Cultural Appropriation: From Mithra to Cowboys

Ilya Yefremov

This is the second and concluding part, From Mithra to Cowboys, of Ilya’s series on cultural appropriation. The first part of this series, The Outrage of the Memes, was released yesterday to much fanfare.

“Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal”

– Picasso (also attributed to Byron, T.S. Elliot, and Banksy)

The entire history of culture is a history of cultural appropriation. The development of culture necessitates cultural exchange, and cultural exchange inevitably leads to cultural appropriation where free-floating signifiers acquire new signifieds and become new symbols of the receiving culture. The two cultures may very well hold simultaneous and different meanings for the same signifier and the existence of such multiplicity does not invalidate any of the meanings. A culture does not have ownership of a symbol to the exclusion of another.

Teepees, ukuleles, and feather headdresses are traditional ceremonial garb of hipster Bacchanals of Cultural Appropriation.

Teepees, ukuleles, and feather headdresses are traditional ceremonial garb of hipster Bacchanals.

Majority of symbols that we consider definitive of a particular culture have a millennia-long trail of transmission and transmutation. Consider the spread of religious thought and imagery – that most sacrosanct of objects haraam to cultural appropriators. Christianity arose from a melting pot of Talmudic tradition, Mithraic messianism, Zoroastrianism, and Osiris mystery cults in the Fertile Crescent, acquired elements of Greek and Roman symbolism and Platonic thought as it expanded into the Empire, nestled itself among the pagan rites of Europe as it crept northwards, and then blended with West African cults to create voodoo, and with South American primitivism to find new expressions in Pentecostalism. Every symbol, story, and tradition in the Christian pantheon is a borrowing or a derivative from another culture. And none of that makes it any less sacred to Christians, the majority of whom would be shocked to find out that they are worshipping graven idols of long-gone heathens.

The same thing happens in art. Magnificent Seven – one of the seminal film of the Western genre – is a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, whose director is known for adapting Shakespeare’s plays into films set in the times of the Shogunates. Shakespeare himself got a significant part of his material from Plutarch and Ovid, the latter of which wrote his Metamorphoses from Greek myths. And onwards we go down the rabbit hole.

Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo.

Roger’s Palace in Palermo. Good luck trying to untangle what here belongs to which culture.

Cultural appropriation is an inextricable element of culture. Without it neither art, no culture in general would have attained the complexity and splendour that it has. Opposing cultural appropriation on principle betrays lack of understanding of the history of culture – and prohibiting it would have the effect of restricting the development of culture. So whither comes the angst?

The zealots of political correctness bemoan that cultural appropriation replaces the original with a copy created by the “dominant” culture. I would retort that it creates a new symbol that can exist alongside the original, and in some ways it can add more strength or complexity to the original. The critics would say that it dilutes the original, removes all symbolic value from it and replaces it with a “ready to consume product devoid of context and meaning”. But that assumes that meaning can only be given by the culture that somehow claims ownership to the signifier to the exclusion of all others. What pretentious twaddle! Each culture, and each one of us are capable of instilling an object with meaning, and the subjective value of that meaning cannot be measured as “better”, or “more symbolic”, or “more authentic”.

Slavery, Blackface, Cultural Appropriation and a Derisive Caricature is bad.

Slavery + Cultural Appropriation + Derisive Caricature = Bad.

Yes, there is “bad” cultural appropriation, which is an act of theft from another culture, usually linked with oppression of the other: an act of simultaneously eroding or suppressing the original meaning and attaching one’s own meaning to the appropriated symbol. In this, it is akin to violent cultural colonisation, as it erases the group identity behind the whole culture, taboos the culture, and replaces it with a romantic stereotype. There’s been a fair amount of that in the past.

But vast majority of cultural appropriation is the organic process of evolution of culture. Opposing it because of a few historical wrongs would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of trying to figure out whose cultural symbol something is, and how we can put up barriers between them, we should learn to acknowledge the value of all cultures and symbols – the common cultural heritage of the mankind. Ring-fencing sacred symbols of dying cultures is not a way to save them; it is a way to sterilise them and turn them into museum pieces reeking of formaldehyde. Instead we should give them life by returning them to the world of the living. And all life is change.