THE CREATIVE AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

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

Amen. But there is an overall disconnection 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 outsider culture is often characterised as illegitimate, abusive and unsanctioned appropriation. And these accusations are even extended to prose-based commentary where creative observations referencing balance, scale, colour, repetition and symmetry are also to be considered as necessarily flawed, misleading and incomplete distortions of the outsider’s work.

No doubt there is need at times for caution. But overall these accusations of appropriation are wrong-headed. Their attempt to assign creative praxis to a political dimension is a profound misunderstanding of the times we live in. The creative act cannot be political. Instead, the creative act must always be enthralment, which is a state of enrapture and connection. And for the creative, this is a state often experienced from the sudden and unexpected connection to an outsider’s use of a common creative praxis including the use of line, form, colour and 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? Claims that can only leave the creative in a state of inertia where they are assigned to inaction within a labyrinth of moral and legal confusion they are seldom equipped to negotiate.

But this is where things start to get interesting. Whilst a state of inertia may appear to be an end of 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 where cities, workplaces and families are shared by many different ethnic and racial identities, but also where enthralment in 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 characterised as an act of rule with a subsequent act of misrule to generate tension. Robert Venturi’s Contradiction and Complexity in Architecture outlines in detail 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 conceptualised in this way and Venturi is careful to distinguish this difference – where creative contradiction is a demonstration of complexity; and non-creative contradiction is merely the evidence of muddled opinions.

 In my own field of typographic practice rule and misrule abound with hundreds of techniques of this kind being used widely 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 is a desired forward stress and momentum to the layout.

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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 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 might be described as 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 Frederic Jameson’s, Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. In this essay 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; containers of vast internal spaces 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 into an experience much the same as the experience of the protagonist in The Man Who Fell to Earth watching fifty different television screens at once without any real hope of identifying significance or coherence.

Again, in my own field of typographic practice, the postmodern movement profoundly affected creative praxis. 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 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. Where 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 where a hopeful future is weighed against an immanence of nuclear horror; where environmental stewardship is conflicted against a wasteful consumerism; and where social integration is denied through ideological segregation. These are the lived new contradictions of the current cultural dominant. New contradictions without precedence. In the time of bullet and bayonet, backyard vegetables and limited immigration the new contradictions of the contemporary cultural dominant could never have been contemplated by my grandfather and only dimly sensed by my father. For them, the admonition to a hopeful future was without the possibility of the planet’s entire destruction; and the encouragement to environmental stewardship did not mean the impossibility of purchasing food without excessive packaging cultivated from doubtful agricultural practice; and to the point 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 enthralment whilst denied enthralment, one might consider the claims of ownership, oppression and authority as diversion. And instead this encounter would be more accurately identified as an expression of the cultural dominant 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 the 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. For if proximity and denial are the contradictory reality we are born into, who dares claim the capacity to arbitrate between them?

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

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.