Cultural appropriation, combinatory thinking and collage

On Creativity and Cultural Appropriation: Part 3

In the conversation about cultural appropriation, it seems like there is some confusion for us about the difference between a cultural appropriation that is damaging, and the idea of appropriation as a neutral tool in the artist's toolkit.

You can appropriate without being oppressive, if you are not appropriating the cultural forms of people and communities that aren’t already fighting for cultural survival in the face of the groups and identities you belong to.

Human creativity is combinatory: there is no pure “blank slate” place within us out of which images and music and movements arise (the “blank slate” is a myth of empire and has become part of the ideology of cultural approiation - maybe I’ll write more about that later).

So: no blank slate. What is outside of us is also inside of us. We are always working with internal and external raw materials. Ancestral. Material. Cultural. Emotional. Visual. Sensual. Collective. Political. Social. There is no neutral image, no neutral work of art. 

Basically every continually evolving art form on earth has contained within in a dance between the continuation and protection of tradition, and the insatiably curious and creative integration of influences from the environment around it. Human cultural evolution is MADE of appropriation, in the sense that it continually changes as it incorporates inspiration, information, and intelligence from all it comes into contact with. Culture is a continual conversation that changes all parties.


-- Dada artists who pioneered the art of collage in the European fine art traditions appropriated a lot of the design and typographic forms emerging from mass reproduction (the invention of photography and the printing press) in their collages, which created whole new visual language that responded to and exploited (in a both critical and exciting way) the new visual culture of industrialization. It explored how how ways of seeing and receiving and perceiving were changing as a result of the mechanical “eye” of technology. 

(But here’s the complexity: Dada artists also engaged in appropriation of African art images which helped perpetuate the cultural erasure of African art and tradition. Can you see the difference between those two modes within Dadaism?) (Also: Western folks often credit the Dada Artists, or worse, Picasso, for “inventing” collage which is hilarious - because collage thinking and methods have been used throughout human history all over the world.)

-- The entire history of American music as pioneered by black artists, from gospel to jazz to rock to rap and hip hop (and many other forms). Jazz for instance was influenced by gospel, bluegrass, Latin music, and musical forms from Africa and the diaspora, European orchestral music, etc etc. The undeniably GIANT contribution of this music to the world had in part to do with the creative genius of COMBINATORY thinking. And doing it in a way that resisted white cooptation by continually getting more complex, impossible to copy, and full of specific cultural references and musical language. (I am SO NOT a music historian, so I’m hoping someone will hop on this and point us to awesome resources that outlines this in better detail, because its beautiful).

Combinatory thinking, COLLAGE thinking: using the world around you and influences around you as raw material, and combining it to create whole new forms. There’s something really essential about this to human creativity. Something essential about it to our natures. I'm not challenging that.

So much of the pushback to the cultural appropriation critique has to do with a failure to see the difference between appropriation as a life-giving, built in superpower of creativity and creative evolution, and appropriation as a tool of cultural genocide. But there is a difference.

What does it mean to reclaim MORE fully your creative process of combinatory and collage-like thinking and making - and to do so in a way that is deeply sensitive to the ways in which this creative skill is manipulated into becoming a vehicle for creating destructive culture, rather than generative culture?

Put your combinatorial creativity in service of creating liberating culture - not in service of perpetuating destructive culture.

When we are UNaware of how it works, the dominant culture’s values operate through our work. When we become aware, we can use images and words to create new culture that refuses to do the work of empire and proposes new ways of looking and making.

Let’s do that.