Appropriation doesn’t come without consequences
‘Criticism and consequence are necessary for the proper evolution of our art making’
Where I do take exception is with the assumption that artists should do these kinds of explorations in some sort of protective bubble.
RE: In defence of free artistic expression. (May 5, 2017)
As a white male artist still trying to fully understand all the privileges I enjoy in this country, I had some concern this morning with the opinion piece of Hamilton artist Laura Furster. She was defending Amanda PL’s practice of painting in a similar Woodlands vernacular to that of Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. The opinion piece is one of many that I have read lately on the topic of indigenous cultural appropriation; there has been a string of them connecting recent media firestorms surrounding the written work of Joseph Boyden, an editorial by Writers Union of Canada now ex-editor Hal Niedzviecki, and Vision Gallery’s cancelling of Amanda PL’s exhibition. Indeed, there is no shortage of opinion on this topic.
At the heart of many of these opinions, including Furster’s, is “the freedom to explore and enjoy the rich and fascinating methods, stories, and knowledge contained in the histories of these cultures.” In other words, artists need space and licence to borrow, assume voice, and imitate in order to build their own creative capacity. As a visual artist I have a hard time disagreeing with that. Where I do take exception is with the assumption that artists should do these kinds of explorations in some sort of protective bubble, free of the consequence or critical reactions that they can invoke. On the contrary, criticism and consequence are necessary for the proper evolution of our art making. Without them, we risk making art that is frivolous.
When Furster states, “the Woodlands style is just that: a style … just like Cubism, or Impressionism ...” she neglects the fact that each of those terms relates to an artistic language, each with significant politics, histories and philosophies attached to them. These are visual languages that help change how our cultures think; they are very powerful things, and should be explored with humility and rigor. In the case of indigenous languages and cultural forms it becomes even more sensitized because of our country’s historic and continued actions to control, ghettoize, co-opt and profit from it. When an artist from a dominant culture draws on an indigenous artistic language they must be equally aware to the history of colonialism, genocide and exploitation that connects to it. They also need to be aware that such artistic languages are rooted in principles of resistance to that history. Therefore, using it risks being construed as a provocation, or a further exploitation.
I also take exception to Furster’s statement that “this outrage has its basis in gut reactions, not in critical thinking” and invite her to consider the wealth of thoughtful investigation on the topic. “The Violence of Cultural Appropriation” by Crystal Migwans, published in Canadian Art (and available online) is a good place to start, if only to prove just how meticulously considered this topic is.
One of the reasons I was drawn to art making was precisely because I could crawl into my own brain and explore and experiment with total abandon. The very first art traditions I emulated as an artist were indigenous ones. I can proudly say that those emulations were foundational to my practice. What was equally foundational, however, was being called out on those emulations, working through my defensiveness, and modifying my practice so that it is more honest, relational, and accountable. Without those difficult critical exchanges, my art practice would be empty.
Toronto artist Amanda LaGrotta, who goes by Amanda PL, is at the centre of the latest cultural appropriation controversy.