The Truth about ‘Cultural Appropriation’

Whether it’s art or politics, campaigns against cultural appropriation are bad news for interaction and imagination, argues Kenan Malik

By Kenan Malik

M F Husain, Yatra, 1955, oil on canvas, 85 x 107 cm. Courtesy Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi

Maqbool Fida Husain is perhaps India’s greatest artist of the twentieth century. His work linked ancient and modern traditions and helped transform Indian modernism. But not everyone appreciated Husain’s work. His depictions of Hindu deities, often naked, outraged Hindu nationalists who questioned his right, as someone of Muslim background, to depict figures sacred to Hindus, accusing him of ‘hurting religious feelings’. His home and gallery were ransacked, many of his paintings destroyed. He faced law suits, including ones for ‘promoting enmity between different groups’. The harassment spread beyond India’s borders. In 2006, London’s Asia House Gallery shut an exhibition of his work after protests and the defacement of two paintings. Husain, who died in 2011, was forced to live his last years in exile, in London and Qatar.

Were he still alive today, M.F. Husain’s Hindu critics might well be accusing him not of sacrilege but of ‘cultural appropriation’ – the ‘theft’ of images and ideas that truly belong to another culture and that he had no right to take without permission.

The idea of cultural appropriation has, in recent years, moved from being an abstruse academic and legal concept to a mainstream political issue. From Beyonce’s Bollywood outfits to Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, and from the recent controversy surrounding Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold (2012) to Omer Fast’s recreation of an old Chinatown storefront at James Cohan Gallery, New York, there is barely a week in which controversies over cultural appropriation are not in the headlines.

The idea of cultural appropriation has, in recent years, moved from being an abstruse academic and legal concept to a mainstream political issue. From Beyonce’s Bollywood outfits to Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till

So, what is cultural appropriation and why has it become such a contentious issue? Susan Scafidi, professor of law at Fordham University, defines it as ‘taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission’. This can include the ‘unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.’

But what is it for knowledge or expression or a cuisine to ‘belong’ to a culture? And who gives permission for someone from another culture to use such knowledge or forms?

Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artefacts. With artefacts and land the meaning of ownership is clear, even if in many cases disputed. But when it comes to what UNESCO calls ‘intangible’ cultural forms – ideas, language, folklore, cuisine, religious symbols and so on – the question of ‘ownership’ becomes far less meaningful and far more tortuous to define.

What really lies behind the debate about cultural appropriation is not ownership but gatekeeping – the making of rules or an etiquette to determine how a particular cultural form may be used and by whom. What critics of cultural appropriation want to establish is that certain people have the right to determine who can use such knowledge or forms, because at the heart of criticism of cultural appropriation is the relationship between gatekeeping and identity.

One of the key arguments of many such critics is that one speaks through one’s identity; that one speaks, as writer Nesrine Malik has put it, ‘as a’: ‘as a woman’, ‘as a Muslim’, ‘as an immigrant’. And those who are not ‘as a’ must take their cue from those who are, especially if they happen to be privileged by being white or male or straight. ‘Lived experience’, as Malik has put it, ‘is on its way to becoming the superior and most veracious form of truth.’ And as the novelist Kamila Shamsie has observed, ‘What started as a thoughtful post-colonial critique of certain types of imperial texts somehow became a peculiar orthodoxy that essentially denies the possibility of imaginative engagement with anyone outside your little circle.’

What is really being appropriated, in other words, is not culture but the right to police cultures and experiences

What is really being appropriated, in other words, is not culture but the right to police cultures and experiences, a right appropriated by those who license themselves to be arbiters of the correct forms cultural borrowing. Such policing is deeply problematic, both artistically and politically. It deadens creativity and it assaults imagination. The importance of imagination is that we can take ourselves beyond where we are, beyond our own narrow perspectives, to imagine other peoples, other worlds, other experiences. Without the ability to do that, both artistic creativity and progressive politics shrivel.

Take the debate about Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), a painting derived from photographs of the body of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old African American murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Till’s mother had urged the publication of photographs of her son’s mutilated body as it lay in its coffin. Till’s murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil-rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality.

Schutz’s painting caused little controversy until it was included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial Exhibition in New York. Many objected to a white painter depicting such a traumatic moment in black history, and for that depiction to receive the accolade of a Whitney Biennial presentation. The British artist Hannah Black even organised a petition to have the work destroyed.

In the same Whitney Biennial was a painting by Henry Taylor titled The Times They Ain’t Changing, Fast Enough! (2017) which depicts the death of Philando Castile, an African American man horrifically shot dead in his car by a policeman, in 2016. Taylor’s painting, unlike Schutz’s, has received little criticism, but rather has been praised for its ‘hauntingly vivid depiction’ of the shooting of Castile.

In my view neither painting has significant artistic merit. For critics of cultural appropriation, however, the real difference is not aesthetic, but identitarian. Schutz is white and Taylor black.

To subsume aesthetic considerations to those of identity is to render art meaningless. It is also politically troubling. The campaign against Schutz’s work, as the American critic Adam Shatz has observed, contains an ‘implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines’.

Or, as Shamsie tweeted (in response to the controversy over Lionel Shriver’s defence of cultural appropriation at last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival) ‘”You – other – are unimaginable” is a far more problematic attitude than “You are imaginable”.’

Many critics of cultural appropriation insist that they are opposed not to cultural engagement, but to racism. They want to protect marginalised cultures and ensure that such cultures speak for themselves and are not simply to be seen through the eyes of more privileged groups. The American critic Briahna Joy Gray acknowledges that ‘The idea that only black artists have the right to address Emmett Till’s murder through art seems wrong.’ But, she argues, critics of Dana Schutz ‘have a point’ about ‘exploitation’: ‘Depicting Till is not a problem but using Till to garner profit and acclaim would be.’

It is true that cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field, but is shaped by racism and inequality. Racism ensured that the great black pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll never received their due, whereas many white artists, from Elvis Presley onwards, were feted as cultural icons. Yet, as the poet Amiri Baraka once observed, the issue here is not that of cultural appropriation at all: ‘The problem is that if The Beatles tell me that they learned everything they know from Blind Willie [Johnson], I want to know why Blind Willie is still running an elevator in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s that kind of inequality that is abusive, not the actual appropriation of culture because that’s normal.’

Preventing the Beatles from drawing on the work of Blind Willie Johnson or other black singers would have done little to improve black peoples’ lives. It would not have overthrown Jim Crow laws in the 1950s. It would not rid America of discrimination in the labour market today. Nor will preventing Dana Schutz ‘profiting’ from painting Emmett Till protect the Emmett Tills of today.

Only mass social and political campaigns to transform the very structures of society – such as the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s – can bring about such change. Otherwise, social justice comes to be seen not as the erasure of exploitative structures but merely as the possibility of ‘cultural fairness’ within them. The campaigns against cultural appropriation are an implicit acceptance that the playing field cannot be levelled, and that the best we can do is fence off certain areas.

A key argument of those who abhor cultural appropriation is that if one does make use of ideas or images or objects from other cultures, one should do so only with ‘respect’. ‘We can enter other cultures’, the Australian novelist Thomas Kenneally suggests, only ‘as long as we… treat them with cultural respect’.

There are certainly many cases of the racist use of cultural forms, from minstrelsy onwards. Much art, though, is necessarily disrespectful, even contemptuous, of cultures and traditions.

The trouble with the notion of ‘disrespect’ is that it conflates several issues: from outright racism, to the unthinking but not necessarily racist use of ‘exotic’ cultural forms, to the deliberate challenge of cultural and religious beliefs and rules

In Chris Ofili’s painting, The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), one of the Madonna’s breasts is made of elephant dung and she is surrounded by collaged images of female genitalia, cut out from porn magazines, made to resemble butterflies or angels. When shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, the painting was denounced by many Christians, including the then mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, as ‘sick’ and as ‘desecrating somebody else’s religion’. William A Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, called for a picket of the show, claiming that Ofili’s work ‘induces revulsion’. Such responses were inevitable – the point of the painting was to challenge traditional portrayals of the Madonna.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) was seen by many Muslims as blasphemous in its depiction of Islam, and it was. In its retelling of the story of the founding of Islam, and its portrayal of the Prophet and of his wives, the novel was inevitably, and deliberately, disrespectful of Islamic traditions.

M.F. Husain did not intend his paintings of Hindu deities to be disrespectful. But many Hindus certainly saw them as so, a disrespect made worse, in their eyes, by the fact that the artist was not Hindu himself.

The trouble with the notion of ‘disrespect’ is that it conflates several issues: from outright racism, to the unthinking but not necessarily racist use of ‘exotic’ cultural forms, to the deliberate challenge of cultural and religious beliefs and rules. It also conflates respect for people with respect for their cultures and traditions. Equality requires us to treat all people as autonomous moral beings with equal rights and dignity. But while that requires that we respect the right of others to hold different ideas and beliefs, it does not require us to treat all their ideas and beliefs and traditions with respect or deem all ideas and beliefs and traditions as being of equal worth.

The consequence of these two types of conflation is to make it easier for those who do not want their cultural beliefs to be challenged to dismiss all critiques as ‘disrespectful’ or ‘racist’. ‘Disrespect’ is the contemporary secular version of ‘blasphemy’. And its impact is as pernicious.

Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalised but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialised groups equal rights, access and opportunities.

In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. This is true not just of debates about cultural appropriation, but of much wider controversies over minority communities and the arts.

Consider, for example, the case of Exhibit B, a show about ‘human zoos’ designed by South African Brett Bailey. It featured 12 ‘tableaux’ in which motionless performers were exhibited as artefacts. These tableaux were drawn from nineteenth-century racist freak shows, which Exhibit B took as the starting point for an exploration of slavery, colonialism and present-day racism.

In 2014, the show was to have been staged by London’s Barbican Centre but was closed down because of protests that it was racist. The actors in the show put out a statement insisting that ‘we are proud to be black performers in this piece’ and that, far from being racist, Exhibit B was ‘a powerful tool in the fight against racism’. To which one of the critics, the sociologist Kehinde Andrews, in a debate with Exhibit B actor Stella Odunlami, replied, ‘black artists do not have the authority to define what is and is not acceptable’. But black sociologists apparently do.

Cultures work not through appropriation but through messy interaction. Writers and artists, indeed all human beings, necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one (or several)

The campaigns against cultural appropriation, like that against Exhibit B, empower not those suffer from racism or inequality but, in the acid words of the African-American critic Adolph Reed, ‘the guild of Racial Spokespersonship’, those who take it on themselves to be the guardians of the acceptable. Hannah Black’s open letter to the Whitney Museum demanding the removal and destruction of Schutz’s Open Casket insisted that ‘if Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.’ In fact, just as many black people opposed the closure of Exhibit B, so many African Americans, including artists such as Kara Walker and Jack Whitten, have defended Schutz. But, for the critics, only their voices constitute ‘the truth’. Far from aiding the marginalised, such campaigns serve to close down dissent and debate.

The very term ‘cultural appropriation’ is inappropriate. Cultures work not through appropriation but through messy interaction. Writers and artists, indeed all human beings, necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one (or several), and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.

Cultural interaction is necessarily messy because the world is messy. Some of that messiness is good: the complexity and diversity of the world. Some of it is damaging: the racial, sexual and economic inequalities that disfigure our world.

Such damaging messiness will not be cleaned up by limiting cultural interaction, or by confining it within a particular etiquette. In reframing political and economic issues as cultural ones, or as issues of identity, campaigns against cultural appropriation obscure the roots of racism, and make it harder to challenge it. In constraining what Adam Shatz called ‘acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification… across racial lines’, they make such challenges more difficult still.

The campaigns against cultural appropriation are bad for creative art. And they are bad for progressive politics. They seek to police interaction and constrain imagination. For the sake of both of art and politics we need less policing and constraints, more interaction and imagination.


Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His From Fatwa to Jihad: How the World Changed From the Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo was published in a paperback edition earlier this year. This article is an edited version of a talk given at Rich Mix, London on 10 November 2017

From the December 2017 issue of ArtReview