Taking out a Patent on Culture

Calls to destroy a painting by a white artist, Dana Schutz, of a black victim of a lynch mob hanging in the Whitney Museum illustrates that for many, even artistic freedom has become a negotiable commodity in the crusade against cultural appropriation.

Culture has become a fiercely contested resource. Accusations of cultural appropriation regularly feature in the news as the 21st century’s moral equivalent of religious sacrilege. People are now regularly condemned for their hairstyles, clothes and the food they cook on the grounds that they appropriated someone else’s cultures. Whereas in the past the main focus of unease was to protect culture from alien influences today the concern is with the restriction of access to and use of cultural resources by foreign parties. Identity politics regards culture as a group’s private property to which others have no right of access.

The current controversies surrounding cultural appropriation are but the latest versions of the conflicts and anxieties that have surrounded cultural exchanges since ancient times. Throughout most of history apprehensions about culture tended to be focused on the threat posed by attractive foreign ideas and practices on society. In the ancient world — communities as diverse as the Jews, Greeks, Romans, early Christians — resisted acknowledging the alien influences that they had appropriated on their culture. Yet they were active borrowers of each other’s ideas and the experience of history testifies to the constant diffusion of culture.

The anxiety expressed by a section of the ancient Israeli political elites towards the infiltration of Greek values and practices into Jewish cultural life offers one of the earliest examples of the powerful passions surrounding the subject of cultural appropriation. During the early part of 2nd century BCE many upper class Jews came under the influence of Greek culture. Others considered Hellenistic values and customs as idolatrous and in conflict with Jewish law. They took particular objection to the siting of Greek gymnasiums in Jerusalem and to the values promoted by this institution. For example the gymnasium’s emphasis on the prestige of physical prowess directly contradicted the traditional norms upheld in Jewish scriptures. These cultural tensions led to a revolt against Hellenism, led by the Maccabees in the years 177–160 BCE. The danger of appropriating and internalizing elements of Greek culture constitutes a central theme of the canonical book, 2 Maccabees (100 BCE).

Jewish cultural warriors were not simply interested in curbing the influence of Greek values and practices, they were also worried about the appropriation of their culture by foreign powers. Some of them feared that the translation of the Torah into Greek would strengthen the cultural authority of this language at the expense of Hebrew. “It was a bad day for Israel” when the Torah was translated into Greek notes the Talmud (Soferim 1:7). This commentary on the Bible expressed the concern that the appropriation of the Torah into Greek culture would distort its true meaning and introduce heretical ideas into Judaism.

Curbing the influence of Greek culture was also exercised in the imagination of the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero (106–46 BCE). In his The Republic, Cicero minimized the influence of the Greeks on Roman political culture. Through the voice of the heroic general, Scipius Aemilianus he expressed outrage at the suggestion that one of Rome’s early kings and founding religious leader, Numa Pompilius was a pupil of the Greek thinker, Pythagoras. Upon hearing this statement and expressing a palpable sense of relief, one of his interlocutors, the youthful Manilius replied, “I am happy to learn that we got our culture, not by importing foreign expertise but through our native qualities.”

Whilst distancing itself from the “corrupt” and “degenerate” customs of latter-day Greek city-states, Rome appropriated the heroic Homeric era into its founding myth. In this way Rome could claim the inheritance of the best of the Greek past while also boasting a superior political wisdom to that possessed by the Hellenic world.

Though the Romans were accomplished appropriators of other people’s cultures they tended to feel uneasy about acknowledging their debts. The Roman historian Tacitus (54–117 AD) was strident in his denunciation of what he perceived as the corruption of Roman society by foreign cultural influences. According to the historian Ronald Mellor, Tacitus was “revolted by the trappings of Greek culture: artists, eunuchs, gymnasia, ballet dancers, singers, astrologers, homosexuals.” Expressions of disgust at the influence of Greek culture were common amongst sections of Roman traditionalists.

For their part, like the Romans, some of Greece’s leading thinkers were reluctant to acknowledge their own cultural debt. The essayist Plutarch (45–120 AD) polemicized against the historian Herodotus’ claim that the Greeks had learned from barbarian cultures. Like the Romans who declined to acknowledge their cultural debt to the Greeks, Plutarch was unwilling to admit to the influence of Egypt on his own culture.

A bust of Plutarch

Ambivalent attitudes surrounding acts of cultural appropriation are also evident amongst the exchanges between early Christian theologians. The Church Father, Jerome’s (342–420) decision to translate the Old Testament from its original Hebrew provoked strong criticisms from conservative theologians. They complained that it would weaken the moral authority of the Apostles, who relied on the Greek version of this text. It was suggested that translating the Bible from Hebrew into Latin would strengthen the moral status of Jews since it would put them in the position of acting as the authority of biblical truth.

The emergence of identity rooted in culture

Despite the reluctance of most societies to acknowledge external influences on their communities, culture was rarely perceived as a form of private property that could not be used by other communities. Indeed with the emergence of the Enlightenment during the 17th and 18th century, the ideal of universalism gained influence in the Western world. Its vision of universal principles guiding humanity implicitly rejected the relevance of cultural distinctions in human affairs. Paradoxically, it was in response to the cosmopolitan vision of humanity that the modern concern with cultural divisions and distinctions began to take shape.

In the 18th century, the conservative reaction to the Enlightenment’s affirmation of rationalism and universalism led to the emergence of the Romantic Movement in Germany. The Romantics emphasized the importance of cultural differences and claimed that identities that were founded upon it were more authentic than the abstract attachment to universalism. Such sentiments were in part a response to the growing influence of the French rationalistic and universalistic ideas on European societies. The authentic Kultur of the people of Germany was favourably contrasted to the supposed abstract spirit of Enlightenment universalism. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) forcefully captured the particularist spirit of the new Romantic worship of culture. Herder claimed that it was culture that defined each people — the volk — and endowed each people with its own distinct identity and spirit.

During the 19th century the Romantic mystique of the particular elevated differences and celebrated the characteristics associated with the allegedly unique spirit of different people. Gradually, these notions of a distinct cultural spirit became integrated into the narrative of nationalism and assisted the crystallisation of the conviction that each nation possessed unique characteristics. The 19th century French philosopher Ernest Renan articulated this sensibility with the words “nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.” The growing significance attached to cultural identity led to the posing of questions, such as who belonged to a particular culture and who was entitled to give voice to it.

The important status of national cultural identity inevitably raised the question of who can speak on its behalf. Many cultural entrepreneurs who raised this question were as much interested in who could not as in who could provide an authentic voice of a particular culture. This preoccupation with an illegitimate representation of a particular cultural identity was given the name of voice appropriation in the twentieth century. Though this term did not exist in the previous century, apprehension about inauthentic voices crowding out genuine representatives of a volgeist, — the spirit of the people — took shape. In Central and East Europe — the problem of voice appropriation was principally identified with the cultural activities of Jewish people.

One persistent theme in anti-Semitic literature of the 19th century was the complaint that Jews were over-represented in cultural activities and in the media. This was portrayed as a threat to the nation because allegedly, Jews could not provide an authentic voice to a culture that was alien to their experience. In the 1870s, Wilhelm Marr, a German propagandist and founder of the League of Antisemites, argued in his pamphlet, The Victory of Judaism over Germandom that Jews had subverted and corrupted German culture. Marr’s resentment of the supposed appropriation of the nation’s cultural life by an alien people echoed similar complaints made by anti-Semitic politicians throughout Central Europe. The first anti-Jewish law in the 20th century was Hungary’s Numerus Clausus legislation in 1920. The law, which restricted the proportion of Jews that could be admitted into universities to 6 per cent of the total student body, was preceded by a protracted campaign against this group’s supposedly deleterious impact on Hungarian culture.

One of the justification for Hitler’s Nuremberg Legislation (Reich Citizenship Law, Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour’ was the claim that Jewish writers and artists undermined the nation’s values and poisoned Germanic culture. In this period and until the 1960s, the policing of cultural boundaries was associated with reactionary cultural warriors determined to defend the purity of their cultural inheritance. They were determined to protect their monopoly ownership of their culture from alien interlopers who dared to appropriate it and dispossess people of their legitimate voice.

In the post-Second World War era a significant shift occurred in the way that the issue of cultural appropriation was posed. Disquiet about the appropriation of voice by inauthentic representatives of a nation’s identity was supplemented by a new anti-imperialist critique of acts of cultural borrowing by a powerful West. In the 1970s appropriation referred to the plundering and domination of colonized cultures by imperialist powers. In his seminal text on this subject, Orientalism (1978), the postcolonial theorist Edward Said focused on the representation of “the Orient” by the West and argued that it was motivated by the impulse to fulfill its own desires and to legitimate its power.

Edward Said

The new focus on the theme of Western domination over colonial societies framed cultural appropriation as an act of exploitation. From this perspective appropriation was an act of theft — not just simply of a cultural resource but of the authority to represent it.  It was claimed that the act of appropriation threatened the integrity of a culture by representing it in a manner that violated its original and authentic quality.

Who owns culture?

Back in the 1970s, cultural appropriation was an obscure term that was of interest only to small groups of radical academic scholars. Yet, as a result of the ascendancy of the politics of identity, it began to acquire wider recognition in the 1990s. Identity politics regarded its cultural underpinning as vital for its legitimation and therefore looked upon culture as a precious resource that it was reluctant to share with others. This disposition towards a zero-sum view of culture encouraged an insecure and anxious sensibility towards its ownership. The right to represent a culture or to access its accomplishment became a jealously policed issue.

Henceforth, cultural entrepreneurs would claim that only women had the right to write about female characters or to authorship of books on black history should be the prerogative of black people. Such claims often stressed the unbridgeable difference in the way an identity was lived and experienced. Through their elevation of difference they encouraged the chasm dividing cultures.

In the 1990s the question of who could write about which culture exploded with full force. In 1992 a debate erupted in Canada about the cultural appropriation of voice in fiction and non-fiction. The Canada Council entered the fray and defined cultural appropriation to mean “the depiction of minorities or cultures other than one’s own, either in fiction or non-fiction.” The focus of the discussion was on who had the right to tell and voice the stories of First Nations cultures. The Writer’s Union of Canada defined cultural appropriation as “the taking – from a culture that is not one’s own – of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artifacts, history and ways of knowledge.” Advocates of identity politics explicitly called into question the right of a non-Native to write stories about First Nation people. The debate in Canada was paralleled by a similar controversy relating to the stories and artifacts of Aborigines people in Australia.

In the ancient world anxiety about cultural appropriation was focused on the corrupting influence of foreign ways. From the 1990s onwards the condemnation of cultural appropriation was fuelled by the desire to protect a monopoly of ownership over cultural resources. With the constant politicization of identity virtually every form of cultural interaction has turned into a potential site for conflict. One reason why appropriation has become the focus of an unprecedented level of conflict is because of the consumerist and privatized turn of cultural politics.

The convergence of the consumerist turn in culture and the growing influence of identity politics created the condition where debates about appropriation have acquired an increasingly banal but nevertheless intemperate dimension. In recent years condemnations of cultural appropriation has acquired a free-floating quality that attaches itself to virtually any dimension of everyday life. So students at Pembroke College in Cambridge University did not simply complain about the quality of the food they were served. They condemned their institution for serving “culturally insensitive food” with “inauthentic combinations of ingredients.”

Concern about cultural appropriation which once dealt with big issues of the day has in recent years turned into a self-serving exercise in virtue-signalling. Cultural entrepreneurs are not simply interested in controlling who has the right to speak or write about a culture. They also attempt to assert moral authority for deciding who gets to wear Indian earrings or allowed to have dreadlocks. This expansion of moralizing about culture is the inexorable consequence of the search of identity politics for new sources of affirmation. Differences in taste and habits are no longer seen as a personal matter they are interpreted as political statements. Culture has been politicized to the point that almost any custom or practice can be exploited to make a statement about the scandalous behavior of those causing offense.

The current crusade against cultural appropriation trivializes the meaning of culture. The ceaseless insistence on culturally correct behavior desensitizes people to the distinction between rituals and practices that are genuinely worthy of respect and those that have little meaning and significance. In such circumstances the distinctions between truly important practices, such as a religious ritual, and trivial ones, such as eating a curry, loses their meanings.


The Republic, Book 2, 29 in Cicero (2008) p.44.

Ronald Mellor (1995) Tacitus, Routledge, p. 53


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  1. Yes, yes, yes… and yes; but I have to take issue with this: “the distinctions between truly important practices, such as a religious ritual, and trivial ones, such as eating a curry, loses their meanings.”

    The distinction between eating a wafer symbolizing Christ and eating a curry, for a non-believer, is rightly considered trivial.

    Irrational taboos be damned.

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