Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation apparently first became a ‘thing’ in connection with white people starting to play blues and jazz. There was some resentment amongst the black community that their music was being copied. But the idea of cultural appropriation has now spread much more widely. Indeed, its latest and very strange appearance came last week.

Abba were the epitome of 1970s cool. Agnetha was the blond and Frida had dark curly hair. The latest iteration of the money-making group is the ‘Abba Voyage’ show, featuring holograms performing the band’s greatest hits. But it has been reported in the last few days that fans attending the show and wanting to dress as their heroines have been banned from wearing wigs in honour of brunette Frida, although wearing a blond wig is permitted.

The promoters have e-mailed ticket-holders to say: ‘Many of our guests will want to get in the spirit of the show by dressing up for their visit. But please do not wear so-called “Afro” wigs. ‘These wigs are culturally insensitive and not appropriate to be worn as fancy dress. If any guests are wearing this style of wig they will be respectfully asked to remove them as a condition of entry to the arena.’

The ban on wigs had been buried in the FAQ section of the show’s website since it opened in May 2022 and has only now come to light.

But are the fans intending to appropriate the culture of Afro-Caribbean people or even make fun of them? I doubt it. I think it far more likely that when Abba fans dress up, they are doing it as a homage to the band and to the 1970s era. I cannot see why the Afro-Caribbean community should be regarded as having a monopoly on dark curly hair.

Cultural appropriation, however, is now available in numerous flavours. There is of course what might appear to be the simple question of 'material appropriation': the definition of theft is, after all, ‘unlawful appropriation’.

So then the Elgin Marbles taken away from the Parthenon ought to be a simple matter to resolve. Did Lord Elgin have permission for this and, if not, why not send them back to their rightful owners? Two problems. He received a permit from the (Turkish) Ottoman officials who exercised authority in Athens in 1810 and had ruled what is now Greece since 1430. But did they have the right to grant it? The present Greek government says “no”, but the present Greek state did not even come into being until 1830, so it’s not clear what their status is in relation to the marbles.

Let’s though say they’re right that the Ottoman official overstepped the mark. Who is entitled to have them back? The Parthenon Marbles were produced by a culture which no longer exists. The present day Greek state and its culture is not comparable to the culture of Athens - a city state - in 500 BC.
Of course if the priestesses of Athena had given permission to an ancestor of Lord Elgin, we would not be having this debate. But saying that contemporary Greeks now occupy the same land as the Athenians and so are the rightful inheritors of ancient Greek culture is merely an assertion. The two parts of the statement have no logical connection. But if the contemporary Greek position were right then, by the same token, the Ottoman empire as the then occupiers of Greece would have had the right to give m'Lord Elgin permission to take the marbles.

There is indeed a sense in which ancient Greek culture has become the inheritance of all Europeans. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said: “We’re all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece.”. We all share the culture of Socrates and Sophocles. If so, then no modern government has exclusive rights to these products of ancient Athenian culture.

And then there is (non-material) 'cultural appropriation': for example a musician who sings the songs of another culture or the writer who re-tells stories produced by a culture other than his own. This, if now unacceptable, seems somewhat limiting. Stories and legends get passed from person to person and from country to country. Shakespeare would have been in great difficulty if he (as an Englishman) had retold stories in his plays only from England. Indeed how he could even have known their true origin is far from obvious. And Aesop’s fables would have been confined to Greece together with all the other Greek myths. Their authors (whoever they were) certainly never gave permission for them to be used by us.

But the idea of permission implies that a form of ‘moral’ copyright law exists in respect of the culture of other peoples. Quite who is part of that culture, however, and so entitled as a birthright to use it, is a little difficult to work out. As someone born in Wales but who has lived for most of his life in England can I now join in the singing of English songs or must I stay silent?

And in the UK legal copyright only lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. Most people complaining of cultural appropriation seem to imagine that copyright in works with no obvious author, but being simply part of a cultural background, should last for ever. A rather strange idea.

In fact, what they are really saying, rather like little children, is: “this is ours and we won't share it with you”.

Even dancing has come in for criticism when the dancing is not associated with the dancer’s origins or culture.

Beyoncé was much criticised when she appeared with Coldplay in a video a few years ago. She was dancing in the style of a Bollywood dancer but is of Afro-Caribbean origin and so not Indian. The video shows the artist dressed in traditional Desi adornment while playing the role of a Bollywood actress in a film as Coldplay's frontman Chris Martin attends a local cinema to watch that film. Surely if Bollywood wishes to widen its audience, then having Beyoncé involved can only be a good thing.

The appropriation complained of though fits into a slightly different category - ‘Stylistic appropriation’. This is where artists do not perform actual works produced by another, but borrow stylistic elements from it.

This takes us back to the jazz or blues music mentioned earlier, styles of music used not only by white jazz musicians such as Gershwin, but by classical composers such as Ravel and Shostakovitch who all quite recognisably incorporated jazz into their works. Shostakovitch went further and composed jazz suites.

Did this though actually put black musicians at a disadvantage or did it in fact bring their work to a wider audience by making it more mainstream?

But incorporating elements of music or musical forms from other composers is hardly novel. Music is international and evolves from what has gone before. Where would we be without Bach, Vivaldi or the English composer Thomas Tallis? Handel was born in Germany, but died as a naturalised Englishman.

Rachmaninov used the 13th century plain chant of the Dies Irae as a theme in many of his best known works. In his famous Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, he uses the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin to produce 24 variation of his own. Did he think to ask Paganini’s descendents for permission? Cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation?

Various indigenous groups are saying, however, that not only their art and languages should be given special status, but also their science - or at least what passes for science - which is a part of their culture.

And so we have the New Zealand government legislating for the teaching of Maori beliefs – myths - about the world and how it works, as part of and on a par with the remainder of the science curriculum. Rather like teaching creationism in schools in the West.

But science depends upon being open to criticism. It cannot be fossilised in belief systems, even indigenous belief systems. Although put in a different category to the arts, science is nonetheless a part of our culture. And its dissemination and discussion enables us to have a more rational view of the world and how it works.

If in the days of the renaissance, the discoveries of scientists had not been the subject of international debate then we would not have made the immense progress we have.

In fact, the history of culture in all of its forms is of the exchange of ideas, from the very earliest times until now. The influence which a culture can have on other cultures is surely to be welcomed, not limited by artificial rules as to its ‘ownership’.

Culture belongs to all of us.

Paul Buckingham

31 March 2023

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