Thursday, July 3, 2014

Appropriation Is Erasure


Alright, let's get this out of the way.  I am a white person about to write about race. And I am scared to do it. 

You're more than welcome to skip this preface and proceed onto what this post is really about. Trust me, my clumsy thoughts on racism and appropriation and art are much more interesting than my fears. But I must speak them.

I have been afraid of blogging about race in the past. I still am. The only other times I have written about race I've either used a disclaimer, or not addressed it directly while making note of implications I was skipping. The fear I experience is complex (like most human emotions) but mostly boils down to three basic thrusts. 

  1. I don't want to further enforce oppressive structures, and/or harm those whose experiences/cultures I'm speaking about. 
  2.  I am afraid of bumping up against the spots in my world view that've been made blind by my privilege. I am afraid to find in myself those deeply lodged flecks of violence and oppression I've yet to eradicate.
  3. I am afraid to have this process laid bare in public, because I ultimately want to be thought of as a "good guy". But giving up being the "good guy" is part of challenging power structures that put me and people who look/act like me in power (and gives us the freedom to call ourselves "good guys" and be believed). So here goes.

Before you read any of the following please at least skim  DEFINITELY READ ALL OF Nicholas Powers's Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit. In fact, if you only have time/energy to read one take on this topic make it his not mine.

I strode to the front, turned around and yelled at the crowd that when they objectify the sculpture’s sexual parts and pose in front of it like tourists they are recreating the very racism the art was supposed to critique. I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes.

Among the many thoughts and feelings I had after reading this, this is proof positive for me that more comprehensive interdisciplinary arts education is necessary. I want a clear connections drawn between art and social justice. There is such a fucking failure in our schools and at large to connect past atrocities and suffering to current occurrences and artistic trends.

Unfortunately Powers's experience is only a glaring example of how the centering of white folk's contexts for experiencing erases the culture and history of others. I mean look at how "exotic" art (whether it be foreign, "urban", Native American, or otherwise "tribal"/"primitive") is presented in film/tv. They're used as props or background and all too often end up as the butt of some throwaway joke. Those jokes as well as those photos people were taking of the Kara Walker exhibit are as naked a portrait of appropriation as I can imagine.

The very reason that experiencing art itself can be transformative at all this that it asks us to consider and in theory inhabit contexts other than our own. But so many white and otherwise privileged people have been insulated from this process. So much so that when they encounter anything that seems outside of their experience/history they assume that it must only exist for their entertainment. The viscous cycle of erasure and appropriation is fed by this consistent failure to connect with the cultural contexts of those either deemed "other" or simply not spoken about at all.

In one of the presentations at my residency last month someone said "people who have suffered are smarter". That phrase clicked with me then but I think only now am I understanding why. People who suffer and are made "other",  are forced to, and for their own survival, become adept at understanding contexts and experiences other than their own. This was the "smart"ness referred to.*

The mechanism of appropriation laid bare at the Kara Walker exhibit, is the process of reducing the art of "the other" to the frivolous, exotic, and/or racy/trendy (and usually profiting from that redefinition). And I am ashamed. But more important I'm livid.

Livid that the insular straight-up dumb assumption, that "if [x piece of art/culture] is not about me/my experience then it must not be that important (to anyone)." is part of my culture as an american and as a white person. The comfort of that privilege is NOT making us smarter, or better people. It only makes us more comfortable (at the expense, erasure, and discomfort of others).

*After drafting this I was informed that this context switching "smartness" is known as "outsider-within" perspective in feminist stand point theory. Source

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