The Image Plunder: Understanding Cultural Appropriation

Published:  November 26, 2014
Ari Dyball

It can be seen as the freedom of a designer to plunder history for the reuse and recycling of cultural imagery, imitating style and reworking symbols for  their own visual needs. Whether the meanings of these images are changed or renewed makes no difference to the fact this practice is often an unconscious process, and it is here that design fails its true potential—using image to the point of meaninglessness, rather than for clarity and appropriateness.

This form of cultural appropriation is a difficult area to navigate when designers are surrounded in images of all kinds – whether rehashed, genuine, historic, ironic or counterfeit – but sensitivity and research are crucial. Ari Dyball writes about his own experience with ‘cultural naivety’ and how he learned to question the ‘cool’ image.

A few years ago, I came across the front cover of About Two Squares, a book of illustrations by the artist/designer/typographer El Lissitzky. It was composed, simple, brutally stark even, but the relationship between the elements felt beautifully tender. Immediately I thought that it would make a great tattoo and spent the next six months trying to convince myself otherwise. A background in art history allowed me to place the work within the Suprematist Russian art tradition of [Kazimir] Malevich, and I was already aware of the highly political and revolutionary activities in which the style participated. I was wary of any kind of political propaganda and Suprematism was explicit in its attempt to be the visual style of a revolution, which was cut short when its practitioners were forced to adopt styles more useful as propaganda to avoid prison, and the official and only overground art of the soviet states was the banal ‘socialist realism’.

The meaning that I ascribed to the image was not about capitalism versus communism, but I was drawn in by its attempt to create a beautiful order from a perceived chaos. In a sense, all political doctrines – conservatism, liberalism, communism – have this kind of impulse. But to my mind, only one has expressed itself in such a distinctive and beautifully visual manner.

Pages from El Lissitzky’s ‘About 2 Squares’

In short, I felt that I could take the form and retain its utopic hope, while discarding the political ideology and history from which the work emerged. This was my mistake. The tattoo was completed and I went along happily and unproblematically until I went to Latvia to celebrate an exhibition of my friend Arnis’ photographs. This story doesn’t end with me being taught a lesson by rabid anti-communists; rather it is about a realisation that I had fallen into a state of complacency and seduction with regard to form.

The downtown area of Riga, Latvia has an imposing modern building, the Museum of Occupation. It has the same location and aspect that in any western city would hold the state’s art or natural history museum. This museum, however, rather than presenting evidence of cultural achievement, documents first and foremost the opposite – the denial of Latvia’s cultural and national identity through the years of occupation 1940 to 1991. My friends, photographer Arnis and Zane, explained that the attitude of the Government, and of the people to a degree, was to look at these years of occupation as ‘lost yearsl, where essentially nothing happened, a time to forget. Arnis’ photographic work Amnesia was a guide to this erasure of history, recreating the everyday scenarios of life under communism and the period shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall. It was a project that verges on what Arnis considers to be a public taboo that affects both history books and art projects.

The exhibition opening itself was a remarkable event, as unfamiliar as I was with the emotional and political landscape, I felt that I was surrounded by people who either wanted to remember as well as those who did not, and it was clear who was who by the looks on their faces as they perused the work. Amnesia focused on the everyday design of the past to breathe context into a complex nation where competing monuments draw separate crowds on different memorial days to remember the dead from the same war.

Where did that leave me with my own permanent and obvious memorial to Russian Suprematism? It left me conflicted. I was simultaneously wary of violence from Latvian anti-communist fascist nationalists, or ethnic Russians wanting to drink vodka with me and reminisce about the Soviet times when they were important. I was wary of having to explain my naive concept of the separation of artistic form from its quasi-inherent political ideology to my friends’ emotionally charged patrons of art openings.

It was, essentially, an experience in confronting my own naivety. I was shocked by my ignorance of the power and complexity that visual cues and symbols can have when they cross over into spaces with different historical experiences. My initial reading was careful and thorough, but mistaken. It was premised on the understanding that El Lissitzky’s work was, first and foremost, a part of the great corpus of 20th century art history that belongs to any member of humanity that seeks to find and appreciate it. I considered it free to use, I considered it free from weighty ideological battles because I considered it to be art.

Arnis Balcus – Untitled #1 (Amnesia Series)

Arnis describes my feelings, hinting at a profound division between how these images can be digested:

“You need context to understand the rituals that these images are referring to, but I believe that those who don’t have access to that information can still enjoy them. They are aesthetically exotic and weird and still embody stereotypes of ‘something-about-the-Soviet-Union’. Western viewers enjoy aesthetics and artefacts in the image, while in Eastern Europeans, these images evoke emotional responses, and the image itself is secondary.”

As far as instances of cultural appropriation go, my tattoo is a relatively benign one. No one in Latvia, apart from me, was upset or affected. But it does illustrate the difficulties involved when art, form, ideology and history intersect.

Around the same time, Melbourne-based fashion label P.A.M (Perks and Mini) put out a range of clothes based on About Two Squares. They were marketed to people like me, people who probably hadn’t lived under communism, people who may, one day, wear them to Eastern Europe, but unlike me, were able to remove them from their body and put them back in their suitcase. One may accuse P.A.M of the same kind of culturally blinkered naivety as me in this case, but I certainly wouldn’t criticise it  for that – for the record, I like my constructivist tattoos and went on to get more of the same after the Latvian experience. Indeed, About Two Squares seemed like such an ideal source of visual material that P.A.M could adapt for its dedicated audience, I’m almost surprised that it didn’t happen earlier.

Earlier this year, a group called art:broken produced a video accusing P.A.M of profiting from an unethical appropriation of non-western cultures. Specifically it alleged that P.A.M rips off African, Hindi and Australian Aboriginal design motifs in order to produce overpriced T-shirts for consumers who “are privileged and bored, bored of being white”. The video condemns the National Gallery of Victoria by association for showing P.A.M’s work in its Melbourne Now exhibition. art:broken’s claim is that as the designers of P.A.M are white, with no ‘association’ with the cultures they borrow from, they are unethical to use such designs for profit. The video caused a great deal of internet discussion, ending up across some large general news sites like The Vine (Fairfax Media), and The Conversation.

P.A.M. installation at the NGV

To make it clear, I am not endeavouring to judge what P.A.M does, the important thing to know from all this is that art:broken was able to accuse P.A.M of something serious with very little effort. The evidence that art:broken presented consisted of photographs of P.A.M designs, photographs of part-founder Misha Hollenbach that prove he is, in fact, white; and an assertion that P.A.M makes money. This, it seems, was enough to make a few large news sites give the video publicity enough to generate about 30,000 plays. The damage done to the brand itself is most likely negligible, the label is big enough and has a dedicated following. I will hazard a guess and suggest that those who agreed with the video on forum threads were neither present nor future P.A.M customers. The difference is, in addition to a distaste for P.A.M’s aesthetic, the label’s detractors now have a rallying point around which to argue that the label is involved in a colonial style exploitation of non-white cultures.

The art:broken versus P.A.M argument fits nicely into a ready-made and easily deployable dialogue that emerged in the wake of multicultural and post-colonial social movements and consciousness. On the one hand, there is the position that objects, forms and designs are culturally specific to the culture that made them and, as such, the use of these forms is reserved for members or initiates of a particular culture and anyone else must seek permission. We can call this the ‘culturally specific’ argument. A classic example of this is tā moko, the traditional tattooing of the Maori. The beautiful designs incorporate personal family histories and catalogue the achievements and background of the wearer. It is a tradition that the Maori are understandably proud of, and perhaps a tradition of which non-Maori are understandably envious. It is almost self-evident that a non-Maori who copies a moko tattoo is missing the point, that in addition to being naive, they are in effect stealing an association – a moko is something that is not theirs as they have not achieved it. This is comparable to somebody wearing a replica Victoria Cross as a fashion accessory. Members of the UK nations, territories and Commonwealth would, despite our familiarity with contemporary casual iconoclasm, find it disrespectful and treat the wearer with suspicion.

Conversely, the opposite position to take is to highlight the sheer inventiveness and creativity that flows from intercultural influence and borrowing. This is the ‘appropriation of form’ argument. To a degree this may be the attitude of a P.A.M supporter, but it finds its simplest and most dramatic proof in music – Elvis famously ‘stole’ the blues from African Americans, but in doing so he helped to create something new and valuable. The blues were passed on through rock ‘n’ roll to millions. More people know of Robert Johnson because of rock, and not in spite of it. This phenomenon also runs in the other direction: Kraftwerk sought to reinterpret European musical traditions with contemporary means. When their sound reached young black musicians in Detroit and New York, these sounds were incorporated into their techno and electro. The lesson is that humans will take (to use Picasso’s word ‘steal’) forms that they consider valuable, no matter where they come from. We can say that when dealing with form, a cautious respect for origins will always give way to a deep and productive fascination.

The ‘culturally specific’ argument has a solid basis in art history and theory. One of the most famous battlegrounds was the ‘Primitivism’ show held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1984. The premise of the exhibition was to explore the influence of ‘primitive’ cultural objects and forms on the development of modern art, with the exhibition’s subtitle as ‘Affinity of Tribal and Modern’. Primitivism’s catalogue was thorough and heavy on art historical research, perhaps as a counterweight to possible accusations of racism, given the racially loaded nature of the show – even the title was presented in inverted commas to suggest that the term itself was a heavily manufactured cultural construction, rather than a neutral descriptive term.

Despite these precautions, the show was subject to sustained criticism that altered the way in which museums would deal with these kinds of exhibitions from that point on. Much of the critique surrounded what was the exhibition’s theoretical and artistic centrepiece – the presentation of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907). This painting was exhibited alongside some African masks presented as ‘affinity pieces’. From an aesthetic perspective, this does not present terrible problems – the faces of Picasso’s figures do have a strikingly mask-like quality. From an art historical perspective too, the thesis of the exhibit was sound. It is true that Picasso, around the time he was conceiving the work, may have seen or studied comparable African masks. The problem, from a multicultural perspective, was that the meaning of the masks, the ‘affinity pieces’, was entirely weighted through the prism of the Western artist’s work. To begin with, the masks were reduced to forms only, although presented in the flesh, they were considered as purely ornamental objects free of any association and importance that they had within the culture that created them. Adding to that evacuation of original cultural meaning, the masks were then infused with a meaning and context that was determined by Picasso (or, more likely, what the catalogue author and curator assumed to be the attitude of Picasso). Thus, there was a situation created where, for the viewing audience, a mask of uncertain origin, created by an unnamed people, for a purpose unknown, is inscribed with a meaning that was never intended. In this case, the meaning was a rather Western notion of transgressive ‘primitive’ sexuality.

The gravity of the situation, and the veracity of the criticism of the exhibition, is framed by the discourse of post-colonialism. We could say that these ‘affinity pieces’ were reduced to mere objects devoid of original significance, and so what? What does that mean? The answer was given, perhaps most famously, by Edward Said’s influential 1977 book Orientalism.

By 2014, we have reached the situation where colonial systems of domination are viewed with horror; however, it is not until comparatively recently that the political and forceful arms of colonisation were linked to other more insidious systems of domination. Said explored the role of the ‘Western’ powers’ representation of ‘the Orient’ and non-Western cultures in precise detail. His analysis re-evaluated the discipline of ‘Orientalist’ scholarship, which until then, had been considered to be a scientific type study where non-Western cultures were described in a neutral fact-based manner. Said proved that it was in fact a politically charged discipline driven by nationalistic and racialist impulses and the Western ego to dominate the cultural landscape of the colonised people. Key to this development was the refusal of the colonising powers to let the colonised people speak for themselves. Essentially the Western powers did all the representing for them.

Said argued that Orientalist thought and study was a key part of a comprehensive colonialist program of domination, far from a neutral description of non-Western cultures. Jean-Paul Sartre put it much more bluntly in the introduction to Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonialist work The Wretched of the Earth, saying, “To shoot down a European [coloniser] is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time.” The implication is thus – that without the ability to represent oneself, your identity is that of total oppression, in gaining back the ability to represent yourself, you are essentially reborn anew. From this viewpoint, the curatorial decisions of MoMA were very powerful indeed.

Other tactics are being utilised by colonised people to protect and control the ways in which their culture is represented. Primarily this is through intellectual property law. Australian Aborigines and the Maori (in their Wai 262 ‘Cultural Property’ claim) have put forward cases for a system of copyright that would radically alter the way in which we ascribe the ownership of designs, creating a class of design that belongs to people of a certain culture. Typically, intellectual property will only give ownership to individuals, organisations and businesses. This is an interesting proposition and I could only speculate on how complex its implementation would be.

The difficulty with the culturally specific argument is that we do not know where to stop and, at its most extreme, it could wall off cultures from each other, thereby stifling creativity. The Roman emperor Hadrian built his villa in a borrowed Greek style, thereby revolutionising and setting the course of architecture forever; how could that happen if the original was hidden or protected?

Compared to the postcolonial basis for the culturally specific argument, the argument in favour of the ‘appropriation of form’ is based on less concrete theory. Postmodern theorists like Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes argue, in a basic sense, that the chain attached to a sign (such as an image), as a result of industrial methods of mass reproduction, has become detached from its normal meaning, and has thus become a ‘free floating signifier’. The postmodern feeling of entitlement towards cultural appropriation stems from this destruction of the sign from its meaning, as, theoretically, it is then that forms can be used and re-inscribed with new meanings, with freedom and impunity. For cultures with important ties to their objects and forms, and a lack of political and economic power to protect them, the dangers of this free flowing appropriation are stark.

One thing that cannot be ignored in the aforementioned P.A.M. issue, in this case, is the role of ‘hip’ or ‘cool’ language systems, that by their very nature are appropriative, creative and dependent on free recontextualisation. P.A.M is successful because it is cool. ‘Cool’ is generally used as a lazy word to describe a vague quality, but it was analysed very successfully in John Leland’s overlooked book Hip: The History. Leland assesses hip methods of speaking as an African American creative re-imagining of English, which to them was a hostile language of domination. Their re-imagining was necessary as a means of communication under the oppressive reality of slavery. Leland uses the example that if a slave rebelled against the master, his fellow slaves could secretly praise him by calling him ‘bad’, a phrase they were free to use without the slave master understanding what they were truly saying. Following from this essential codification of meaning, Leland argues that hip naturally spiralled out to influence every aspect of language, dance, music, dress and art, creating a deeply fluid system of meaning, counter-meaning and invention.

Although P.A.M exists within very different circumstances, its method of appropriation is framed within the historical narrative of ‘hip’. If we then look to the cultural significance of hip, the visceral political urgency of post-colonialism, as well as the more academic and rarefied postmodern theory, then we can begin to assess the ethical basis of appropriative practice.

There are no easy techniques to utilise when it comes to the practice of cultural appropriation – thankfully the output of human creativity comes attached with too much emotional power to be that predictable. As a guide and, unlike what I did with my tattoo, we should pay attention to the variety of contexts within which our images will end up. When appropriating an image, designers can be wary of what meanings they are removing through their use, such as whether this form has a special significance or is a sign of achievement or social rank. Also, designers could look at what meanings their work imports to the form (and, as a hint, it will never be ‘nothing’).

The answer to the ethical dilemma should always be a question of what limits designers are willing to push, as every appropriated design will have some kind of meaning, and ignorance of that meaning will never be a defence.

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