Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Cultural Appropriation

The latest bit of neo-Gramscian post-modern lunacy is the idea of "cultural appropriation" which says that white people are not allowed to use memes from non-white cultures. So I guess it is ok if I start writing mazurkas, Poles being White Europeans, but totally wrong to be stealing ideas from mbira music from Zimbabwe. Steve Reich has to give back any ideas he got from Ghana master drummers or Balinese gamelan music. Sounds silly, doesn't it? But this is an actual thing in some places. This is the Wikipedia article. They simply define it as:
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.
But of course it only applies to white people. Read the whole thing. They have some examples of appropriation that are from white to white, but the important issues all revolve around white appropriation of non-white cultural elements. Thou shalt not wear a Halloween costume of an Indian or Geisha or whatever. It is a form of colonialism.

It is a fundamentally silly idea, but when applied to music, even more silly. Yes, there are an awful lot of very interesting influences coming from world music and popular music, but the whole foundation of music, the harmony, the counterpoint, the very notation to write it down, comes almost entirely from France and Italy between eight hundred and a thousand years ago. Are we going to say, "no more triads, we want our harmony back!"

Of course an even more biting criticism has already been unleashed: if you think that cultural appropriation is wrong, then please stop using vaccines, antibiotics, the Internet, smartphones, computers, jets, the internal combustion engine and, heck, electricity. These are all the creation, invention and discovery of Western European and North American white people.

Our envoi almost has to be something by LĂ©onin the composer, in the late 12th century, of the first written down polyphony:


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. Picasso put it succinctly: "Good artists copy; great artists steal." Being influenced by and borrowing is the essence of art. Even the greatest artists at best add epsilon to a body of art they've mastered. In Bach's era, reworking the scores of the greats was part of any musician's training. Cultural appropriation is an idiotic concept devised by people with not the slightest understanding of art. Science is no different: "scientific appropriation" is precisely what made science so great. If Einstein had not "appropriated" from Galileo and Newton there would have been no relativity theory.

Having said that, one must recognize the fact that countless black musicians in the US were ripped off by unscrupulous white managers who enriched themselves at the expense of the true artists. But that historical injustice has got nothing to do with cultural appropriation. The problem there was that the unscrupulous managers appropriated the money -- not the culture! Appropriating culture: I am all for it!

Bryan Townsend said...

Re your second point: yes, absolutely! It is awful to read about some fine black musician who ends up living in squalor because of a dishonest manager! Mind you, the same thing happened to Leonard Cohen.

Rich said...

There is more to the appropriation argument than that, e.g., watering down and regurgitating another's culture and profiting from it while the originators live and die in relative obscurity and poverty. Think Elvis (and many rock bands), white swing era big bands, etc. These guys were making serious money repackaging and selling Black American Music to the world without giving any significant credit or $$$ to the people who lived through incredible hardships and created some of the most original, radical and beautiful art in the history of music. Gospel, blues and "jazz" changed everything. And the entire modern music industry was built on the the popularity of this music. Who reaped the profits? Cultural appropriation is something we, as white men, need to be hyper-tuned into. Our demographic fucked these artists and their families over with ignorant arrogance and greed for at least a century. Let's not get our panties in a wad over a little push back.

Anonymous said...


Rich said...


Bryan Townsend said...

Rich, I think that the NewMusicBox article proves nothing other than identity group politics is a sterile and misleading way of approaching pretty much any issue.