The Inevitability of Cultural Appropriation

Picasso in Native HeaddressI’m on a TGV from Paris to Monaco. The sun was out this morning and the Jardin de Tuileries was filled with homages in tulips to various still lifes at the Louvre. Two days ago, at the Musée de quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, I saw the Picasso Primitif exposition that showcased the influence of indigenous arts on Picasso’s work through the years, often by presenting statues from Africa or Papua New Guinea side-by-side with examples of Picasso’s efforts through the years. If you never made the connection between his cubism and the statuary of Chad (like me), it is eye opening. He wasn’t particularly culturally sensitive—like everyone else until at least the 1960s—because the fascinating people and their cultural works were largely aesthetic objects to him. If he was aware of the significance of particular pieces (and he might have been), it was something he rarely acknowledged or discussed. The photos that tie Picasso to the African statues are the primary thread of the exhibition, with each one, taken at his California atelier or in Paris or whatnot, inscribed by the curators with a dainty red circle or oval to highlight a grainy African statue lurking in the background. Sometimes they provide a blow-up in case you can’t quite make it out. It is only with a full Native American headdress given to Picasso by the actor Gary Cooper that we see him actively mugging for a camera and providing weight to the show’s theme. Then, next, Brigitte Bardot is leaning over him at the California studio and her cleavage renders the distant red oval uninteresting.

I am writing daily about things I don’t fully understand but try to imbue with a sense of character, of interest, and even of humor. In Against Superheroes I try to give a feel for Turkey, despite having never been there and only been introduced to one Turk, a computational linguist for the language, once. Did I do a good job? I can’t say. The audience is not necessarily Turks who would find fault with my renderings. Yet I do strive towards accuracy. I drill down with Google Earth. I read the history. I read recent  politics and analysis and try to imagine what it can be like to be a person there, immersed in that cultural microcosm.

Similar things are afoot in ¡Reconquista!, my newest novel. Though I grew up in the border region with Mexico, I, unlike my son who took three years of it in California, have only telegraphic and pornographic Spanish at my command. Yet I am developing an elaborate plot that weaves together the lives of an underemployed blue-collar white man with a revolutionary-minded Hispanic woman professor who drinks tequila like it’s water and speaks in elaborate abstractions about topics like, well, cultural appropriation. That’s a fighting phrase for her, despite the other incongruities in the tapestry of her life.

Should I feel confident about writing like this? And if I should not, what can I write about? And, the obverse might apply: should an outsider feel free to write about the array of complex social and political issues that make up America? In 2015, Lionel Shriver, the author of a book that got some press and was made into a movie, caused an uproar when she donned a sombrero in Brisbane, Australia and made a series of declarations that such cultural appropriation that might arise from, especially, white males writing about other cultures, should be treated as a celebration of those cultures rather than an attack upon them. Identity is a nebulous concept, she seeemed to be saying, and tying it down to ability, disability, tendency, orientation, upbringing, religion, culture, or nationality does a disservice to the spinning of a good yarn.

I’m certainly not fully in agreement with this, but I do sympathize with the notion that it is critical for writers to embrace the complexity of the pluralistic world we now live in. Doing less than that, avoiding painting pictures that are as polyglot and multifaceted as America and Europe, leaves little room for authenticity unless the works are written by a balanced committee. Perhaps the more important take-away is that building a more diverse collection of critics and reviewers can help, in turn, provide a better filter for the authenticity that, perhaps, critics of Shriver are looking for. This would parallel efforts to rectify the lack of diversity among Hollywood producers, directors, writers, actors, and voting members of the Academy.

I will close by noting that a chubby little French senior is attempting surgery to extract a splinter from his finger across from me. His wife was helping for a bit, too, stabbing at his index with a white Swiss Army knife that he spent some time surveying and unfolding before landing on the right weapon for the job. She hurt him too much, though, it seemed, and he waved her away. This, in public, and in first class? I suppose I need more data points on the French mind that is increasingly moving towards a closed focus on preserving Frenchness against the outsider. Safe for splinter-stabbing, I suppose.

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