If the sombrero fits, wear it and be damned

Critics of “cultural appropriation” were offended by Beyoncé wearing a sari. They should be asking: is the performance any good?

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Beyoncé wears a sari in a Coldplay music video: Can a black woman be guilty of cultural appropriation?

Working out of a shared workspace in Shoreditch, I recently found myself caught up in a criminal act of cultural appropriation. The building’s staff were planning a party with a Mexican theme, and a concerned citizen had got wind of this outrage on the company social network. Before the party took place, she harangued the building’s staff with emails about the enormous offence the Mexican theme was causing her and others. The event might have been cancelled if the force of her complaint hadn’t been mitigated by the fact that no one had ever met her—she was still resident in California, was yet to move into our building and had no Mexican heritage of any kind.

This was an instructive encounter with the idea of cultural appropriation which, cultivated in the sheltered coves of US liberal arts colleges, is now being exported to less enlightened shores. The theory goes that in many instances culture is the property of specific social or racial groups, and accordingly must be fiercely protected. Oxford Dictionaries, providing a vague definition of a somewhat nebulous concept, defines it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc, of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society”.

This makes it a no-go for any of us to speak about the experiences of a minority group if we don’t belong to it. Be mindful always to “stay in your lane”. It also means that previously lauded attempts to embrace cultural diversity may now see one labelled as at best, insensitive, at worst racist, and that attempts to engage with ideas are now portrayed as attempts to steal them. The chef Gordon Ramsey was recently taken to task for opening an Asian restaurant that was judged disdainful of the differences between Asian cuisines. Meanwhile Marks and Spencer has been pilloried for the inauthenticity of its “vegetable biryani wrap”.

When culture is carved up according to its country of origin, there are bound to be innumerable such instances of cultural appropriation, an idea whose roots we can trace to identity politics. This divisive doctrine insists that culture is capital, and that using what is not yours by birth is theft. Yet it is surely a central tenet of Western liberal thought that culture cannot be owned by anyone, and cannot be stolen.

The gatekeepers of cultural appropriation only deem it to have occurred when one culture borrows from another over which it is in some way dominant. The rules are far from cut and dried, but while you are unlikely to be criticised for wearing a beret, you could get grief for sporting a fez. Lederhosen present no dangers, but it may be safer for the kaftan to remain in the darker recesses of your wardrobe.

What matters is who you are, and whose culture you borrow from. While Italians may regard your asking for a cappuccino after dinner, or for parmesan on your spaghetti alle vongole, as a breach of etiquette, we are not generally expected to worry ourselves overmuch on behalf of privileged peoples.

Of course, establishing the supposed dominance of one society over another can be a conundrum. The Israeli winner of the 2018 Eurovision song contest found her performance condemned on social media for using elements of Japanese culture (it featured cat figurines and she wore a kimono).  Since there was some confusion about the history of dominance between Israel and Japan, the outrage of social media activists was tempered with uncertainty. When the story reached the Japanese media and public, they were equally confused, though for different reasons. There was only surprise that this was the sort of thing that now gets Westerners upset.

There was likewise confusion after the pop star Beyoncé appeared in a music video dressed in a sari and traditional Indian jewellery and with henna tattoos. Agitated online sages faced a quandary about whether an African-American woman could be guilty of appropriating Indian culture—perhaps, given the circumstances, this constituted a case of appreciating rather than appropriating. When we are confronted with such nuanced arguments about whether or not to be offended, how are we to find time to actually be offended?

Some forms of imitation, though, seem to border on parody. The white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea adopted a “blaccent” and allegedly had her bum surgically enlarged, which may have left some people feeling queasy. It looks a lot like the peddling of offensive and reductive stereotypes. We might ask ourselves why we need white Australian rappers: it’s hardly as if America is so bereft of its own rappers that it has to import them from Mullumbimby, New South Wales. Yet, for all that, why shouldn’t she be allowed to perform black music if she wants to?

Popular culture foists tackiness and inauthenticity on us.  Drop into the pub to see for yourself. Admire the “tribal” sleeve tattoos on your fellow drinkers, meaningless imitations of their Polynesian and Maori models. Or perhaps you’ll encounter a follower of the flourishing celebrity trend for having oneself annotated in Chinese or Hebrew. The pop singer Ariana Grande recently tried to have the name of her hit “7 Rings” inked on her palm in Japanese script. The tattoo she received apparently read “shichirin”, a kind of Japanese portable barbecue grill.

One can appreciate the annoyance caused by others exoticising your culture and using it to accessorise themselves. It must be tiresome to see your culture misrepresented and trivialised, and to have part of what you see as your identity treated in such an inauthentic way. But is inauthenticity a moral failing? I’m not sure it is.

Culture is bought and sold on a global scale, and the feeling of inauthenticity is the natural result. Commerce remorselessly takes what it wants from culture high and low. We are powerless to prevent Mozart being used to sell car insurance, Dvořák Hovis, or Rimsky-Korsakov Black & Decker. As long ago as the 1880s, John Everett Millais was roundly condemned, not least by his former Pre-Raphaelite brothers, for allowing his painting Bubbles to be used to advertise Pears soap. Intellectual property laws of the time allowed him little choice in the matter, but this didn’t quell the anger at seeing art appropriated to sell a product.

This is a feeling we are now all familiar with: the disappointment of seeing a favourite song used in a tacky commercial, or an actor we admire offering a paid endorsement. Amazon’s most recent ad campaign, for example, uses soul singer Freddie Scott’s “You Got What I Need”, playing only the song’s title and in such a way as to suggest that it is in fact a love song to Amazon, who literally have everything you need. I imagine there will be lots of backslapping at the ad agency where they came up with that one.

Even if artists refuse to sell (which they rarely do), copyright and intellectual property laws offer only a temporary protection. Fifteen years ago, the family of the late country singer Johnny Cash were able to scupper plans to use his song “Ring of Fire” to advertise a cream for haemorrhoids, but as soon as the copyright runs out, his song seems likely to meet this ignominious fate.

Surely when people say that culture belongs to them, what they are really saying is that it means something to them: a way of dressing, a manner of speaking, a song, a painting. To see something that has meaning to you taken and repurposed in a way that is superficial and meaningless, is clearly annoying, even jarring. But it is completely commonplace. And since there is no way to protect the things that hold meaning for us from being used in this way (intellectual laws being designed only to protect earnings), how then can we expect there to be a special case for the claims of cultural appropriation? Especially since in the case of cultural appropriation, there is clearly no one single person responsible for having originated a shared group identity.

Let’s examine the charge that cultural appropriation is theft in another light. In May, Jeff Koons became the most expensive living artist when his sculpture Rabbit was bought by a former Goldman Sachs banker for $91,075,000. Rabbit, a metre-high stainless-steel sculpture resembling a silver balloon animal, came complete with a certificate of authenticity from the artist. Whatever cultural value you think Rabbit possesses, if I were to steal it the man from Goldman Sachs would be poorer to the tune of a shade over 91 million greenbacks. The act of theft requires both something that can be stolen and someone to whom it belonged who is left the poorer by its loss. In the case of cultural appropriation, who is being deprived? If I were to begin rapping for example, it’s not entirely clear who I would be impoverishing, beyond my immediate audience.

The notion of cultural appropriation is too vague, and inconsistently interpreted and applied. It is based on the dubious foundations of identity politics. It divides rather than unites. And it ignores the sad reality that culture is easily bought and cannot be well protected. Even if we could agree in principle that it is a good idea, it is not something that could ever be effectively enforced.

What then should we do about culture that we find inauthentic or offensive? What banner can we rally behind? We already have a good instrument for this purpose: taste. It may not be backed by weighty socio-political theory, but it is tried and tested. You might say that it is too subjective, but so is cultural appropriation. The great advantage of taste is that we can each of us establish whether we think something is in good or bad taste, without recourse to political theory.

The broad church of taste allows for different interpretations whereas the narrow doctrines of cultural appropriation reject the very idea of subjectivity. To claim, based on sociological arguments, that something is objectively offensive is misguided. Offensiveness is not a quality inherent in anything. Something is offensive merely because people get offended by it.

I have a bugbear which I have found few people share. Every time England play a rugby match, their supporters insist on singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, an American negro spiritual. To repurpose a song rooted in the suffering of slavery to support 15 men chasing a misshapen ball seems to me a crime of bad taste. It sounds hollow and inauthentic. Football fans at least have the wit to change the words of the tunes they sing, even if it only means adapting La donna è mobile to “Jose Mourinho”.

Our feeling that something is being exploited in bad taste comes from its superficial reuse without any understanding of what it means. This is true across culture high and low and of all different origins. It is the meaninglessness that troubles us. We can accept that meanings change; if something acquires a new meaning that presents no problem to us.

Culture without meaning is bad taste. It is a misspelt tattoo in a language its wearer does not understand. It is suburban white people trying to act and dress as though they are from Compton, California. It is Kendall Jenner and Pepsi trying to sell soft drinks on the back of the Black Lives Matter movement. We know these things are in bad taste—we don’t need cultural appropriation to tell us that.

And yet the history of culture is a history of exchange. When we borrow from another culture in a way that is shallow and meaningless, what is produced will not last long. But if we can make something that is good in its own right, that has its own meaning, we can be more confident in its survival. The concept of taste therefore furnishes us with an excellent means to allow for cultural exchange while rejecting meaningless imitation and parody. Cultural appropriation sets out to put barriers on that exchange, which is a mistake. Bad culture dies. We will always make more, but people soon forget the bad trends, films, and poetry of the past. What is good will remain. Is that not what matters when we look at culture: to ask, is it good or isn’t it?