The first time I heard the term “cultural appropriation” was in its defense: an op-ed piece in the New York Times, in response to an artist openly calling for another artist’s painting to be censored and destroyed because of alleged cultural appropriation. It struck me as a very roundabout way to attack the position by attacking the philosophical framework, however dubious one may find it, rather than simply pointing out that an artist called for the destruction of another one’s piece of art. If this was to be any more ironic they would have to stage a public art burning together with a bunch of copies of Fahrenheit 451.
Six months earlier, I would have become positively furious at this. I know, because I already was: some vlogger had claimed that stating one’s preference for a certain kind of sexual organ rather than just a certain gender was “transphobic”. Peeling away the technobabble, this is just another way of saying that orientation towards a sexual organ is either a choice or a disorder, neither of which is supported by scientific evidence; rather, it is an eerie echo of the homophobic arguments still heard around the globe. The vlog was picked up by Glenn Beck of all people, and made me hate myself because I was forced to agree with him while I drafted an angry response in my mind.
Then it dawned on me that I fell for yet another click-bait scheme: taking some fringe element of a certain ideology and presenting its position without its proper weight and thus frames it as mainstream. This gets you alienation and outrage from the moderates, ridicule and abuse from the opponents, and a kind of shameful partisan hackery from the proponents; in short, it gets you site traffic. It’s a strategy as old as tabloid newspapers (“Entitlement nation: THIS man buys lobster with food stamps!”), but I only had my defenses up for claims from the right, not the left. I learned my lesson and stopped listening to lone idiots on the internet.
Unfortunately, the art-burning case turned out to be no lone idiot on the internet. On the grounds of cultural appropriation, another group called not only for the offending painting not to be shown, but also for the gallery to cancel the artist’s solo exhibition altogether. This made me reread the original call, and I discovered that it was not only signed by the art-burner, but by a whole group of artists. Say what you will about the Nazis, but they at least showcased what they considered “Entartete Kunst” before burning the art (and the artists).
Hyperboles aside, however you may feel about cultural appropriation as a concept, enforcing a no-cultural-appropriation policy in the arts by destroying or censoring art is indefensible. Bach’s famous “Ciaconna” in D minor, to pick one of the most beautiful and important pieces of Baroque music, is by any sensible definition appropriated: The chaconne is a dance of a native people, taken from them by their oppressors, without their permission, and without them seeing a dime of the profits it generated. Sure, that was a long time ago, but since moral imperatives either transcend time or are meaningless, we should burn or at least censor every performance and every copy of sheet music and, since we’re at it, half of the classical music corpus with it. (I suggest throwing in a couple of copies of Fahrenheit 451 for good measure.)
There are two reason why we intuitively feel that the Bach example cannot be cultural appropriation: one, the victims probably did not care. This is a variation on the postmodern morality, which centers around perception (“taking offense”) rather than substance (“being offensive”). Two, and this goes to the heart of the matter, Bach did not make a lot of money from his work.
This is because the case against “cultural appropriation” is nothing but the capitalist case for the monetarization of cultural identity. It is justified by constructing terms like “collective copyright”, and the proposed legislation talks about royalties. The quality, to borrow a term from Robert Pirsig, of the art made in this fashion does not factor into the discussion. It may be Bach or the street artist on Washington and Park – if there’s money to be made, it is tabu. Indeed, the art itself does not factor into the discussion at all, and neither does the fact that we are talking about censoring the freedom of the arts on the grounds of ideological differences.
On a larger point, what we see is yet another case of the burgeiouse left, in this case the arts world, fighting for scraps instead of fighting the system. Instead of discussing a basic income for artists and changing the overheated dynamics of the arts market, they are embroiled in a fight over how to distribute what remains. Instead of screwing the classes into uniformity, they are now satisfied if the classes are uniformly screwed.
The cancer of class complacency and postmodern morality has been growing within the left, and now we can see that it metastacized a dangerously anti-enlightenment stance. One which does not shy away from confining artists and censoring or destroying artworks if it fosters its cause. One which seeks to press sexuality and gender into an anti-scientific framework. One which runs after shiny objects rather than addressing the deeper issues.