The Creative Practitioner and Cultural Appropriation

There is, perhaps, no more important topic in the social sciences than the study of intercultural communication. Understanding between members of different cultures was always important, but it has never been as important as it is now. Formerly, it was necessary for empire, or trade. Now it is a matter of the survival of our species.—R. Young, Intercultural Communication

A few months ago, I encountered a sculpture created by Chinese-born artist Xu Zhen, entitled “Eternity Buddha in Nirvana.” It depicts a massive reclining Buddha surrounded by a host of life-sized Greco-Roman figures. The informational signage stated that the work, with its over-scaled integration of East and West, was an attempt at “bringing cultural differences together” by “addressing barriers.”

Eternity Buddha in Nirvana, Xu Zhen

Amen. The creative practitioner has never had a greater task. But there is an overall disconnect here. Traffic for the intercultural project seems to be sanctioned to move in only one direction. For a creative like Xu Zhen, there is a row of green lights, but for the Western creative, any approach to an outsider culture is often characterized as illegitimate, abusive and unsanctioned appropriation.

No doubt there are times for sanction and caution, especially in respect to the removal of artifacts and the fraudulent representation of outsider personas. But what of the more disputed territory, such as creative outsider reference and homage? Or of insider and outsider collaboration? Or even commentary about outsider creative practice, where descriptions of balance, scale, colour, repetition and symmetry are often considered necessarily “flawed, misleading and incomplete distortions” of the outsider’s work, as J. Young notes in Cultural Appropriation and the Arts?

At some point in this list the accusation of appropriation shades into paralysis from the attempt to mix an ideological agenda with creative praxis. Ideological thought and creative outreach can never assimilate because any attempt to assign creative praxis to a political dimension is a profound misunderstanding of creative work. The creative act cannot be political. Instead, the creative act must always be enthrallment, which is a state of enrapture and connection. And, for the creative, this is a state often experienced as a result of a sudden and unexpected connection with an outsider’s use of a common creative praxis such as line, form, colour or space. When the creative and the political are forced into collision, nothing creative can result. Instead, there can only be the predictable rush to condemn and defend through the deeply rutted paths of claims about ownership, oppression and authority. What does a culture own? Is the culture oppressed? Who arbitrates the oppression? These claims can only leave the creative in a state of inertia, assigned to inaction within a labyrinth of moral and legal confusion she is seldom equipped to negotiate.

But this is where things start to get interesting. Whilst a state of inertia may appear to many to be the end of an encounter, for the creative there is often an intuitive understanding that inertia is not a void. That inertia may perhaps be something else. A sign or an outcome. A qualifying judgment on a cultural dominant, in which cities, workplaces and families are shared by many different ethnic and racial identities, but in which enthrallment by those identities is prohibited. A dominant where both insiders and outsiders can see, know and touch one another, whilst seeing, knowing and touching are denied. Essentially a cultural dominant in a state of perpetual contradiction. And, for the creative, contradiction is very familiar territory.

Creative contradiction has a long history and in general can be characterized as an act of rule followed by a subsequent act of misrule to generate tension. Robert Venturi’s Contradiction and Complexity in Architecture outlines many examples and adds a remarkable depth to the rule and misrule terminology with related binaries such as control and spontaneity, correctness and ease, order and exception and so on. But there is a caveat. Creative contradiction cannot be an outward reach and a simultaneous denial of the same outward reach. No creative contradiction can be conceptualized in this way and Venturi is careful to distinguish this difference, noting that creative contradiction is a demonstration of complexity and non-creative contradiction is merely evidence of “muddled opinions.”

In my own field of typographic practice, rule and misrule abound. Hundreds of techniques of this kind are widely used to inform a vast amount of past and current creative praxis. For example, in respect to publication layout, all margin areas surrounding texts are traditionally symmetrical, with the values of left (verso) and right (recto) pages mirrored from the centre binding. This is the rule. The subsequent misrule occurs when the symmetrical balance is diverted to asymmetry by radically decreasing both the verso binding margins and the recto fore edge margins. The overall effect gives a desired forward stress and momentum to the layout.

Example 1 demonstrates the rule with verso and recto margin values mirrored at the fold line. Example 2 shows the subsequent misrule with verso and recto margin areas pushed towards the binding and fore edge to create tension.

However, the standard distinction between non-creative contradiction—or “muddled thoughts”—and creative contradiction was radically disrupted in the 1970s, when the postmodern movement heralded a new kind of contradiction that no longer recognised the primary establishment of rule and the subsequent counterpoint of misrule. In one sense, this disruption was a deliberate turning to the incorrect aesthetic of misrule in order to establish a new aesthetic. A turning away from the order of rule and misrule, and a turning towards the confusion of misrule alone in order to create new contradiction. And it has yielded some significant results, including some key characteristics noted in Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Jameson points to the new contradiction in architectural forms as being simultaneously populist, but with entrances difficult to locate; celebratory of internal movement, whilst restricting movement; characterized by containers of vast internal spaces, which are yet filled with nothing; and as having structured external designs whilst concealing internal confusion. Here, the creative contradiction of rule and misrule forming tension with unified purpose is rejected. And, in its place, as Jameson suggests, the users of these architectural spaces are delivered up to an experience much the same as the experience of the protagonist in The Man Who Fell to Earth, who watches fifty different television screens at once without any real hope of identifying significance or coherence.

The Westin Bonaventure Hotel, John C Portman Jr. Frederick Jameson uses this work to demonstrate several characteristics of postmodern contradiction

The craft of typographic practice was profoundly affected by the postmodern movement. For example, in the work of type designer Neville Brody, typefaces such as Blur and Autotrace were deliberate confusions or demonstrations of new contradiction. Here, the creative outreach is simultaneously directed towards both readability and non-readability, or, to use Brody’s own description, they are an attempt at “closing down the distance between thought and expression,” making the thought (rule) irrelevant to the expression (misrule). The typefaces were radical and very popular.

Autotrace, Neville Brody

This is not to say that the postmodern, or new contradiction, is bad creative expression. The architectural and typographic forms are doing precisely what they should be doing by reframing the reality of a cultural dominant in ways not easily expressed in words. In fact, they are the tangible artifacts of the intangible contemporary lived experience in force today. For in these creative forms we can, to some extent, decipher a visual and spatial articulation of what has now become an entire way of life. The experience of new contradiction in an architectural or typographic work is reflective of our experience of a new contradiction in our engagement with life itself. Contradictions that manifest in a multitude of ways. Contradictions in which a hopeful future is weighed against an immanence of nuclear horror; environmental stewardship is in conflict with wasteful consumerism; and social integration is denied through ideological segregation. These are the new lived contradictions of the current cultural dominant. New contradictions without precedent. In my grandfather’s time, the time of bullet and bayonet, backyard vegetables and limited immigration, the new contradictions of the contemporary cultural dominant could never have been contemplated. For him, the admonition of a hopeful future was without the possibility of the planet’s entire destruction; and the encouragement of environmental stewardship did not mean the impossibility of purchasing food without excessive packaging cultivated through doubtful agricultural practice; and from the point of view of the creative, the denial of cultural extension was never mixed with a daily encounter with outsiders.

From this perspective, when the creative encounters the outsider and is simultaneously driven to enthrallment whilst denied enthrallment, one might consider the claims of ownership, oppression and authority as diversion. This encounter could be more accurately identified as an expression of the cultural dominant of new contradiction operating predominantly on the basis of misrule alone. For the creative, ownership, oppression and authority claims in combination with moment-to-moment proximity are merely a specific expression of the overall cultural dominant of this new contradiction, and once this point is grasped, accusations of appropriation can be seen for what they are—a daily confusion and incoherence of contemporary life that cannot be resolved. And in this lack of resolution, or this state of inertia, creatives may be the only people capable of its transcendence by their singular focus on enthrallment.

So, I would suggest we let the artists and designers sort it out for themselves. Yes, there will be misconnections, faulty usage, interpretations that lack clarity and no doubt there will also be harm. But creative praxis is often the raw material of possibility. A point clearly understood by the creator of Eternity Buddha in Nirvana, Xu Zhen:

I have always been curious about the differences between cultures and the alienation between them. And yet, misconceptions can be the beginning of awareness and understanding.

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