Inspiration or Appropriation? Navigating Turbulent Waters

We live now in what was described recently in a New York Times article as “ the age of rage”.  Outrage is in the air , folks are prickly (often justifiably so ) and tensions are  palpably high; I have experienced this myself, having inadvertently caused discontent and expressing my own discontent.  There was the recent brouhaha at the Whitney over the death portrait of Emmett Till painted by a white artist , pitchforks were raised and there were calls for the destruction of the work (so much attention was paid to this single painting that I almost failed to notice the rest of the collection -much of which I found addressing social issues effectively as well as being visually dazzling).

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In a more pedestrian instance, an entire day on social media was recently focused upon a banal advertising commercial featuring an overhyped celebrity play-acting social activist all whilst peddling a soft drink .  A valid point concerning the appropriation of social activism (in particular that of the Black Lives Movement) was made , the advertisement was swiftly pulled and social media moved on . But personally I hadn’t felt the level of outrage that was so vocally expressed in my FB feed.  This may very well be the privilege of the white male but discovering that capitalism is coarse and ugly and will employ any marketable hashtag it thinks will sell one more bottle of toxic bubbly brown just doesn’t seem that surprising.  Yet I know heretofore apolitical artists, myself included , who relentlessly employ hashtags that indicate a political engagement not previously expressed ; is this so called click bait or sincere outrage ? I have to frequently ask this question to myself .
Within a few days the angry collective cloud had seemed to blow over and we were collectivity ( and appropriately) crushed by images of Syrians, men,  women and children painfully gassed by their wantonly cruel dictator.
But the issue will reemerge and I sincerely question appropriation, what exactly entails appropriation and in many situations what justifies the righteousness of ” identity politics”.  I am determined to avoid the heated rhetoric of the far right but I have become increasingly aware of the painful divisiveness amongst people of goodwill even here in my own camp . For although I am not poor, nor am I traditionally disenfranchised, I do lack an advanced degree and I too have felt the sting of being shut down by the Judith Butler/Foucault-quoting-critical theorist-academic elites.

This past weekend I attended an artists talk at a local gallery . The well curated exhibition was self identified as queer  (a term – and a hashtag – I have frequently employed in describing myself and my work). Even before I attended the discussion there was a minor social media outrage , accusation of racism freely bantered about concerning a perceived lack of diversity in the collection . These accusations seemed unfounded and hollow to me as the intent of the show, as clearly stated in the curators’ statement, was focused upon the Western male homoerotic gaze . And although much of the work was indeed depictions of pretty dewy-eyed white boys (as has so often been the case in mainstream gay culture ), there were in fact alternative images of desire and longing .

All that said , the point of the show was focused upon the male-to-male gaze , that fairly or not , has been undeniably inspired by the West , one need only look to the Greeks . The co- curator of this show , a thoughtful and well informed fellow , rightly pointed out that the homosexual art historian Johann Winckelmann was in fact writing love letters to Hellenistic works of art .

Portrait of J.J. Winchelmann
anton von Maron

Gay men have historically been doing this ever since ; it is a driving force with my own work and the intention of the collection in question. Diversity in representation is of course important but the orthodox backlash of what is acceptable inspiration and the (over?) heated division  generated is often stifling and ultimately may lead to self censorship.
All that said , the self identified queerness of the show left me feeling alienated and questioned my own “appropriation ” of the word ( and hashtag ) ” queer”. From the panel discussion of queer artists , academics and activists , I was clearly not queer enough . There were open jokes skewering conventional mainstream gay men as IKEA shopping , happily and monogamously married homos settling into a presumably sexless existence with well tended gardens and adopted children ( or in my case adopted pups ) all whilst the “real” queers reveled unshackled ( or perhaps shackled ) in sex clubs, dungeons  and public parks, “documenting”  shenanigans heretofore kept out of public view .  

This of course  is an overstatement, but the body of work deemed queer (at least in this well curated collection) was in fact focused upon salacious images of dick .  So much so , that this artist who is NOT afraid of the penis , felt uncomfortable,  rather queasy and ultimately a bit bored . I also felt , once again , alone .
Identify politics , in this case queer identified politics , can possess an orthodoxy of identity that I  frequently cannot meet and once again I felt as if I were looking into a room ( in this case of attractive young men ) where I simply did not belong and was not welcome .
This sense of isolation is familiar , personally and to many of us , no matter how we identity . Identity politics with its wonderful intentions of giving voice to the unvoiced can easily slip into the righteous orthodoxy of the oppressor. Well intentioned or not, so much anger and outrage can in fact be hurtful and alienating . While marching at the LA Women’s March I witnessed protestors of color taunting white suburban women with hostile placards mocking their (perceived) new found activism , questioning explicitly wether they would be found at the next BLM march.  They have a valid point and it is perhaps a fair question to ask, but if I were those “nice white ladies”, I doubt very much I would attend.

Squelching well intentioned good will is unhelpful at best .  In fact I rarely attend most activists events, even those addressing issues important to the LGBTQ community, POC, women’s issues or any other cause I have allegiance with, for the very reason that somehow , someway, my motivations and intentions are just not up to snuff or “pure” enough . In place of good humored camaraderie, I often encounter a competitive edge that is bordering upon open hostility , a frantic jostling as to who  is more informed, more  passionate and  possessing the most fervent militant zeal . I find it all so daunting and alienating, frankly I’m ill suited to conflict and ill equipped to defend my own good intentions . Instead I retreat .
I will however continue to diligently plod along, making my art that isn’t queer enough , righteous enough or identifiable enough . However I can say that the negative repercussions of what is acceptable inspiration and what is cultural appropriation has entered my creative process and my studio practice . Whilst recently brainstorming a concept, I was initially considering exploring ,once again , the archetype of the great and fearsomely attractive Mesoamerican war god Huitzlipochtli to embody the excesses of patriarchy.

But rather quickly I shifted course , not wishing to endure the accusatory arrows of appropriation, I looked to safer territory , the Western canon , specifically the ancient Greeks and Romans, and chose instead that granddaddy of patriarchy , Uranus .

The Casration of Uranus

And while Dead White Men have their very vocal critics, I for one
can live with this focus , in fact I revel in it as western art, culture and tradition is in fact familiar and eternally thrilling . But it’s also somewhat limiting , instead of feeling free to draw upon any inspiration unfiltered, I feel now a need to question my every motivation. But until I feel better able to defend my intentions I will remain focused upon the Classical traditions of the West.

Recently I had a discussion with a friend, an art historian who’s opinion I hold in high regard. We were speaking of what constitutes inspiration and what is appropriation. I brought up Picasso, Cubism, the well documented influence of African masks upon his work and the subsequent masterpiece Les Demoiselles de Avignon.  My friend quickly dismissed Picasso as caring not at all about African art. I felt more than a bit perplexed  by this response as I’m not  sure what is the appropriate level of appreciation an artist must have for art made outside of his or her own culture in order to find inspiration. Must we really be of a culture in order to draw upon it for appreciation , inspiration and joy ?

What I can say is , whether or not dear Pablo possessed the “appropriate” level of appreciation for African art or not , I am certainly happier living in a world with Cubism than without . And whether or not it was his intention, he introduces this queer little suburban boy from New Jersey -and much of the western world – to African art in a broad and general way .  Was Picasso a scholar of African art , probably not ,  a tool of the Oppressor, certainly not , a great artist?  Absolutely.  Art ,made manifest by unfiltered inspiration in a seemingly less hostile age.
The restrictions of outrage are increasingly more heated, more limiting and more intimidating.  I am a quiet person, a shy person , averse to conflict and I will retreat into my hermitage and continue to make what is most likely insignificant art but I will do so without the specter of potential anger and criticism so easily provoked in this Age of Rage by simply avoiding certain inspiration deemed by the powers that be as not my own to draw upon.

Thankfully the Getty has an extraordinary collection of medieval illuminations, if you want me , you can find me there.