You are on page 1of 2

Have you come across 'pocahotties'? I hadnt either until a few weeks ago.

It is apparently the term used for young women who dress up in 'Red Indian' outfits in which to prance around on Halloween. I have to confess that until recently, being as happy to watch scantily dressed young women capering around as the next male, I would have seen this as essentially harmless, although it isnt prevalent in the UK. However, reading the reaction of those on the receiving end made me realise that in practice this is just as offensive as would be putting on blackface and an 'African Princess' outfit. While there are, and probably always have been, people who respect Native American culture and see virtue in emulating it, dressing up for a party is not respect. Following this up, I came across the term 'cultural appropriation, defined on Wikipedia as the taking from a culture that is not ones own of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artefacts, history and ways of knowledge. It is perhaps best used to describe the broader process of acculturation from the perspective of a minority or weaker culture. While I understand the 'pocahottie' issue, I have immediate problems with this wider concept. Almost every term used in that definition has further problems of definition. What does taking mean? What is a culture? Can we locate the source of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artefacts, history and ways of knowledge at a cultural level? Can the appropriation of objects like works of art be considered in the same way as appropriation of content like artistic styles or culturally significant rituals? Moreover. as the term has passed into wider usage, its meaning has become confused, muddled and riddled with inconsistencies. In particular it has become used to justify claims that the use of concepts from other cultures is in some way unacceptable, to be avoided and perhaps even racist. Dig into blog comment threads and you will arguments to that effect about judo and other martial arts, yoga, textile patterns, music and a huge range of artistic endeavours. Most of these arguments moreover take the donor culture at face value, without looking to see how far it is itself a synthesis. The implied suggestion that these cultures cannot stand up for themselves but must be defended by others and, implicitly, fossilised is also at best patronising and potentially racist. To take this further lets look at some cases of alleged content appropriation in the arts. Jazz and blues are generally considered to have their roots in African-American culture. It has been argued in the past that when non African-American musicians attempt to play jazz or blues they are cannot perform with the right sensitivity and feeling and are also damaging the culture from which they are stealing. So far as the first argument is concerned there is plenty of contradictory empirical evidence. Many years ago I saw a TV interview with musicians Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee in which they recounted how, when they first heard a recording by the British artist Lonnie Donegan, they thought it was by Leadbelly, so accurately had he captured the sound and feel. Philosopher James O Young in his book Cultural Appropriation and the Arts " target="_blank" title="Cultural appropriation and the arts">Cultural Appropriation and the Arts recounts how the trumpeter Roy Eldridge (Young calls him Ray) bet the music critic Leonard Feather that he could reliably tell the difference between jazz performances by African American and non African American musicians. Eldridge failed miserably. A third example can be found in the almost universal praise for the work of Eric Clapton from black artists like Muddy Waters and B B King. The second argument about damage to the donor culture also fails to stand up to investigation. The classic 'St James Infirmary Blues' is a case in point. The words and melody have their origin in an 18th century traditional English folk song called "The Unfortunate Rake" (also known as "The Unfortunate Lad" or "The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime"). There are numerous versions of the song throughout the English-speaking world. It evolved for example into other American standards such as "The Streets of Laredo". Effectively the song is the product of a long process of

adoption, adaptation and transmutation into the blues we know. A similar case is the song Goodnight Irene recorded in 1950 by Pete Seeger and the Weavers. This was an adaptation of a song called Irene by Leadbelly and proved controversial at the time. It turned out however that the Leadbelly song which he had copyrighted was based on a traditional Southern folk song he had learned from his uncle. That song was in turn an arrangement of a waltz written in the 1880s by Gussie Lord Davies, an African America composer who wrote however for a largely white audience. Probably Leadbellys uncle had come across it via that non AfricanAmerican channel. Davis of course had in turn appropriated the waltz from the music of Vienna. The song has now permeated British culture to the extent that it has become the club song for supporters of the English football club Bristol Rovers. In both cases these songs have been passing in and out of African American culture over an extended period. The extent to which they can be placed within a specific culture is minimal and the extent to which any culture has been harmed by the process is probably zero. Film is another example of appropriation resulting in positive outcomes. The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa made numerous films based on Western literary sources. Perhaps the greatest of these are Ran (derived from King Lear) and Throne of Blood (derived from Macbeth). Another of Kurosawas films Seven Samurai was in turn remade as The Magnificent Seven, while his film Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars. Shakespeare was himself an arch appropriator, from Holinshed and others. His themes and plots have a mythic quality that stands above any specific culture and so easily slip from one medium to another and from one cultural setting to another. As well as the Kurosawa films, Lear was the inspiration for the film Broken Arrow Lance, the musical Kiss me Kate came from Taming of the Shrew and most well known of all perhaps, West Side Story, from Romeo and Juliet. His work was also the stimulus for the suite Such Sweet Thunder by Duke Ellington. Appropriation of content then has been the source of much great work. The adoption of artistic elements from a culture and their remaking into something new is a positive thing. Examples have been cited from jazz and film, but there are many others. In music, tango, salsa, Tejano, flamenco and high life are all syntheses from a range of cultures. Surprisingly perhaps the Mexican Tejano music includes elements from the brass band music of German immigrants, while flamenco incorporates Arabic and even Indian influences via Gypsy music. None of these examples cited have taken anything away from their culture of origin, in fact by their creation the sum total of human happiness has been increased. Cultural and artistic change is inevitable. Without it we would still be picking wild berries and fleeing from predators. Trying to prevent change will be as successful as King Cnut. Everyone loses.