Un-doing (mis)appropriation

Native American dancer in regalia at Taos, New Mexico Pow Wow Elizabeth Tunstall

Six months ago, Janna Thompson wrote a story about the accusations that Perks and Mini (mis)appropriated African culture in their National Gallery of Victoria display at the Melbourne Now Exhibition. Her analysis focused on how the proposal to extend intellectual property laws to designs and motifs would negatively affect creativity, while recognising the claims by others of “exploitation and expropriation”.

Since then, continued celebrity scandals regarding cultural appropriation and misappropriation, especially in the arts and design, demonstrate that giving credit, opportunities, and apologies to the communities whose culture is appropriated is not enough.

In spite of many years of clear articulations by the Native American community that Native American headdresses are restricted symbols, last week singer and producer Pharrell donned one for the cover of Elle UK, receiving much criticism. Why does this keep happening particularly in the area of arts and design? Maybe the issue is one of language and definitions.

Each year, I teach a class called Transcultural Aesthetics and Contemporary Design. It specifically focuses on the ethics of using culture, one’s own and that of others, in design. We start with definitions of appropriation and misappropriation, because sometimes people get them confused. According to the Oxford American English Dictionary online, appropriation is defined as:

The action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.

It defines misappropriation as:

The action of misappropriating something [i.e. dishonestly or unfairly take (something, especially money, belonging to another) for one’s own use]; embezzlement.

Here might be the issue. Appropriation is defined in a neutral way. The underlying values implicit in this definition are the innocence of the individual taker from any malicious intent and existence of a cultural commons, with the rights to be shared by all.

The scenario plays out as such. The creative artist or designer takes something for her own use and doesn’t ask permission. Maybe she does not know from whom to ask permission. Maybe she has a deadline coming up, and thus is too busy to go through the appropriate protocols. If some community criticises her later, she can claim that she was just inspired by it and apologise.

Yet, one takes something from someone, not just an open commons. If the designer takes something from a large corporation, such as Disney, and uses it in a way that does not fit under some fair use statute, she will receive cease and desist letters from Disney’s lawyers. Clearly, taking something without permission is not neutral for these corporations.

So why do designers respond differently in the context of taking something from often minority and/or marginalised cultural communities? Is it because the values underlying claims of misappropriation are collective rather than individual and assumes relations of obligation not rights to any cultural commons?

Misappropriation is defined with strong negative connotations regarding fairness and honesty. It highlights important issues of social and economic justice in the “taking of something for one’s own use” from someone else. To paraphrase Canadian social and cultural theorist Mary Louise Pratt in her book Imperial Eyes, we may borrow aspects of culture from each other, but we do so under unequal conditions. It is the unequal conditions that define whether a creative act of appropriation is actually misappropriation.

In the book Borrowed Power, Bruce Ziff and Pratima Rao list four major claims that communities make when determining when cultural appropriation is actually misappropriation:

One is that cultural appropriation harms the appropriated community. This claim is based on a concern for the integrity and identities of the cultural group. A second complaint focuses on the impact of appropriation on the cultural object itself. The concern is that appropriation can either damage or transform a given cultural good or practice. A third critique is that cultural appropriation wrongly allows some to benefit to the material (i.e. financial) detriment of others. A fourth argument is that current law fails to reflect alternative conceptions of what should be treated as property or ownership in cultural goods. This is a claim based on sovereignty.

The crux of the matter for those in the creative fields is upon whose position does one act in claims of appropriation versus misappropriation. I always ask myself three questions. The first question is which of the claimants have historically and currently been self-defining versus defined by others. This defines the degree of unequal conditions in which the claims take place.

The second question is who is the most vulnerable versus the powerful in the situation. Meaning, who will experience the most cultural, social, and economic harm if decisions do not go their way? If the moral imperative of society is to protect the most vulnerable, then I always defer to the position of the most vulnerable.

The final question is how was the taking done. Was it done with of a lack of awareness of the issues or with a sense of indifference to the consequences or malice? The intent of the taker tips the balance for me if the claimants are equal in the other two areas.

And how does one act if there is misappropriation? This is for the harmed community to decide. The “penalty” for participating in systems of misappropriation is to build the knowledge and relationships with the harmed community such that they will let you know what appropriate action is required.

Because at the heart of misappropriation is the indifference to a community, the true creative endeavour for the designer or artist is to overcome that indifference.