Kenan Malik writes: What is cultural appropriation, and why is it so controversial? Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, defines it as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This can include the “unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artifacts. In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction. Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.
Critics of cultural appropriation insist that they are opposed not to cultural engagement, but to racism. They want to protect marginalized cultures and ensure that such cultures speak for themselves, not simply be seen through the eyes of more privileged groups.
Certainly, cultural engagement does not take place on a level playing field. Racism and inequality shape the ways in which people imagine others. Yet it is difficult to see how creating gated cultures helps promote social justice. [Continue reading…]
Cultures, unlike nations, have no borders. For that reason, cultures have historically been no more vibrant than in the places where they meet and interact.
The notion that cultural interaction requires permission, seems to me like a notion that would only make sense to someone who feels culturally deprived.
That a leading proponent of this concept is a lawyer, not an artist, seems no coincidence, since law so often attaches greater value to claims of ownership than anything else — and this brings to my mind Proudhon’s famous and relevant dictum: property is theft.
Consider jazz, a genuinely American cultural creation. This has inspired musicians around the world who have appropriated it and sustained its organic growth in such a way that its American roots can be traced without any limitation on the reach of its expansion. Jazz was made in America and now belongs to the world and in that transaction, no permission was sought or required.