The idea of cultural appropriation has, in recent years, moved from being an abstruse academic and legal concept to a mainstream political issue. From Beyonce’s Bollywood outfits to Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, and from the recent controversy surrounding Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold (2012) to Omer Fast’s recreation of an old Chinatown storefront at James Cohan Gallery, New York, there is barely a week in which controversies over cultural appropriation are not in the headlines.
What really lies behind the debate about cultural appropriation is not ownership but gatekeeping – the making of rules or an etiquette to determine how a particular cultural form may be used and by whom. What critics of cultural appropriation want to establish is that certain people have the right to determine who can use such knowledge or forms, because at the heart of criticism of cultural appropriation is the relationship between gatekeeping and identity.
One of the key arguments of many such critics is that one speaks through one’s identity; that one speaks, as writer Nesrine Malik has put it, ‘as a’: ‘as a woman’, ‘as a Muslim’, ‘as an immigrant’. And those who are not ‘as a’ must take their cue from those who are, especially if they happen to be privileged by being white or male or straight. ‘Lived experience’, as Malik has put it, ‘is on its way to becoming the superior and most veracious form of truth.’ And as the novelist Kamila Shamsie has observed, ‘What started as a thoughtful post-colonial critique of certain types of imperial texts somehow became a peculiar orthodoxy that essentially denies the possibility of imaginative engagement with anyone outside your little circle.’