Laura Gascoigne: Narrow Lanes to Nowhere

Rihanna is in trouble again. This time she has offended ‘the Hindu community’ by wearing a pendant featuring the elephant god Ganesha, a fashion choice denounced on Instagram as ‘mad disrespectful’. The Barbadian singer should have known better. She has previous in the fashion department, having already upset the Chinese community by dressing up in ancient Chinese costume for a music video and the Mexican community by donning ‘chola’ dress for Halloween. 

You know that a point of etiquette has gone mainstream when it reaches the pages of Good Housekeeping. Eighteen months ago the magazine ran a column asking: ‘What Is Cultural Appropriation Exactly, and How Do I Avoid it?’ advising readers: ‘Here’s how to avoid a cultural faux pas’. Exactitude being hard to achieve in an imprecise science, after a loose definition of the term – ‘when a person from one culture adopts the fashion, iconography, trends, or styles from another culture’, especially ‘when the culture being appropriated is that of a historically oppressed group’ – the author confined herself to advising readers on avoiding American Indian, Rastafarian and geisha costumes at Halloween parties, and attached a list of celebrity examples not to follow. Along with repeat offender Rihanna, they included white American model Karlie Kloss for striding down the Victoria’s Secret runway in 2012 in a Navajo war bonnet and little else – a faux pas for which she later tweeted profound apologies.

You can see why this was offensive to the Navajo Nation. Native Americans have good reason to feel aggrieved at white Americans making light of their culture: when the people who stole your land start raiding your wardrobe, they’re taking the piss. Plus, on top of adding insult to injury, misappropriating fashionistas cause offence by misunderstanding and misusing native traditions.

There’s nothing new in this. Dominant cultures have always aped the dress styles of supposedly inferior ones, from the turbans sported by Regency fops and the tarbushes teamed with smoking jackets by Victorian gents to the tweeds and flat caps adopted by British aristocrats from the local peasantry. But where fashion merely borrows, fine art steals. In the case of so-called ‘primitive’ art, Modernism stands guilty of misuse on a massive scale. What do you do with a problem like Picasso, never mind the self-identifying ‘savage’ Gauguin? Even the mild-mannered Henry Moore couldn’t keep his roving hands off Toltec-Mayan reclining figures. What does a colliery manager’s son from West Yorkshire understand of 9th century Mexican culture? Nowt. If he’d come up before the elders of the Mayan Nation, he’d have found himself on the naughty step with Karlie Kloss.

In the eyes of cultural appropriation hawks, the fact that modernist artists regarded the makers of the objects they ripped off as their equals or superiors does not exonerate them from the charge of ‘mad disrespect’ of their meanings and purposes. Still, you may as well try to hold back the tide as stop art and fashion playing around with other visual cultures. Moves to have indigenous cultural traditions established as forms of intellectual property owned collectively by tribal nations face a legal minefield; for now, the court of social media has to do.

In the case of art, the new strictures cover both style and subject. When the 2017 Whitney Biennial included a painting by white American artist Dana Schutz showing black Mississippi teenager Emmett Till in the open casket in which his mother laid him in 1955 to expose the brutality of his lynching, British mixed-race artist Hannah Black wrote an open letter to the curators demanding the work’s removal and destruction. “It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit,” she argued. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s… Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture.”

Black was wrong. Mothers everywhere would understand the gesture, though – to adopt her own exclusionary argument – perhaps she’s not a mother so can’t speak for them. From what I saw of Schutz’s work in last year’s Radical Figures show at the Whitechapel, its destruction would be no great loss, but it would set a precedent. If artists are to be forbidden from expressing empathy with victims of injustices committed by their own people, Turner’s Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On is for the chop.

Within three months of the Whitney debacle another storm had blown up over the erection of Sam Durant’s Scaffold in the sculpture garden of the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis. The American mixed-race artist’s work, which referred to seven gallows used in historical hangings by the US government, had toured Europe without incident, but its allusion to the hanging of Native Americans in the US-Dakota War of 1862 brought down the wrath of the local Dakota community on the artist’s head, unleashing a torrent of online abuse. Worse, the cause of defending the sculpture was taken up by local redneck ‘patriots’ – all ‘very fine people’, no doubt – who drove around the park hurling abuse at the Native American protestors demanding Scaffold’s destruction. The whole sorry saga ended with the work’s dismantling and burial by tribal elders at an undisclosed location; burning was considered too good for it. Neither side emerged smelling of roses. After calls for her sacking, the Walker’s Cuban-American executive director Olga Viso resigned.

No wonder museum directors are running scared. Pre-emptive action was bound to follow, with exhibits withdrawn in anticipation of outrage. The first casualty has been the Philip Guston show, meant to open at Tate Modern this spring but postponed after fears that Guston’s cartoon Ku Klux Klan figures would stir up BLM sensitivities. While no one has suggested that Guston, the son of Jewish refugees from pogroms in Odessa, was a Klan supporter, Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington – one of four venues due to host the show  – employed the ‘A’ word, saying that the artist had ‘appropriated images of black trauma’. It later emerged that she was less worried about upsetting gallery visitors than exposing the fact that 83% of its warding staff are from ethnic minorities while 98% of its curatorial staff are white. Without even showing the non-white guards the putatively offending images, the museum pulled the show. We’ve reached a point where a white artist can’t self-critically address the abuse of blacks by whites if it is thought by a white museum administration that it might upset the sensibilities of black viewers it is too nervous/patronising to consult. 

Still, all is not lost. In the post-colonial melting pot we live in, the stay-in-your-lane cultural traffic police face the basic problem that their absolutist vision – designed for a world of pedigree pure-breeds – is impossible to realise in practice. Short of DNA-testing all artists to map their ethnicities, would-be enforcers of this uber-discriminatory nonsense have no way of telling which cultural lane an artist belongs in. Artists who straddle several can’t be confined to one.

Art, like fashion, belongs in the realm of fantasy, a realm beyond the rule of road markings. Appropriation, assimilation, acculturation ­– whatever you choose to call it, the process is unstoppable. Besides, without a bit of swerving and weaving there would be no artistic development. We’d all be stuck in narrow lanes to nowhere.