Over the past few days, the word “appropriation” has been circulating with a certain fury. Both rapidly and angrily, the blogosphere as well as mainstream media have widely criticized the recent VMA performance of one-time Disney sensation Miley Cyrus. If you’ve had the distinctive displeasure of viewing this performance, well, then, I’m very sorry; there’s nothing we can do now, we’re scarred for life. If you haven’t – rejoice – though you’ve likely heard by now that it’s incredibly crass and undeniably disturbing. But the point of critical contention and attention, beyond the lewd dancing, has centered on the act’s appropriation of certain black cultures (‘ratchet’ culture, and ‘twerking’ specifically). Many have likened her performance to a “minstrel show.” A quick Google search yields dozens of cogent and well-written analyses, for those inclined to read further; the backlash and the outrage is palpable – and for good reason. But though I’m neither prepared nor informed enough to weigh in on this specific issue, the conversation has prompted me to think more broadly about appropriation and the ways in which cultural appropriation could be transformed (however idealistic). Appropriation is a term that often emerges in discussions of postmodern literature and art. Within that realm, it refers to art that uses or relies on some other pre-existing art or form and does so to varying effect, be it parody, allusion, interpretation re-vision etc. A notable example, for instance, is the iconic Andy Warhol “Campbell’s Soup” print. Like so many postmodern ideas, artistic appropriation is rife with tension: between originality and imitation most notably, and often between high and low art, as but two examples. Fundamentally, it works through recontextualization: something taken, adapted, excerpted…and transported, which then allows us to view it as a “new” art work of its own accord. But this, too, places the art in a precarious position as it raises issues of authorship and copyright. To whom does the work truly belong? To its original artist? To the new artist? To both and neither simultaneously? (In most ways, the latter). It is on this point, particularly, where artistic appropriation and cultural appropriation (like that of Miley Cyrus) often diverge.
Cultural appropriation is equally a process of recontextualization: it is the adopting or co-opting of certain cultural ideas, beliefs, markers (for lack of a better or more precise word) by another, usually privileged or dominant, culture or people. Unlike artistic appropriation, cultural appropriation does not stand at the juncture of two peoples or groups (authors) and therefore does not proffer the same sense of joint ownership that may arise with art. More often than not, cultural appropriation works simply to parody[*] or to make use of these ideas/beliefs/rituals etc., at the expense or indignity (even if unintentionally) of the original cultures they represent. As another contemporary example, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a TLC show about a rural Georgia family, may well fit the bill. Indeed, it would seem, then, that cultural and artistic appropriation – though borne of the same impulse – have strikingly different outcomes, one decidedly more negative.
Nonetheless, there may be an important confluence of the two surrounding the idea of tradition. The preservation of or affront to tradition is seemingly at stake in terms of both cultural and artistic appropriation. The balance between these two positions therefore becomes pivotal and ultimately, I think, helps explain why cultural appropriation is often viewed as negative (a tendency towards affront) and why artistic appropriation is seen as acceptable (a tendency towards at least partial preservation). Put differently, if artistic appropriation strives to work in ways within and against its own tradition, then cultural appropriation seeks only to work against it. This leads me, then, to an important question: is there a way to redeem cultural appropriation such that it also works within; so that it may intervene in or recontextualize its tradition without losing sight of it? Perhaps.
A provisional answer or at least model may be found in Jen Bervin’s contemporary art-poetry book “Nets.” I’ve been enamored of this work since I first encountered it in my junior year of college. In her small book, Bervin appropriates or palimpsests many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, effectively operating within and against the entrenched artistic and cultural traditions from which it has evolved and which it has, even unwittingly, inherited. In doing so, it seems to demonstrate the possibility of a cultural appropriation, using art/artistic appropriation as its medium, that does not simply steal, but that co-exists with, makes use of, memorializes its tradition while also making it new and broadening its scope, leading it to a “divergent elsewhere,” as Bervin writes in her working note.
Bervin’s method is one of erasure; she keeps Shakespeare’s original sonnet in tact, muted in grey, and selects certain words to embolden that comprise her own “new” poem. The effect is startling. It immediately calls into focus the tension between foreground and background; what is lost and what remains (figuratively and literally). And while the former (bold words) is certainly privileged, it cannot occupy its space, cannot fully exist without what is left behind. One driving idea behind the project, then, is that the cultural and artistic traditions from which her poems erupt are never fully redacted, even if they are “distilled” (a word she uses in one of her poems) or re-imagined. It’s a motivation evident from the very first work in the collection:
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held:
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thrifless praise,
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine,
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
Here, Bervin heralds Shakespearean tradition, playfully invoking it as a “weed of small worth” (when, indeed, it is a literary touchstone). But that tradition forcibly calls out “ask[s]” t be “new made” – to be reimagined, re-invented, recontextualized and made contemporary. Her text uproots and supplants even as it creates space for regrowth. At once, the sense of urgency in this voice that implores refashioning is based not only upon the idea that Shakespeare’s literary tradition (the sonnet form, for instance, or lyric poetry) and the accepted, monolithic literary canon to which he belongs (white, male) is not only outdated but that its entrenched cultural beliefs – both misogynist and racist – are outworn and in need of re-vision. To be fair, a more complete understanding of the cultural criticism surrounding the sonnets is really necessary to fully understand its misogynist and racist tendencies. Nevertheless and for the sake of brevity – which is OBVIOUSLY my forte – we can assume that they’re there. What Bervin therefore continues to do throughout the sequence is to, quite literally, take on this culture and to make it her own. She erases certain aspects of the old, makes room for new ones (role reversals, for instance, women’s speech, de-emphasis of white maleness) such that it cannot simply be an affront. Instead, the culture of the poems is transported to a liminal space where Bervin joins Shakepeare as author, as its producer. The appropriated culture is in this sense not unmoored, but indeed,
Thou blind fool, Love, what dost thou to mine eyes
That they behold and see not what they see?
They know what beauty is, see where it lies,
Yet what the best is take the worst to be,
If eyes corrupt by over-partial looks
Be anchored in the bay where all men ride,
Why of eyes’ falsehood hast thou forged hooks,
Whereto the judgment of my heart is tied?
Why should my heart think that a several plot,
Which my heart knows the wide world’s common place?
Or mine eyes seeing this, say this is not,
To put fair truth upon so foul a face?
In this right true my heart and eyes have erred,
And to this false plague are they now transferred.
Perhaps this effect is only truly achievable through the somewhat insular realm of art; that is to say, perhaps this ideal of cultural appropriation is not sustainable in our everyday lives. But perhaps it can also serve as an example of remaining sensitive to a certain cultural heritage while also opening up room for a “divergent elsewhere” where that culture can rightly and inoffensively be “new made.” Indeed, and to bring this discussion back full circle, Miley Cyrus (and others like her) may well stand to gain or learn something from Bervin.
This whole idea finally clicked for me when I read an article Jamie Peck highlighting Big Freedia’s thoughts on the Miley incident; Big Freedia, as I learned, is a twerking advocate – which is, as of right now, a thing. What he said in an interview really struck a chord with me in parallel to some of the ideas Bervin puts forth. As Peck relays, Big Freedia is both enthused about and wary of Miley’s appropriation of the twerk culture because she is making it known to a wider audience, but is doing so, in many ways, inauthentically. Her dancers are not true twerkers but mere props. Big Freedia is enthusiastic about the prospect of expanding twerking beyond its original boundaries, but only, in some sense, if it retains or remains true to some of its tradition. To wit, he notes, “We want to empower women of all walks of life to express themselves through dance music. I definitely push that at a Big Freedia show and I have a lot of white fans who get up there and really twerk. I have some amazing white dancers who would get up there and shut Miley down. They could’ve used girls from New Orleans, even if they were not black, who knew what they’re doing.” And, indeed, herein may lay one solution to part of the cultural appropriation problem: if Miley and others insist on appropriating some culture, then they should of necessity invoke, pay homage to, reiterate that culture from which it came. In a way that would stunningly mirror Bervin’s work, Miley could, for instance, have background dancers (as Freedia suggests) from twerk culture itself while she takes to the fore and also makes it her own, retaining that crucial interplay or coexistence between something old, maintained, and something bold and new. It’s not a perfect solution and it does not truly solve issues of race that likely play a deeper role here, but maybe small steps like these are a start.
At any rate, I’m left here to continue contemplating a deeply complex issue, upon which I’ve now rhapsodized somewhat nonsensically and at length. But it's one I'd like to keep thinking about, and I'd welcome any thoughts/ opinions on the matter. Luckily, for now, I have literature and Bervin to keep me twerking through.
[*] The difference between parody here is that parody is simply meant to degrade. In its literary form, appropriation in terms of parody often has a sense of playfulness that rebukes even as it reinscribes.