,’ Als observes. He is not denying Mathers’ whiteness, just saying that his status as white needs to be understood in terms of other considerations such as class and economics; his awareness of being on the outside looking in. Als pushes this further by suggesting that for an artist like Eminem, the drive to create comes from a need not merely to look in from the outside, but also to touch, to sample, to take. Shared by many artists this impulse, Als says, comes from ‘a sense that delving into “otherness” allows them to articulate their own feelings of difference more readily.’
As the book’s title demonstrates, Als wants to upend some of the usual cultural presumptions. To him the figure of ‘otherness’ that an artist like Eminem works to interrogate and imitate is not the young black man on the street corner but the ‘white girl’, the very beating heart of our popular culture. In her review of the book for The Rumpus Anisse Gross asserts that, for Als, ‘being a white girl isn’t about being born white in a woman’s body. It’s a state of mind, a way of acting, the pose of privilege.’ Becoming a white girl is a process of self-creation – a means of rewriting one’s social identity – the focus is privilege, who has it and who will never have it, and what those without it are supposed to do. By assuming the role of a white girl, Als suggests, individuals try to shift themselves out of an undesirable identity and into the arms of the popular culture. Becoming a white girl means moving from the outskirts of a culture to its centre; from the ‘shit girl’ in the boondocks to the ‘it girl’ of Hollywood.
By Als’ definition Eminem, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Louise Brooks and Truman Capote are all white girls. They share an important narrative of becoming: the tales of their paths to stardom combine traditional success stories of self-making with a narrative of personal drama, ever-unresolved. Jackson is perhaps the premier example of this narrative. Leaving aside his attempts at a physical transformation from black to white, Jackson’s life history was marked by a series of attempts to gain distinction and acquire new signs of his privileged position: first with houses, cars, jewels, antiques and later with monkeys, wives and children. It should come as little surprise that Jackson’s longtime friend and mentor was Elizabeth Taylor, herself a quintessential white girl.
In his opening essay Als observes of himself and his kin, ‘we like girls more than the world liked them, which is to say more than they liked each other, let alone themselves.’ That love–hate dynamic helps to explain how the white girl has such symbolic significance: her position in society is essentially unstable. A white girl may be celebrated, but only on the basis of her agreement to always play her role. The privileges that society has extended to her can be taken away at any moment. She may be adored today, abhorred tomorrow.
Playing the white girl, Als proposes, is a response to the values of the culture itself: one takes on the performance in order to blend in rather than stand out, to feel safe, or to be ‘part of’ something bigger and better. If you can make it as a white girl you have moved the realm of disadvantage to privilege: from dangerous black to safe white; from the utilitarian masculine to the glamourous feminine. The figure of white girl has an affinity to the black man, since both identities require construction and care in order to tailor the self for social cohesion. Of his own experiences as a black man, Als writes, ‘So much care, so much care, is taken not to scare white people simply with my existence, and it’s as if they don’t want to deal with the care, either. It makes their seeing me as a nigger even more complicated.’
Discomfort is what is missing from so much of the present day debate about race, class and gender. Take for example this exchange in an interview between the comedian Richard Pryor and TV journalist Barbara Walters, from which Als quotes:
Walters: When you’re onstage … see, it’s hard for me to say. I was going to say, you talk about niggers. I can’t … you can say it. I can’t say it.
Pryor: You just said it.
Walters: Yeah, but I feel so …
Pryor: You said it very good.
Walters: … uncomfortable.
Pryor: Well, good. You said it pretty good.
Pryor: That’s not the first time you said it. (Laughter.)
What made a figure like Richard Pryor so powerful as a performer was the way he liked to break the rules by drawing attention to them. Acts of cultural appropriation don’t subvert systems of oppression but provide an alternative means for navigating them (old rules, new games, if you will). Individuals might be free to play around with their identities but social forces shape these games. To put it simply, there are rules to the game, and expectations about who should play, but recognising this and discussing it openly make many people uncomfortable, as the Walters/Pryor exchange makes clear.
Incidents such as those involving art:broken and P.A.M. demonstrate that appropriation and performance cannot run in both directions without causing alarm, discomfort and confusion. Like Walters dropping the N-bomb in her interview with Pryor, audiences instinctively recognise that appropriations like these are in some way inappropriate. ‘They are kind of stealing another culture, I’m not sure if that’s OK or not,’ said one visitor to the P.A.M. installation at the NGV, in Alexander’s piece. Would it be better instead to simply state who is allowed to take what and from whom? Whether or not it’s ok, as a social phenomenon, this kind of ‘theft’ has the potential to demonstrate some of the more entrenched inequities in our society.
Part of the ‘problem’ of P.A.M.’s work is that there doesn’t seem to be a strong artistic motive for the appropriation. Unlike other artists who have borrowed heavily from black cultures, such as Eminem, the designers appear to have taken what they please; exercising an oversize sense of entitlement without avowing a shared world view or acknowledging from where their entitlement springs.
There is nothing unusual about white artists appropriating black cultures – this has been happening for decades in art, music and fashion. What makes P.A.M.’s work genuinely uncomfortable is the easy way in which the commodification of various indigenous cultures in order to satify white commercial desires is presented in P.A.M.’s work as a pragmatic reality for a modern artist; an acceptable strategy that generates profits by asking nothing from audiences. If anything, art:broken’s ironic stickers are misplaced on the cardboard cut-out models wearing P.A.M.’s designs, the real targets of their anger are the consumers who fail to recognise their role in the game.