The Laws of Nature

Monday, February 22, 2010

Respecting Culture

Thomas Hart Benton

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 2 "Culture's Frames and Filters"
Section 7 "Respecting Culture"

Before we begin our discussion of the next section of Wendy Richmond's book, I'll share this email with you:

Hi Kathy,
My publisher just forwarded your blog to me and I am so delighted (and
impressed with your blog!) I am currently in a crazy travel week and away from email and internet, but I do look forward to joining the discussion about my book during the next few weeks!

And just FYI, a link to YouTube about my current show...overheard

With warmest regards,

To view Wendy's exhibition go here: Overheard

My goodness! I look forward to Wendy's comments, and I think she'll enjoy reading yours, which have so much substance and insight.

By now, you're well aware of the fact that Chapter 2 deals with culture and art, and each section considers another facet of this gem. This section begins with likening artists to cultural alchemists who transform what we know into something else that becomes an artistic statement. This leads the author to ask: What happens to culture as it passes through us? Do we alter the meaning of a symbol or pattern by changing its context? Do we even understand the meaning of the elements we are using? And, she asks if artists have the right to appropriate from other cultures. And, is it really appropriation or is it creativity?

Our discussions over the past couple of days provided answers to many of these questions. Your insights and opinions are informative and I'll refer my readers to review the past few blogs to read your comments. Here, we'll look at how the author answers her own questions.

First of all, artists are identified as "visual communicators" whose responsibility it is to try to understand the cultural images created. She wisely points out that our ignorance will make us vulnerable, and relates her own personal experience which you can read in her book. And, I can relate to making mistakes from ignorance. If I tried to relate all those mistakes to you I'd have to write my own book! Too many to name.

So, Ms. Richmond concludes, the more knowledge and awareness we have of the ways we use culture, the better and more honest our work will be. Looks like we have to do our homework.

Before concluding, I'd like to consider one of the author's questions with a slight modification:
Where is the dividing line between appropriation and creativity?

Your thoughts?


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Stan Kurth said...

Like I said earlier, I am the sum of my fractions. I am the product of my life experience and to paint from something other than that is absurd. I do believe that no matter the cultural background of any artist, he or she strives toward the universal condition of mankind, and culture becomes a medium of expression. I believe that in this day and age of super technology and media sharing that cultural isolation is deteriorating. Influences are being cast back and forth at an alarming rate. We see this in fashion, film making, architecture, etc., etc., etc. I think that is a good thing. I use rice paper often and I think it is a valid use of materials that came from a culture that is not mine. But I don't consciously use it in a cultural sense, say as a sumi calligrapher might. I guess what I'm saying is we're all borrowing and using other cultural facets in a way that is more expressive of a global unity in the arts. I like that. I still think there is a responsibility to make art with respect, not only of our own cultural experience but towards the ones we admire or disdain but do not live. Unless I was totally absorbed in sumi and traditional Japanese calligraphy I would try not do art as such. I am ignorant.

-Don said...

An interesting microcosm of what we've been discussing here occurred in the Olympics in the Ice Dancing competition this past weekend. Russian skaters Oksana Dominina and Maxim Shabalin stepped on some cultural toes with their Aboriginal-themed costumes, music and dance/skating. I think it gives relevance to Wendy's contention that ignorance can make us vulnerable. Their appropriation was very creative and visually stimulating, but was also found to be insulting by those they were emulating. They ended up crossing a line into what the Australian Aboriginal leaders called "cultural theft".

I think I"ll fall back on my old standby response to your question regarding the dividing line between appropriation and creativity... INTENT.

BTW, I really enjoyed seeing Wendy's upcoming exhibition. It is a great example of appropriation and creativity.


Angela said...

I also think that it's a question artists should be aware of and know there own answers for...but ultimately have to answer for themselves.

What some will see as respectfully celebrating, in a flattering way - others will see as 'stealing'.

I agree that 'intent' is key - but it should be an informed, well thought out intent. I don't think it's ok to use something without considering the possibilities of how it may be taken, even if your personal intent was honestly, but ignorantly, good.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - I'm always surprised when an author contacts me! I hope that Wendy will join our discussion before we're done reviewing her book. Your thoughts about the cultural influences in your life and the boundary between appropriation and creativity make good sense. And, I agree that this all leads back to authenticity. This is a very important quality for an artist and can't be understated. Thank you!

Hi Stan - I share your philosophy and see the move toward a culturally homogenous world, although I don't believe it will ever become truly homogenized. The cherished traditions of religions and cultures will endure even if the meaning is lost or obscured. And, like you, I just try to reflect who I am (the sum of my parts) in my work. Thanks for your insights.

Hi Don - yes! a perfectly analogous situation. Thank you for adding this example to our discussion. And, your answer "intent" is a good one even though it reminds me of the old adage that "good intentions pave the road to hell." :)

Hi Angela - I agree with you and the author that we need to do our homework as much as possible before appropriating cultural symbols. It's so easy to offend others, and also so difficult to do enough homework so as not to offend. Thanks!

meaningful life said...

Hi Kathy:
Sorry for my late respond. I would like to thank you for your comment

Carolyn Abrams said...

One word that comes to mind in using cross cultural signs or symbols is "inclusive". It seems to me that including something from another culture with a specific "intent" to express a view would be a positive addition to artwork and therefore would catch the attention of a wider berth of viewers. It would open the possibility of more global connections with your work. Of course i think there should be a reason or deliberateness (is that even a word Kathy?) to "borrow" it. It should fit the work.

-Don said...

I guess I should have elaborated a little more on my word intent. Angela's right, it should be thought out and informed. And Kathy's right, it should not have ions attached to it turning it into paving stones...


hw (hallie) farber said...

Great discussion--I have nothing to add.

Dan Kent said...

If we try to use another's culture, we best be careful. I attempted to fashion a tribute to the Haitians and their struggle. In doing so, I conducted a cursory review of some Haitian history and culture. It was literally like stepping into another world, things were so different. When I would read a literal description of a cultural practice or icon, it was clear that portrayal was risky since I couldn't know if there were any connotations or references that I would not know. Ultimately, I described the situation using my own frame of reference.

My conclusion then: Use of a cultural reference is an appropriation, unless it is based upon sufficient knowledge or research that it can be used appropriately in a creative manner. This is literally impossible unless one has immersed oneself in this other culture so that there is more than a surface understanding.

I am not saying to limit oneself, to "stick to your own". Modern art appropriates all of the time. Use of disparate elements is a part of creativity. But we must recognize it for what it is. It is an appropriation in the furtherance of a creativity that arises from one's own cultural reference.

Celeste Bergin said...

As I was reading PAMO's comment my mind flashed on many symbols that I "can't" seem to employ--for the same reasons she wrote about--it feels too "fake" to claim them as my own. It does boil down to what is real and what is fake and how we assimilate all of it.

M said...

Will I dilute the excellent responses to this question when I say that there are artists (me included) who may use symbols and content from other cultures based on design interests only?

I am attracted to Asian influences in art and many years ago I took a Chinese brush painting course. At that time I was very interested in art work based on specific brush techniques. Was I ever in for a surprise when the instructor began to delve into the many layers of content and intent behind this ancient skill. It cured my cavalier attitude about appropriating from other cultures!

Unknown said...

Hi Ben - thanks for visiting my blog. Please feel free to join our discussions!

Hi Carolyn - I like the word "deliberateness"! I know what you mean and think that unity within the world community is a good thing. If sharing cultural symbols out of respect does it, then that works for me. We need to be informed, though, so we don't accidentally do something offensive like put Ronald MacDonald's head on top of a Buddha!

Hi Don - thanks for the addition. It's tough doing all that homework, though. I'm guilty of not doing enough.

Hi Hallie- I'll bet that you do!! We love reading your comments.

Hi Dan - nicely stated!! I really like your last sentence: " It is an appropriation in the furtherance of a creativity that arises from one's own cultural reference." Thank you.

Hi Celeste - yes, it all comes back to being authentic. Thanks!

Hi Margaret - good point! I once wore a highly decorated blouse that also had Chinese writing on it, but didn't know what the writing meant. People kept asking me, and then I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. I mean, maybe it said something like "I'm a stupid blonde," or "Americans eat dog food." Who knows?? So, the blouse remains in my closet until I can find a translator. The point is, decoration to us isn't necessarily decoration in another culture. Thanks!

Deborah C. Stearns said...

It seems like I anticipated this section of the book in my comments on your previous post. The discussion has raised a number of the key issues here, and I don't know that I have more to add. I really struggle with this issue, and I don't have any simple answers. I have come to the conclusion that a certain amount of discomfort is useful here -- I don't want to come to an answer that settles the question for me. I want to keep asking myself difficult questions to make sure that I don't become complacent in my work. For me, it is the continued awareness and mindfulness that is important.

Unknown said...

Hi Deborah - thank you for commenting on this difficult post. In the end, the our artistic journey is a solo one and leaving questions unanswered is essential since, in my opinion, no one has all the answers anyway.