Culture

On the Fine Line in Art Between Inspiration and Appropriation

Artists have been inspired by other artists for as long as the arts have existed.

The plots in some of Shakespeare’s plays predate the playwright himself. Jean Rhys’s acclaimed novel Wide Sargasso Sea is a response to Jane Eyre. Musicians use all kinds of techniques, ranging from improvisation to sampling, to invoke preexisting songs and transform them into something new.

Some draw their inspiration from the artistic traditions in which they were raised, while others look further afield, crossing international lines to find work that hits home. This can lead to memorable works of fine art, music, and literature. It can also lead to questions of appropriation — of an artist from one culture ripping off another’s artistic tradition, simplifying it to a fault, or reinforcing stereotypes in the work they’ve created.

This is not a new debate or area of study. David Toop’s 2001 book Ocean of Sound addressed these questions early on, with a section on the influence of Javanese music on French composer Claude Debussy.

But in recent years it’s become more of a heated topic. Earlier this summer, New York published a discussion by critics Craig Jenkins and Frank Guan titled “Is Culture Borrowing Always Theft?” In it, they touched on everything from Paul Simon’s work with South African musicians on the album Graceland, to Jesse Williams’s recent comments about appropriation, to the career of Macklemore.

“I think I know acceptable cultural exchange when I see it, and it looks like collaboration, not costume, like advocacy, not avoidance,” said Jenkins.

Two new books now raise similar questions about cultural exchange. One looks back on artists who crossed international borders in the 19th and 20th centuries, the other examines how technology has brought musicians from across the globe closer in recent decades. Both are by American writers who have spent significant amounts of time overseas.

Jamie James’s The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic and Jace Clayton’s Uproot: Travels in 21stCentury Music and Digital Culture are acutely aware of how art that borrows from multiple cultures can complicate its own reception. In writing about Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss writer who spent much of her time in the Maghreb region of North Africa, James refers to hers as, possibly, “a unique case of a successful culture transplant.” And part of Clayton’s book explores the growth of World Music as a genre, leading to some instances of artists being popularized “based on what sound and story line is most appealing to an audience not remotely interested in learning about other cultures much less challenging their notion of the exotic.”

James has a lot to discuss in The Glamour of Strangeness. In weaving in his own experiences of living in Indonesia, he explores the idea of “the voluntary exile who goes to distant lands in search of a new home with no intent to repatriate.”

Many of his subjects are artists, and in the introduction James notes that the book was originally going to focus on two of them: Javanese artist Raden Saleh, who lived in Europe in the 1800s and was influenced by the art he saw there, and Walter Spies, an artist who moved from Germany to Bali in the first half of the 20th century. Saleh’s presence deepens the narrative, as James points out that Saleh brought the techniques and perspectives that he had learned in Europe to his native country. “Before Raden Saleh,” James observes, “no Indonesian artist had ever painted a picture with the forest as its principal subject.” In other words, this skewed closer to a cultural exchange, rather than a case of a European artist bringing their own perspective on a non-European landscape.

James navigates the complexities of these issues. He points out that Paul Gauguin was an advocate for the Tahitian people with whom he lived, but was also responsible for some horrifically bigoted statements about the island’s Chinese population.

In the case of Walter Spies, James takes several pages to dispute the work of Australian academic Adrian Vickers, who argued that Spies had gone to Bali “to propagate the canons of Western art among the islanders.” James cites several examples of Spies’s own writing in which he championed Balinese art against the influence of European aesthetics — again, creating a sense of exchange and dialogue, rather than cultural colonialism. And in a later chapter, James discusses filmmaker Maya Deren, whose interest in voodoo led her to visit Haiti and write the book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. In looking at its impact in the sixty-plus years since its publication, James points to its acclaim by academics and adds, “more significantly, it has been accepted by Haitian readers.” That it ends on that note is no accident.

In his conclusion, James contends that readers may find evidence via the artists profiled that “cultural identity can be a personal choice, made in defiance of the accident of nationality assigned at birth.” It’s an admirable goal, though it may strike some as overly idealistic.

There’s a similar interest in skirting international cultural boundaries in Clayton’s book. He is himself a musician, under the name DJ Rupture. Here, too, he describes surreal visions of places where borders don’t entirely hold true: the city of Varosha in Cyprus, which Clayton sees in the distance en route to one international gig, has been abandoned and off-limits since 1974.

Clayton’s book addresses modern-day questions of appropriation more directly. He talks about hearing the voices of Jamaican men sampled on 1990s jungle records, which he initially viewed as “a form of respect.” Over time, this became more codified, with producers becoming increasingly detached from the music that they were sampling, which started to venture into morally grey territory.

“Sampling can forge cultural links just as easily as it can sustain a stereotype,” Clayton writes, and in the way that he charts how this moved from dialogue to racist cliche, he neatly summarizes how such an exchange can turn sour.

Clayton discusses his own musical evolution in light of this, charting how he moved from sampling North African music, to wanting something deeper, to collaborating with a Moroccan violinist. This in turn led to the creation of software that would make such collaborations easier in the future. By showcasing his own involvement in cultural dialogues, Clayton also makes his own creative path an educational one, showing how artists with the best intentions can also go awry.

Near the end of the book, Clayton discusses the Portland, Oregon, musician and record label-owner Christopher Kirkley. His label, Sahel Sounds, has released a host of notable music from Mali, Ghana, Niger, and elsewhere. While Clayton has been critical elsewhere in the book about Western labels releasing music from across the globe, he hails Kirkley as someone who’s gotten it right — partially because Kirkley spent time in those areas playing music himself, and partially because Kirkley is “not trying to maintain a middleman position.” Alternately: he’s running this label with a consciousness of the ways that cultural exchange can go wrong, and is seeking to address it.

“Allowing this awareness of imbalances in access and power to shape how, and for whom, the Sahel Sounds project operates is what I find so compelling,” Clayton writes. It’s a self-awareness that seems increasingly important in today’s cultural landscape.

Both James (in The Glamour of Strangeness) and Clayton (in Uproot) emphasize the need for travel, whether literal or metaphorical, to broaden one’s artistic horizons. “[G]rowth happens when we abandon our comfort zones,” Clayton writes, and goes on to discuss the need for patience, and of the importance of waiting and learning when engaging with a different culture. The deeper you understand another culture’s art, the more attuned to its nuances you’ll be — and, one can hope, the less likely you’ll engage in an act of artistic appropriation.

In a time of instant connections and artistic gratification, taking a longer road might feel counter-intuitive, but the rewards can be both moral and aesthetic.