“Other cultures are not failed attempts at being like you.”
There are people in this world who don’t see it that way. They can’t look beyond their own frame of reference, and they resist seeing their own privilege, which simultaneously insulates them and quarantines them from full participation with the rest of the world.
Around 10:00 p.m., Hancock County Deputy Todd Frazier noticed the car with the motionless man in the driver’s seat. Like any good cop, he pulled over and got out, to see if the man was all right.
That’s when the other two leaped out of the dark woods. They attacked Frazier with fists and what probably was a box cutter. When the man who’d been in the car piled out, it was three against one. They choked Frazier, told him they were going to slit his throat, and dragged him toward the woods.
Chief Deputy Don Bass later said authorities think they planned to take Frazier into the woods, kill him, and dump his body.
Lucky for Frazier, he had a couple of secret weapons.
The second secret weapon was his K9 partner, 75-lb. black Belgian Malinois Lucas. Six-year-old Lucas recognized right away that this was not a training exercise, Frazier later said. The dog leaped from the vehicle and immediately attacked the three men.
By that time Frazier had blood all over himself, too. “I couldn’t see anything, because the blood was all in my eyes,” he said later. “I could hear [Lucas] growling and making all these sounds . . . he sounded like a wolf.”
A couple of weeks ago, I shared a painting from the age of Japonisme in Europe. Today I’d like to offer an example of how the Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints that arrived in Europe during the Meiji Era changed European art, and inspired the aesthetic that created “modern” art.
TokaidoHodogaya, one of theThirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, by Katsushika Hokusai, shows us a glimpse of the ukiyo-e prints that took Europe by storm in the latter half of the 19th Century.
Many people in Europe, and especially such painters as Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, James A. McNeill Whistler, and Paul Cézanne amassed large collections of Japanese prints. Monet had a whole living room full. Van Gogh didn’t have many physical possessions, but he did have a cherished collection of ukiyo-e prints.The radically different way in which the Japanese artists viewed space, color, and perspective influenced these artists deeply–some more directly than others.
PaulCézanne painted The Chestnut Trees of Jas de Bouffan in Winter, a view that included Mont Ste. Victoire, one of his favorite subjects, as viewed from his home. Hokusai’s influence is hard to miss.
Paul Cézanne was such an ardent admirer of two print series, each titled Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji–one created by Katsushika Hokusai, and the other by his younger rival Ando Hiroshige–that he created his own series of thirty-six paintings of Mont Ste. Victoire, a distinctive mountain near Aix-en-Provence, visible from Cézanne’s home and studio at Bastide du Jas de Bouffan.
There was no question about cultural appropriation in Cézanne’s day. Europeans considered themselves and their culture to be the apex of human civilization. They felt free to draw upon any source they wished, and never questioned whether they had a right to do so. I am not sure that Cézanne’s painting count as “appropriation” per se, though it’s easy to detect a touch of “the sincerest form of flattery.” Similarities are also easy to see in others he painted, whose compositions bear a striking resemblance to certain prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige–I may share them at some point in the future.
NASA artist Don Davis gave us a vision of how it might look inside an O’Neill cylinder with reflected sunlight.
My quest to find a plausible, space-based home for the characters in my novels continued.
I needed a space-based habitat that would feel earthlike-enough for me (and my readers) to believe that humans could be comfortable there long-term. But it also must be believable, based on what we know or can reasonably extrapolate from physics, space, engineering, and technology.
The idea for this design evolved out of O’Neill’s work for NASA and at Princeton. His Island One and Island Two designs were Bernal spheres, but the larger Island Three design proposed a paired-cylinders design that sought to solve several problems with the Bernal sphere design.
O’Neill cylinders utilize a shape identified by the creators of Kalpana One as the most efficient for a space habitat (more about Kalpana One in a different future post), but I ultimately found it difficult to imagine living in one, for many of the same reasons as the Bernal sphere.
Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) thought Gerard K. O’Neill’s space-settlement ideas were a “nutty fantasy.” Proxmire was famous for identifying government programs he thought were silly, and awarding them the Golden Fleece Award. Fear of his wrath led NASA to kill O’Neill’s project.
According to some people, I have an unsavory past.
Well, not me, personally. I’ve never committed any crime worse than exceeding the speed limit, and I’m pretty sure that’s true for most of my immediate family as well. We don’t tend to be colorful in that way.
What lurks in your family tree?
But I have both English and German roots, and the last several generations of my European-American ancestors have lived in the United States. In the eyes of many people around the world, those simple facts make me and my family complicit, at least by association, with centuries of oppression, racism, and perhaps even genocide.
Not much I can do about it, no matter what my ancestors thought or did. But in the minds of some, my ancestry and presumed understandings make me a suspect interpreter of culture. How dare I even try to make art about any culture but my own? Isn’t that tantamount to cultural appropriation?
Yikes! Um, well . . . no, actually. For good reason.
First, like many people, I’ve tried to live my life in as fair and unbiased a way as I can, but the fact is that sometimes we don’t realize what we’ve done or said (or what those things mean to others–see below) until we’ve had our consciousness raised. Every one of us is a product of our culture, and it’s only through experience that we can learn more appropriate approaches and frames of reference.
Artist Kristen Uroda created this image for NPR, to help convey the concept of a frame of reference. It’s also an illustration of my point that art can help us understand our world.
In other words, none of us will get it right 100% of the time. But cross-cultural understanding can be built, even by unsavory characters such as me. It requires mutual respect and openness, and patience with each others’ mistakes.
Why try? When we don’t understand something, our brain still tries to make sense of it. That’s an innate response. We don’t always get it right, because synthesizing from impressions and separate events is an inaccurate process. But the human brain seems hard-wired to try.
I’ve always seen artists (in all of the arts disciplines) as crucial to the process of building cross-cultural understanding–and in our ever-shrinking world, where globalization affects lives everywhere, developing more and better tools for cross-cultural understanding is becoming ever more vitally important.
Yet anytime we consider a cultural exchange, there tends to arise the concern over cultural appropriation.
Cultural Exchange is a healthy, desirable, increasingly necessary function in society. Governments, organizations, and businesses are wise to foster it whenever possible.
Cultural Appropriation is a perversion that wounds, and inhibits mutual growth. It is what happens when members of a dominant culture ignorantly or disrespectfully use racial stereotypes or the outward symbols of a less-dominant culture for its own gain or racist purposes. Unfortunately, people who look like me can stumble all too easily across this line. Consider these examples:
But we’ve already established that we don’t get it right 100% of the time, especially when we encounter an unfamiliar culture. How and where do we draw the line?
First must come the awareness that there is such a thing as a dominant culture. Moreover, membership in a dominant cultural group automatically bestows privilege. When you ignore privilege, you lose an essential perspective that is important for helping you see where that line falls.
That’s why people who look like me, and whose ancestors came from the places my ancestors did, are automatically suspects, when it comes to cultural appropriation. Whether we want to be or not, and whether we think it’s right or not, we’re privileged. THAT’S my “unsavory past,” noted at the top of this article. When you automatically have had privilege all your life, it looks “normal.”
And it’s really easy to ignore, until you’ve had your consciousness raised to the fact that everyone else who doesn’t look like you has to evaluate situations based on your privilege, and work around it.
After that, drawing the line gets a lot easier. Cultural exchange is mutual. It enriches members of both cultures. Cultural appropriation demeans members of one culture for the amusement or gain of more-privileged members of another. Ultimately, it comes down to RESPECT. Without it, every single one of us is an unreliable witness.