The following are a collection of responses I just submitted for an assignment. They cover cultural appropriation, colonisation/decolonisation, and in my own practice the deep-seeded politicisation of self-expression. The task was limited to 1000 words, so i didn’t get into it as deep as I’d like… but it’s a start…
Cultural Appropriation: by which diverse systems of expression merge into a unique cultural form, is a practice fraught with controversy. Artists are subject to a vast fabric of influences, particularly with the advent of technology it is disproportionately easy to investigate and adopt the cultural signifiers of groups to which we do not belong.
The main tension inherent to cultural appropriation is to do with the relationship between the cultures as they engage in the present. Indications to how this plays out are found in historical phenomena like colonialism or civil rights movements, particularly the power relationships across these events.
For example, remote Aboriginal Australian groups adopting the language and symbology of heavy metal music (Mansfield, 239) occurs within the historical context of European colonisation. It is reasonable that a community having suffered systemic violent oppression over hundreds of years would identify with music notable for its anti-authoritarian roots. As such they can take what they please from the iconography of heavy metal to reclaim their sense of cultural identity in what might be referred to as ‘decolonisation’.
Further, heavy metal music, largely performed by artists of European ethnicity today, has its lineage in rock and roll pioneered by artists such as Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix in the context of their own civil rights movement. Black Australians choosing to re-appropriate Western music to inform their own resistance to colonisation is entirely fitting.
Conversely if white community groups took aspects of Aboriginal culture to enhance their own this would continue the systemic violence of European settlement – simply one more thing for white people to take without asking.
At the centre of public discourse in Australia is the dispossession of Aboriginal land. Like Macbeth denying the bloated visage of Duncan’s corpse at the banquet, mainstream political power centres on the continued erasure of violence against Aboriginal people through colonisation.
The White Australia Policy is one of many acts of systemic violence with an undercurrent of white supremacy behind it. Ten years ago, the Federal Government sent soldiers into Aboriginal communities to stage what they termed as an ‘intervention’. A year after that, during the Prime Minister’s apology to the Stolen Generation, six opposition MPs walked out of Parliament.
One of those members, Peter Dutton is now responsible for implementing offshore detention policies. He routinely misrepresents behaviour of the people for whom he has duty of care, most recently citing sexual violence on Manus Island as rationale for police shooting.
This pattern of denial and distortion around marginalised groups by those in power demonstrates what Omar Musa refers to in his Music Show interview (2016); quoting Richard Flanagan he says: “the history of all great art is a history of the fringes waging a war upon the centre“. At the centre we have a political structure reliant on the economic privilege of colonisation, with marginalised groups struggling to challenge this narrative and assert their place in Australian culture.
‘Great Art’ is the primary tool to do this. It is worth noting that many of these migrant groups, while not directly suffering the violence of colonisation in Australia have had to flee one form of colonisation or another to come here. Colonialism is at the centre of political power in Australia, globally and on a local level: the fulcrum on which the wheel of cultural expression spins.
Artmaking is therefore positioned along a spectrum ranging from complacency at the centre to radicalism at the very edge. The complacent artist, satisfied with their social milieu can participate without controversy in cultural practices. The radical artist rejects convention and agitates for change. It is possible to traverse between these two positions, using a popular format for art to promote a radical agenda, many artists at the height of their popularity have used it to agitate for social change. Other artists have instigated social change purely by challenging formal convention. The works operate on an aesthetic level which inherently challenges the status quo.
It is not simply being ‘fringe’ or ‘mainstream’, but knowing where the work will find its audience. The advent of ‘Realism’ in theatre in the late 19th Century caused pandemonium amongst audiences in Norway. The uproar stems from the context of his performances, staged at a National Theatre Company to bourgeois elites – the complacent centre of social power – little wonder they became unsettled by what they saw.
But Ibsen knew the significance of what he was doing, even if he could not predict this form would dominate public entertainment in decades to come. In this way, whatever the context, the choice to make art is a political choice. Even the choice not to make art is political. This is what the critic Tim Adams is getting at when he asks the artist. “In our digital age did she feel that any solid act of making becomes a political act?” (2016)
This act of artmaking, this choice to self-express becomes even more politically charged when we understand that there are people – even within the supposedly ‘free’ society of Australia – who cannot do the same.
Artists are frequently excluded from public discourse, where they do participate their inclusion is token. For example, to succeed as an actor, the artist must participate fully in the theatre of capitalism. Exceptions to this rule are rare, even the most visible success stories of Australian cinema still advertise anti-aging cream. For those starting out – to refuse a commercial for chocolate bars is to kiss your career goodbye. No one will represent the talented conscientious objector – even though these institutions benefit fully from the political structures of colonisation.
The actor must therefore choose: accept the status quo and participate, or reject it and by doing so forego opportunities to which they aspire. Historically, this is a fundamental to how power systems contrive to co-opt the arts to reduce its influence. Those who resist are often the artists who become the most iconic. Vaclav Havel, the playwright in Communist Czechoslovakia was frequently imprisoned but went on to become President.
The list is extensive: Shostakovich, Kandinsky & Vertov are just a few innovators working within extreme limitations of free speech in the Soviet Union. The reality of dissidence for these artists was no joke; prison or death was a probable outcome living under a totalitarian state, and yet the importance of using their art as a form of resistance was overwhelming.
As Doug Aitken says in his interview: “It’s not a political strategy. It’s an extension of who you are and how you see the world. It’s always non-negotiable” (Adams, 2016).
Mansfield, J. (2014), ‘Listening to Heavy Metal in Wadeye’, in A Harris (ed.) Circulating cultures: exchanges of Australian Indigenous music, dance and media, ANU Press, pp. 239-258.
Omar & L-Fresh 2016, Radio Interview, The Music Show, Australian Broadcasting Corporation <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/musicshow/omar-and-l-fresh/7988076>
Adams, T 2016, ‘Power To… The Art of Protest’, The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/11/protest-art-miro-elmgreen-dragset-isaac-julien-sarah-sze-doug-aitken-interview>