Simply representing a culture in terms of artefacts, practices and persons doesn't mean you are laying claim to those artefacts, following those practices, mimicking those persons. It doesn't mean you're doing a big land-grab on that cultural territory, setting up a fence, and saying "This is mine now". Or even that you're shoving in, pushing people out of the way so you can sit down where you don't belong, and saying "This is mine too". Writing about black or Asian or Scottish or American culture when you're not a native of that culture -- that's no more an act of "appropriation" than it would be for any of you to write about the culture of an entirely imaginary country which just happens to be tattooed on my ass. Your epic fantasy novel, The Dragons of Duncan's Ass Tattoo, can portray My Ass Tattoo's blue-skinned denizens, their miniature zeppelins, and their sphincter-worshipping rituals either accurately or inaccurately, with or without prejudice, but you ain't going to be appropriating their culture until you start covering yourseves in woad, living in airships and pouring libations to The One True Hole.
A borrowing (or theft) of aesthetic forms -- c.f. Paul Simon's Graceland with its use of musical forms from various other cultures -- now that's cultural appropriation. Nick Cave integrating a gospel choir into "There She Goes (My Beautiful World)" can be described as cultural appropriation. The examples of cultural appropriation in music are too numerous to detail. European artists similarly cribbed from Japan, Africa, all over the world. In fictive terms, using characters and settings from folklore seems to me what we're really talking about when we talk of cultural appropriation. You decide to write a story about the trickster-figure of Coyote and, yes, if you're not First Nation then that could be called cultural appropriation. But then, any non-European writer working in the Romantic idiom of the adventure story could be accused of the same. Sorry, dude, that's our traditional story-form. Keep your hands off my dashing Byronic hero. How far do we follow this through? Do I end up screwed here completely? You want to write sonnets, you say? But you're Scottish, you know, and that means your ancestors all played fiddles and sang ballads. The sonnet isn't native to your culture, so really that's just not on. You have an idea for a tragedy, eh? But are you Greek? Sorry, then -- no can do; that would be cultural appropriation.
Yeah, OK, so I'm talking about dead cultures and borrowings dating so far back that, by now, these foreign influences are pretty much entirely spliced together into one big collage of aesthetic modes -- a collage we might loosely label Western culture. Western culture, though? As if a hemisphere owned its art. As if an area owned its art.
Dionysus knows no nations.
What I mean is that Art (yes, we're giving it a capital here; sorry) -- music, painting, literature, sculpture, dance, whatever -- Art is the black sheep of the Family Culture. This particularly brattish and boisterous sibling, unlike his brother, Religion, doesn't give a fuck about our monkey-boy traditions of tribal identity. Art is a thief and a slut, a prodigal and a prodigy. Art spreads his lurve to anyone who wants it, and any shiny object that's in his path is his for the taking, as far as he's concerned. Sure, sometimes Art may be in service to Religion. Religion may keep that wayward wastrel on a tight leash: this story is not for outsiders; only men of the tribe can do this dance to this drumbeat; only the initiates can enter the shrine and look upon the deity's face carved in stone. But such insularity is foreign to Art's nature. The story will unpack its affective meaning to anyone who understands it. The drum will call to any stranger who hears it, calling them to dance: you know you want to; feel the rhythm in your heart. Three thousand years later, when the deity's name is lost, that statue will still evoke wonder and awe in those who look upon it. Art is promiscuous like that, a rampant slattern, a rougish slut; he doesn't care what socio-political label of race, gender, religion, sexuality or nation you place on yourself. He doesn't care which tribe you've decided you belong to. He just wants to make fuckee-fuckee with you, with everyone and anyone.
Cultural appropriation? As far as Art is concerned that whole idea is buying into a spurious claim of ownership by the tribe. Art doesn't recognise the ownership rights of the artist, never mind the tribe that they're a part of. Did the ancient Greeks "own" tragedy? Did Aeschylus? Fuck that shit, says Art. You're not the boss of me.
This is not to say there's no such thing as cultural appropriation at all. But the underlying ethical question of ownership and rightful use, the territorial notion of culture(s) as bounded areas into which outsiders intrude, sneaking in like thieves to snatch a trinket and run, to carry it home to their own territory-of-culture and display it as theirs, thus bolstering their own tribe's aesthetic status -- this is the domain of Religion (or his secular siblings, those terrible twins, Class and Caste). Art is made to be seen, heard, read, danced, experienced. Limitations of access to that experience, based on who is or is not a fully-paid-up member of the culture (e.g. where a sacred story is not to be told to strangers) or based on social status within that culture (e.g. where only men can participate in a sacred dance), can themselves be considered acts of appropriation; they co-opt the aesthetic drive and its products, using Art to reinforce social, political and religious boundaries, both internal and external. The ethical question of cultural appropriation turns on to what extent we accept those limitations, to what extent we consider it wrong to breach the tribal mores. A liberal ethic of respect for alternative belief-systems comes into play here; the whole idea of "cultural appropriation" is a recognition of those tribal (and tribalist) prescriptions.
But Dionysus knows no nations.
An artist might wholly accept or wholly reject those limitations of access imposed upon their work by the tribe. Michelangelo, were he here today, might bemoan the fate of his God Giving Life To Adam, its appearance on dishtowels, fridge-magnets, what-have-you, due to the lifting of those limitations. He might consider the replication and popularisation of his work a travesty of its intent. This is a painting, after all, that's meant to be viewed in the sacred space of the Sistine Chapel, by the pious (or the rich, at least), not used by some heathen prole to dry his coffee mug. Then again, maybe Michelangelo would celebrate the democratisation, the fact that around the world his work, his work, is instantly recognisable to millions. Hell, maybe he would have been grumbling to himself as he placed the final brushstroke, bitter that only a select few, only those of the correct standing in society or the church, would actually get to see his masterpiece. Of those artists over the millenia who have worked in servitude to whatever religion, of whatever culture, creating the paintings, the stories, the music, the dances, how many of them would be horrified to see those works unmoored from their cultural context, from their sacred settings, their tribal territories? How many would be thrilled? We don't know and it doesn't matter.
Dionysus knows no nations.
The idea of cultural appropriation implies an exclusivity that is irrelevant to Art-as-hustler, making his amoral judgements of what it is right to use and where it is right to use it on purely aesthetic grounds, with little or no concern for the delicate sensibilities of those in servitude to tribal traditions, to territorial identities. Religion, Class and Caste all try to keep him in check, but these days, to be honest, it's only Daddy Law who can keep him from filching and fucking wherever and whatever he pleases, who can force him to recognise all those inconvenient boundaries of ownership and obscenity. Needless to say, as a writer, I'm quite happy with some of those boundaries. Copyright legislation is a kinda cool idea, you know, for those of us making our living at this writing malarky. And, unlike Art, I do tend to have qualms about looting and pillaging cultures which might not take kindly to my anthropological jackdaw approach to mythology. But that Art can be one smooth-tongued son-of-a-bitch, you know. And for all his wanton ways, I trust him more than I trust Religion.
Dionysis knows no nations. And I kinda like his way of thinking.