The cultural bankruptcy of “cultural appropriation”

Self-Portrait of Man Ray

by James A. Bacon

Yesterday my son and I visited the Man Ray exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Man Ray was the Annie Liebowitz of her time, photographing the famous poets, painters, novelists, singers, dancers and composers of Paris in the 1920s, a time when the City of Light was the undisputed center of artistic effervescence in the world. The exhibition features Man Ray’s black and white portraits ranging from American writers Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway to European painters such as Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. The exhibition presents Man Ray himself as a creative genius who experimented with new photographic techniques and used cinema to explore the interplay between movement and light.

Overall the exhibit was informative and well done. It illuminated a period of history with which I had little appreciation, providing context for America’s famous “lost generation” of expatriate artists, as well as dozens of French, Spanish, Englishmen and even Romanians of great renown and modern obscurity. (Who knew there were so many famous Romanian artists in the 1920s, definitely not me.) The exhibition also highlighted the role of women in the intellectual movements of the time. The Paris of the 1920s was a melting pot of female emancipation.

But there was a spoiler – a goofy sign about cultural appropriation. Man Ray, you see, had committed the cardinal sin of appreciating African art and incorporating it into some of his photographs. According to the exhibition’s curators, it amounted to “a blatant act of cultural appropriation”, which showed how “even an ‘enlightened’ and avant-garde artist like Man Ray could be blinded by his own participation in the visual heritage of colonialism, as well as its white privilege.

Are these people serious?

France was indeed a colonial power, but the French were not racially segregated like most of the United States was at that time. Paris was the center of a vibrant community of black Americans and Caribbeans who were widely celebrated for their jazz, singing and dancing. American-born Josephine Baker is the best known, but there have been many others. Man Ray photographed many of them.

Placard in the Man Ray exhibit on ‘Cultural Appropriation and Colonialism’. Click for a more readable image.

The exhibit credits Man Ray with opposing colonialism, protesting the 1932 International Colonial Exposition, and breaking the color barrier in the United States by placing a photograph of a woman black in Harper’s Bazaar – the first time a black model has appeared in a major American fashion magazine. He also gave visibility to African artistic traditions by placing masks and headdresses prominently in some of his compositions.

Either way, the exhibit says, “the cultural appropriation and exploitation of people of color in these portraits is important to recognize.”

The sign reflects the intellectual poverty of our time much worse than that of Man Ray or 1920s France. Contemporary Americans, it seems, are far more obsessed with race as a defining personal characteristic than avant-garde artists in Paris a century ago.

The concept of “cultural appropriation” is absurd. The story of humanity is the story of the diffusion of technological, institutional, philosophical and artistic innovations. Civilizations and societies have borrowed from each other since the dawn of time, adapting and reshaping the innovations of other cultures for their own ends. Societies that have embraced innovations from other cultures have prospered; those that have closed stagnate or wither away. For non-European examples in the 19th century, compare Meiji-era Japan, which adopted Western technologies and ideas, with Imperial China, which walled itself off.

As Frans Johansson, bi-racial author of “The Medici Effect,” wrote, innovation happens at the intersection – the intersection of technologies, disciplines, and cultures. This is what innovative societies do: they borrow elements from other cultures, combine them and reshape them with elements of their own. To accuse Man Ray of cultural appropriation for featuring African masks in his photographs is as obtuse and misguided as to criticize African-American musicians for culturally appropriating trumpets, trombones, clarinets and pianos invented in Europe in their jazz compositions. Without cultural borrowing, jazz would never have been invented!

Apologizing for borrowing from other cultures is set, narrow-minded, retrograde, and harmful. It’s a recipe for stasis and stagnation. It is divider. It fuels resentment and resentment. This creates gaps between races. And what possible good does it accomplish? Does the bashing of cultural appropriation make anyone, anywhere better off? No, this is not the case.

The United States is made up of people from all over the world. We are the largest mixing bowl of cultures in the world. The innovation that results from all the cross-borrowing is a major source of vitality. What a sad comment it is that so many in our intellectual class are so obsessed with pointing out their virtue on matters of race that they fail to appreciate this fundamental truth. Shame on the science museum. Shame!

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