Dana Schutz, Damien Hirst and the matter of Cultural Appropriation

08/16/2017 12:20 pm ET

Just more than a week ago news broke that a group of the National Academy of Art members had just published a widely-circulated letter in defense of the artist Dana Schutz whose recently-opened ten-year retrospective exhibition at the ICA Boston drew protests from local artists. This came in the wake of the furor caused by her painting, Open Casket, shown at New York’s Whitney Biennial in the spring. The Boston protests had everything to do with that controversial painting.

Having followed the debates for months, there seems to be a consensus in the world of elite culture—echoed by Kenan Malik, Adam Shatz, and now the academicians—to the effect that radical objections by non-white critics and activists to art usually by white artists that they feel does symbolic violence to their history and experience amount to censorship and nasty essentialism.

Critics of Schutz have a point, and that too must be defended. To be clear, charges of cultural appropriation are not always defensible, as the one against British artist Damien Hirst shows.

Schutz’s Open Casket is a painting depicting the mutilated body of Emmett Till whose racially-motivated murder in 1955 is considered a key moment in the rise of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. And at the Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana museums in Venice, Hirst included a golden head said to be from the ancient kingdom of Ife (in today’s Nigeria) in his faux-archaeological Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable installation. Both were accused of cultural appropriation.

But what is cultural appropriation? No point trying to define it; when philosophers can’t agree on the meaning of the term, what chance do I, an artist and art historian, have? But here is how I understand it. Cultural appropriation happens when someone in a position of power or privilege tells the story of someone less privileged, or uses symbols or takes ideas held dear by the latter in a way that is unsympathetic, disrespectful, pejorative, hurtful.

Cultural appropriation is about relations of unequal power. If two people of same status take from each other, it might be called exchange; if the weaker or underprivileged takes from the more powerful, it is usually seen as mimicry, a sign of one’s inferiority, inauthenticity and insufficiency. Picasso became an art star by putting masks designed by supposedly unsophisticated African sculptors on the faces of the naked women in his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. That is cultural appropriation. When African American artists of the 1960s joined their white Abstract Expressionist counterparts and made non-objective paintings and sculptures, white critics saw this as lack of originality in black art. Cultural appropriation is what people with real power do.

The clamor against Hirst began with an Instagram post by Victor Ehikhamenor, one of the artists represented in the inaugural Nigerian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. According to him the inclusion of a golden head made in the style of 12—14th century Ife brass heads in Hirst’s installation could cause future Nigerians to not recognize the brass head as part of their artistic heritage. Other critics recalled that Hirst was not the first to deny the Yoruba people the achievement of their Ife ancestors. The German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, the first European to see these stunning, highly naturalistic, brass and terracotta sculptures, around 1906, claimed they had to be the work of some ancient Greek sculptor from the lost city of Atlantis. Frobenius’ theory—based on the assumption that “primitive” black Africans could not have made the fine sculptures—was soon recognized for its racist motivation and discredited. Hirst’s exhibition guide, in fact, recounted this story.

Mr. Hirst set out to create an extraordinary collection of treasures from the wreck of an imaginary ship loaded with artistic and material treasures from the world over. A kind of bombastic and kitschy Noah’s Ark of collectibles. The Ife head was one among scores of objects found in the ship wreck. Had he not included any object from Africa (there were Pharaonic Egyptian stuff as well), you bet he would have been found guilty of ignoring African contribution to human civilization and cultural heritage. The charge against Mr. Hirst results from the misuse of the cultural appropriation sledge hammer.

The furor caused by Schutz is of a different order. Her depiction of Emmet Till’s mangled face in her humongous painting based on an archival black and white photograph pricked a festering wound in America’s racial unconscious.

Voices mostly black and from outside the art world establishment have criticized what they saw as Schutz’s insensitive and opportunistic appropriation of an image that represents one of the worst moments in America’s history of racial terror and injustice. Among them, were Parker Bright who used his own body to block the painting from viewers, and Hannah Black who collected signatures calling for the painting to be withdrawn and burned. Ms. Black and her supporters were compared to Islamic fundamentalists who wield the deadly weapon of the fatwa. They, we are told, were driven by tiresome racial victimology and, worse, reverse racism.

But here is my take.

First, there is nothing in Open Casket that made the artist’s intention legible. And for a politically and racially charged symbol that Till’s dead body became, there is no room for equivocation, especially in an American society still haunted by the deep and enduring legacies of slavery and racism. It matters that the artist, with the natural privilege that comes with racial whiteness, is known as a painter of odd and grotesque stuff, and not for using her work to address in any meaningful way inequality or social justice. The artist and her supporters may invoke and defend her artistic license; but they ought to have been ready for the robust outrage of their critics.

Second, we have been here before. In 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition, with very little input or representation of black artists and voices that made 20th-century and civil rights era Harlem art and culture tick. Picketing against the show by crowds from Harlem and beyond shamed the museum’s attempt to appropriate Harlem’s history in the service of the institution’s particular vision of black America. Ms. Black’s online signature drive is virtual street protest. Like the Met then, the Whitney organized a speaking gig to address the Open Casket protests, and moved on. Unruffled.

Third, Ms. Black and her supporters have every right to deploy their collective voice to call out what at best is a careless appropriation of Till’s image. They must be seen as new-age practitioners in that core principle of the democratic society, free speech. If the Fang sculptors in the Congo whose work Picasso and his peers in imperial France copied had a voice, you bet they would have declaimed the French appropriators. Just as their Yoruba peers in Nigeria would have Frobenius!

Moreover, when the early 20th-century European Dada and Surrealist avant-garde (with no real coercive political powers of their own) expressed their outrage at modernity’s hegemonic system, and called for the destruction of its institutions and symbols. They became heroes of modern art.

Now, some young, mostly, black artists, in a reprise of that avant-garde rhetorical legacy, protest against a powerful museum and its white, very privileged artist who turned Emmet Till’s body into her usual grotesquerie. They are seen as vandals threatening the art system.

The passionate and vehement declamation of Mr. Hirst for the Ife head was on the other hand misplaced and shows the danger of invoking cultural appropriation every time a white artist—even one that is frequently controversial like Hirst—engages with art and ideas from the non-white world.

The Schutz controversy reminds me of an Igbo aphorism: you don’t step on someone’s foot and not expect him to cry out. As for that of Hirst, the idiom about crying wolf will suffice.

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