The concept of “cultural appropriation” has been making headlines more often in recent years, as social justice ideology becomes more mainstream. What’s the big deal about cultural appropriation? Is it really as bad as social justice activists claim it is? And, if so, how can it be addressed?
As I explored in previous articles, the concept of “cultural appropriation” is mostly nonsense. However, there are exceptions where cultural elements have been stolen and/or misused in ways that have actually caused harm to people of that culture.
Most notably, I made the claim that indigenous cultures (particularly those in North America) have had many aspects of their cultures used without regard for tradition, taste, or context. In the process, general perception of Indigenous cultures (and Indigenous people) has been simplified to the point of caricature:
Even attempts to honour North American Indigenous cultures end up being offensive, due to a profound lack of knowledge about cultural customs:
One of the flashpoint issues associated with A Tribe Called Red has been non-Indigenous people showing up to their concerts in headdresses and war paint. It created a quandary where ignorance meets enthusiasm.
“There was always this thing that would come up right away: ‘We want to be part of what you’re doing, we want to honour what you are, we want to be included with this. I wanted to come to the show and be a part of it, that’s why I wore this headdress.'”
Social media found no shortage of righteous, well-reasoned objections to this behaviour — Deejay NDN is the most outspoken member in that context — but bans and public shaming aren’t such easy solutions, according to ATCR. “It’s a lack of information,” Bear says. “I don’t even want to say a lack of respect — it’s an attempt at respect, but with a lack of cultural references about what respect is.”
If you accept the premise that Indigenous cultures have been appropriated in such a way so as to cause undue hardship to Indigenous people, the question that follows naturally is: “What can be done to protect Indigenous cultures from appropriation?” The first step is correctly diagnosing the problem as an aesthetic issue, not a moral issue (see: Part IV). As it turns out, the second step has already been performed (to some extent) by our modern economy, which has built-in mechanisms for preserving unique cultural artifacts.
Revisiting the concept of authenticity
From Part IV:
Works of art can be possess what we may call nominal authenticity, defined simply as the correct identification of the origins, authorship, or provenance of an object, ensuring, as the term implies, that an object of aesthetic experience is properly named.
However, the concept of authenticity often connotes something else, having to do with an object’s character as a true expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs. This second sense of authenticity can be called expressive authenticity.
I think that the above passage, about the aesthetic issue of authenticity, contains the key to preserving cultures, as well as the central mechanism for appropriately honouring and compensating genuine cultural expressions.
Of course, nothing is ever so simple. Consider: copyright laws do a great job of protecting “nominal authenticity” by preventing people from passing others’ work off as their own. However, copyright laws are ill-equipped to protect collective ideas or things best termed as “cultural intellectual property”.
Copyright laws enable individual authors not only to claim possession of their original works as discrete objects, but to claim possession and control over any and all reproductions of those works, or any substantial part thereof, in any medium.
Cultural property laws, however, enable proprietary claims to be made only to original objects or authentic artifacts. The Western extension of Culture to cultural others was limited to objects of property, not to forms of expression. The full authority of authorship, however, was confined to the Western World.
For example, legal recourse seems to be a viable avenue for situations involving tangible things, such as in the case of the Navajo nation vs. Urban Outfitters, which was settled out-of-court after Urban Outfitters released a “Navajo” line without first consulting the Navajo Nation.
However, there are many situations that the courts would never be able to address through copyright laws alone. For example, art about sensitive topics created by people without direct experience may certainly be in bad taste.
This was apparently an issue in 2016, when an art gallery booked an exhibit with art depicting missing & murdered Indigenous women in Canada. This would be fine, except for the fact that the artist seemed to have fraudulently claimed Indigenous heritage, and had also produced graphic and violent images that were deeply upsetting to people who had actually experienced the hardship depicted.
In the rare cases where a reasonable claim of appropriation can be made, copyright laws simply won’t suffice. However, genuine instances of cultural appropriation can still be addressed under our current legal system quite elegantly.
A two-step solution for championing nominal and expressive authenticity:
- Step 1: Create legal mechanisms that make it easy for the public to identify genuine expressions of a given culture.
- Step 2: Encourage people to place an economic and aesthetic premium on genuine & authentic cultural artifacts, creations, and expressions (which have been easily identifiable from Step 1).
Seems overly simple, but it’s already been done in both Indigenous and non-Indigenous contexts. The ultimate goal, of course, is to actually help address the negative impacts of appropriation, as opposed to mobs of activists carrying out mob justice over social media.
Indigenous example: Toi Iho
Toi Iho is the registered and globally recognized trademark of quality and authenticity of Maori art and artists. It is recognized as an exceptional cultural initiative by and for indigenous people by the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva.
Toi Iho will distinguish the work of Maori from others in the market place. The aim is that Toi Iho artists will display the Mark on their work as Maori-Made and retailers will promote the trademark and Maori artists. The Toi Iho Charitable Trust is the legal entity established to care for and manage Toi Iho on behalf of Maori and approve Toi Iho creative works as genuinely Maori Made.
If the end goal of anti-appropriation initiatives are to preserve unique cultures in the face of potential dilution while creating economic opportunities for genuine expressions of those cultures, a mark of authenticity is probably the best way to achieve both of these objectives simultaneously.
Several recent appropriation controversies have involved shows at art galleries (see: Amanda PL in Canada). Although educating the general public about Indigenous-made marks would be difficult, getting buy-in from cultural gatekeepers such as curators and critics would be much easier.
In this way, I think a number of such controversies would be elegantly avoided, as gallery owners and curators would have a way to evaluate the expressive authenticity of certain cultural works, making sure that culture is preserved and economic opportunities are prioritized to artists that deserve them.
More on the Maori-made mark:
First, (the mark) serves what looks like the key objective of authenticating marks because it is a mark denoting indigenous authenticity.
To be eligible to utilize the mark, purveyors of goods will need to be able to prove their ethnic identity as Maori. This will then result in one of three levels of demarcation: the Toi Iho Maori Made Mark; the Toi Iho Mainly Maori Mark; and the Toi Iho Maori Co-production Mark.
These indicate that ethnic descent is of central importance to eligibility but is not exclusive: non-Maori may be part of an enterprise awarded the second two of these three marks, but even here there must be a level of Maori involvement that imputes control or leadership.
European example: Wine & Cheese
The Protected designation of origin is the name of an area, a specific place or, in exceptional cases, the name of a country, used as a designation for an agricultural product or a foodstuff,
– which comes from such an area, place or country,
– whose quality or properties are significantly or exclusively determined by the geographical environment, including natural and human factors,
– whose production, processing and preparation takes place within the determined geographical area.
In other words, to receive the PDO status, the entire product must be traditionally and entirely manufactured (prepared, processed and produced) within the specific region and thus acquire unique properties.
It’s not Champagne unless it’s from Champagne, and it’s not Roquefort unless the cheese was aged in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Although other sparkling wines and blue cheeses exist, Champagne and Roquefort command price premiums and are valued for their (relative) rarity and uniqueness.
If this is so logical and clever, why isn’t it being done already?
Some possible reasons;
- This would require some level of top-down organization with a concrete set of expectations and standards. Modern social justice activists seem to be incapable of coming to a consensus on anything.
- This is already being attempted in North America, but hasn’t come to fruition yet.
- I’m wrong and this would never work in a North American Indigenous context, despite having precedent elsewhere in the world.