on cultural appropriation

I’ve often felt a good essay was like a spiderweb, the several strands not merely connecting to but strengthening one another, even at some distance from the center. But the temptation to think wrongly, as a writer, that one’s goal is trapping the reader, commanding their attention, suggests another image: a honeycomb, where sweetness spills over cell to cell in many directions at once, held in an indefinitely extensible structure. The honeycomb, importantly, is the work of many in concert.

It was exciting, then, when Tara and I discovered that each of us would be contributing an essay to the newest issue of PloughQuarterly, “Beyond Borders”. I was asked to write a follow-up to my election-tide essay for Breaking Ground on American nationalism, this time focusing on my ambivalent relationship as an immigrant to love of country, while Tara was writing about cosmopolitanism. But inevitably we drew on our common experience of growing up in too many places and not knowing exactly how to think of ourselves. For me, this has been the story of finding a home, first as a child and again as adult, in the US. For Tara, it’s been a return home, to New York City and to the idea of rootedness, of thick community. For both of us, it has also been a matter of loving too many places.

(For our readers in or near New York City: we’ll be speaking together at the launch event for the issue in a few weeks: https://www.plough.com/en/events/2021/beyond-borders; for others, you can hear us talk about our essays and related topics on a future episode of PloughCast with our dear friend Susannah Black and Plough editor-in-chief Peter Mommsen - https://www.plough.com/en/podcast.)

As with almost all our writing here, these essays for Plough were conceived apart, but dwell on shared themes and – increasingly – shared experiences, such as the vignette in the Georgian countryside with which Tara’s essay begins. We hope you’ve enjoyed these concinnities. And we encourage you to share your thoughts about this endeavor with us, by e-mail or in the comment section below.

Reflection on borders and borderlessness in recent months got me thinking about the many sorts of transgression that borders entail. One such transgression, which has occasioned a good deal of commentary and even some philosophical discussion, is cultural appropriation. While the term can seem neutral enough, it tends to signify a proscribed arrogation of a cultural practice by someone to whom that practice does not belong. What I want to consider here is whether we can make any sense of that notion of practices belonging to some and not others.

I start from the idea of practices in order to set aside a related but distinct set of problems concerning patrimony and cultural artifacts. There are interesting questions about who is wronged by the looting of antiquities or the destruction of culturally significant sites, but these are all cases where notions of property get a grip. Cultural appropriation, meanwhile, has essentially to do with activities, even if the activity in question makes use of a salient artifact.

To understand this point, I want to spend some time thinking about the controversy that was sparked by the 2016 Boston MFA “Kimono Wednesdays” exhibit, which turned on the charge of cultural appropriation. Museum visitors were invited to try on a kimono in the presence of Claude Monet’s painting La Japonaise, which in turn led to organized protests and a formal apology from the museum for insensitivity. As C. Thi Nguyen and Matthew Strohl note in their philosophical treatment of cultural appropriation as a breach of interpersonal intimacy among the members of a cultural group, the fact that the kimonos were provided to the museum by the Japanese broadcaster NHK, which originated the exhibit in Japan, is relevant for understanding this situation. So too is the fact that a group of Japanese counter-protesters supported the exhibit, while many of the original protesters were not themselves Japanese or of Japanese descent.

Nguyen and Strohl rightly note that these considerations do not settle whether the museum acted well or badly in organizing the exhibit – and leaving the kimonos themselves aside, the title of the accompanying talk ‘Flirting with the Exotic’ already invited difficulty in navigating tricky cultural territory. We might also worry about whether museum visitors were meant to experience the kimono in a tactile way or whether, in the Age of Instagram, the point was to market the museum via selfies. But in any case, the alleged wrong was the transgression of inviting museum visitors, whatever their background or heritage, into the practice of wearing a kimono, and thereby facilitating acts of cultural appropriation. It didn’t have to do with, say, ownership of the kimonos themselves.

The real difficulty here, I think, comes from the collision of two distinct cultural practices. The first and most obvious one is the endogenous Japanese practice of kimono-wearing, whose very decline no doubt played a role in the original NHK-sponsored exhibition in Japan and its continuation at the Boston MFA. A traditional kimono can, I gather, seem impractical and somewhat stodgy to modern Japanese, which has led to attempts at revitalization and transformation to keep the practice alive.

The second practice dates to the period of Japonisme, the late 19th c. European obsession with Japanese culture and art, the very fad that led Claude Monet to depict his wife Camille wearing an uchikake-style formal kimono in the 1876 painting now known as La Japonaise (literally ‘the Japanese woman’). It bears mentioning that the painting’s original title was the less-fraught Japonerie, a term referring to the European fad itself. Monet, ever-sensitive to his market, surely knew that he was precisely depicting an imitation, staging Camille with a blonde wig to emphasize her Europeanness. In the same spirit, if one wanted to dress up as an 1870s Parisian woman, one might well wear a kimono (as in fact some people do at vintage clothing events in Europe, as Tara tells me).

The difficulty is that cultural practices are transparent in the following sense: imitating a cultural practice means participating in it, even if your participation is meant to be detached or ironic. So imitating an 1870s woman in Western Europe wearing a kimono just is doing the very thing such a woman did, even as it might also be something else at the same time, such as displaying that fact to others in our own context or aiming to critique the very Orientalism one is participating in – in the right context and with the right audience, one might be able to pull off such a feat. What was so fraught about “Kimono Wednesdays” was that visitors to the Boston MFA were being invited to both imitate Camille Monet – and, presumably, feel the discomfort of doing so in a cultural context that polices cultural boundaries fiercely – and also to enjoy the experience of wearing a beautifully decorated kimono, as many Japanese people keen to revive the practice might well have wanted them to do (even if their primary goal was an endogenous revival among Japanese themselves).

As it seems to me, then, both the protesters and the counter-protesters got something right. The protesters were right that the museum exhibit was purposefully transgressive, given the widespread and continued exoticizing impulse in the US and many parts of Europe toward Japanese and other ‘Oriental’ cultures, which tend to be seen both as repositories of wisdom and as essentially effete and weak. (There is much to say about the gendered dimension of this controversy, but I leave that topic aside here.) But the counter-protesters were right to judge that, with traditional Japanese customs under threat even at home, the best path toward their revitalization might well be an opening of these traditions to the modern world and, in the right circumstances, to non-Japanese, just as the “Kimono Wednesdays” exhibit tried to do.

The Boston MFA’s problem, then, was that they were not transparently speaking on behalf of those revitalization efforts, and that as a museum of mainly European art in Boston, they were most plausibly seen as representatives instead of the very Orientalism that the planners of the exhibit meant to display and to critique. The lesson for museums and other cultural institutions is that there is no neutral ground to occupy, from which to simply educate people about a set of artifacts; the very history of the depiction of these artifacts is always relevant.

My reflections here have at most begun an investigation of the idea of cultural appropriation, which I plan to follow up in the future. But what I have said offers us some ground, I think, to stand on. The transparency of cultural practices, as I have defined it, means that any second-order message we mean to convey by imitating a cultural practice runs the risk of fading to the background. What people primarily see in an imitation of this kind is the participation – just as when we see actors on stage, we primarily see them behave and speak in certain ways, even as our awareness of them as depicting someone accompanies our attention. (It takes real effort, unless the acting is very clumsy or something else goes wrong with the production, to break the fourth wall as an audience member, but a simultaneous awareness of watching some action unfold and watching it unfold as a depiction seems the default stance of theater-going once the lights go down; a lot of avant-garde theater trades on this very simultaneity.)

Of course, some types of ‘participation’ in cultural practices are very attenuated and may only barely qualify as cultural appropriation. The harm in such cases, when there is one, is probably a different species of cultural insensitivity. A good example of this kind is offered by the ‘Tomahawk chop’ practiced by fans of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, which can be understood as a kind of ritual parody. Whatever the demerits of such a practice, it seems plausible that an imitation can fall so short of any real cultural activity that it fails to count as appropriation of it.

Above this threshold, we enter into the space of mutual interpretation that is culture itself. To engage successfully in a cultural practice requires both the capacity to understand what it is I am doing and to have this performance interpreted correctly by others. In cases of cultural appropriation, a mismatch between these dimensions arises, either because of one’s own failure of understanding or a lack of the appropriate receptivity in others. Of course, what can arise from such failures is a new practice or set of practices, as with Japonisme in late 19th c. Western Europe. What we make of the new practices will depend on the relationship between the cultural contexts in question and the ideas attendant on this relationship. (What would we think if Japonisme had arisen because of a Japanese military conquest of France?)

But critics of cultural appropriation should note that such innovation also happens, constantly, within cultures. The essential transmissibility of cultural practices entails a kind of open-endedness that limits how far any regime of boundary-policing can go. There is a real – and frequently inconvenient – truth to the old humanist motto ‘humani nil a me alienum puto’.