On Cultural Appropriation

Let me introduce Ana Duarte. She is a 42-year-old artist who lives in Queens, New York. At age 17 she came to America from the Dominican Republic. She earned a degree in fine arts from Syracuse University, became a U.S. citizen, and some years later brought her widowed mother here to live with her. Ana’s ancestral heritage being partly African, she is dark-complected. I got to know her well as I was writing my latest play, Visiting Cezanne. I better have – she‘s the play’s protagonist.

Here’s something else about Ana – she’s not real. I made her up. She’s a creature of my imagination, informed by some research.

For the past few weeks, since I wrote what are a playwright’s three most satisfying words, “End of Play,” a question has occasionally nagged at me: Is Ana an act of cultural appropriation? After all, I don’t have dark skin or a second X chromosome. Furthermore, I’ve never set foot in the Dominican Republic.

The term cultural appropriation, which veers closer to cultural theft than cultural exchange, pops up a lot lately, often in an accusatory or liberal-guilt context. To answer my nagging question, I first had to define “cultural appropriation.” Let’s go with “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect that culture.” In that light, I judged myself innocent. Ana is the hero of my play, I did do research, and her Dominican roots and skin color are not disrespected.

After conducting this private trial and acquitting myself, I didn’t stop thinking about this corner of our culture wars. Recent flashpoints have included a controversial painting by Dana Schultz in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial Exhibition. Her painting depicted the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American murdered in 1955 by two white men in Mississippi. Some objected to a white artist depicting a traumatic moment in black history. A black British artist, Hannah Black, organized a petition to have the work destroyed. (I wonder if these critics had anything to say about Bob Dylan’s 1963 song “The Death of Emmett Till.”) Others found Shultz’s work respectful and defended its quality and the Whitney’s decision to include it in the Biennial. Other commentators recoiled at any hint of censoring art.

In Canada editors at three different publications recently lost their jobs after publicly defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds (precisely what I had done with Ana in Visiting Cezanne).

A recent essay by Viviana Vargas on the theatre blog HowlRound argued that the renowned musical West Side Story was cultural appropriation that misrepresented and harmed the Puerto Rican immigrant community in midcentury New York. Vargas indicted the musical’s four white male creators (Jerome Robbins, story idea, director, choreographer; Leonard Bernstein, lyrics; Stephen Sondheim, music; Arthur Laurents, book) for their “inaccurate and superficial use of a marginalized culture for the artistic benefit of white artists and audiences.” Vargas is also troubled by how white women, particularly in the musical’s early decades, have been cast in the leading role of Maria, a Latina.

In Seattle, a community that can paralyze itself with political correctness, our opera company convened a panel discussion prior to its recent (and excellent) production of Madame Butterfly. The panel explored opera’s extensive history of “using cultural appropriation to tell stories,” including in Puccini’s popular opera which is set in Japan.

Is racism alive and kicking in present-day America? Of course it is, at both the individual and systemic levels. Do we have a President who appeals to our baser instincts of xenophobia and selfishness? To our great misfortune, yes. Do artists want to see racism decline and go away? Every one I know does.

The biggest problem with identity politics is that it is often self-defeating. Human beings share more than 99.9% of their DNA. The atomization of society amplifies the .1%. It takes the complex array of specific hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, success and failure that drives every one of us and pummels them into crude ethno-political categories. How does this reduce inequality? Level the playing field? What sort of national identity do all these subgroups add up to? How can our two century-plus experiment survive, let alone thrive, without a unifying national narrative?

Identity politics is inherently conflicted. One minute it says “You should respect and acknowledge my difference,” and the next minute charges “You are not capable of understanding my difference.”

What makes us different is vanishingly insignificant compared with our common heritage. The best art undermines stereotypes and reveals the uniqueness of individuals. In so doing, artists paradoxically remind us how much we are alike. That includes the biggest whammy of all: every one of us stumbles through this life tagged with an expiration date. Any denial of art’s capacity to engender emotional understanding and sympathy with “the other” further drives us apart. An insistence on fiefdoms can crack the melting pot.

Identity politics is self-defeating in another insidious way. Trump’s base disproportionately consists of disaffected white males who feel threatened. When minorities make demands, especially of the strident variety, that their difference be respected, they reinforce the white male cohort’s fear that it is under siege. Such fear easily leads to a conviction that only a strong-man demagogue who is contemptuous of political niceties and unafraid to signal that minorities are inferior can protect and save them. The result: segregation and inequality increase.

As for my new play and its main character Ana, somewhere around Seattle there is a Latina or African-American actress who, though she doesn’t know it just yet, will be cast in a 2018 production of Visiting Cezanne. She will fully inhabit the Dominican-American character Ana Duarte and breathe life into her on stage. For that actress’s unique history and talents deployed in our common enterprise of creating art, I will be grateful.

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