Chp. 2: The case of a French illustrator
It must have been last year when I stumbled across a pretty illustration depicting henna on hands and feet in black & white and tagged oriental. The artist is French, but since I couldn’t reach her to give me the approval to talk about the subject I don’t want to put her into troubles by naming her.
What happened was that she was accused as racist for using the word ‘oriental’. Oriental is indeed a term with problematic history, because it carries colonization vibes and is meant to describe cultural products by the West that exotified and mixed Asian cultures. The complaint though doesn’t stand completely either, since the artist is French and in her language that’s literally the equivalent word for ‘eastern’.
She also got accused of cultural appropriation. What people of color usually say is that signifiers from their culture are used by white people out of context as fashion choices. When POC was to use such signifiers, however, they get harassed for not “melting into the pot”. There are five main problems with that train of thought:
- Culture doesn’t have a TM. Culture doesn’t exactly have copyrights; you can’t really “steal” it. (This doesn’t mean imitating a culture to ridicule it is ok; that’s racist, almost by definition of the word.)
- Even if white people stopped appropriating cultures, racism wouldn’t stop. This reminds me of the proverb “blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours shine brighter”. “What I want to say is that it doesn’t get to the real cause of racism; the views on the apparel itself. Taking away what people like and appreciate on the basis of their race and because some people always interprete situations and actions through a very specific power-related lense.
- People of color are divided on this issue. There are voices that don’t mind at all and actually see such chances, especially in fiction, as motivation for others to get to know more about their culture.
- I know this is a separate issue, but focusing on white people is not only very US-centric but also implies that non-western countries don’t have special power dynamics among them and that racism is only committed by white people towards people of color, which isn’t true. Just think of the history of Japan with China and Korea.
- When we talk about fiction and art in general, claiming that only a particular group can write/draw about its experiences is proposing segregation and asking for cultural testimonies in order to get permission to express yourself freely. It’s a prejudiced view that only those who have experienced an identity can make great works of art with such subjects involved. Which is false and would deprive us of awesome stories. Ebine Yamaji is heterosexual yet has written few of the most superb manga about lesbian and bisexual women. I believe that Elif Shafak, in her TED Talk, puts it nicely:
Writers are entitled to their opinions, and there are good political novels out there, but the language of fiction is not the language of daily politics. Chekhov said, “The solution to a problem and the correct way of posing the question are two completely separate things. And only the latter is an artist’s responsibility.” Identity politics divide us. Fiction connects. One is interested in sweeping generalizations. The other, in nuances. One draws boundaries. The other recognizes no frontiers. Identity politics is made of solid bricks. Fiction is flowing water.
Conclusion: It’s important to come to grips with the fact that people should make a distinction between reality and fiction; that art can’t be considered as education in all its forms unless you assign it such a role in which case you need to revise your educational tools; and that people are not the art they create or consume. Although nothing is made in a void, a work of art doesn’t automatically reflect the worldview and the experiences of the artist or the ideas of a certain society. It might or might not. That’s why a work of art isn’t considered a very good source to study history. It also doesn’t have a single purpose, meaning that the artist may intend to produce something for the sake of aesthetics or to entertain or to convey a message. At the same time, a text, be it image, words or both, gains its meaning by its receivers, who reconstruct the message from its signal. As a result, a reader/viewer might interprete a text in an unintended way based on their pre-existing knowledge. But in any case art can’t be held accountable for what its consumers do, inspired perhaps by its content. Art’s influence is a very small factor. It’s the individuals that are responsible for their own deeds.
A short note on social justice by Christiana Aldana
Defining Sexism in Anime and Games by Lifesongsoa
Racism -a definition and a critique by Nathaniel
Globalization: On cultural appropriation and why it isn’t always bad by anonymous
Your taste is bad and so are you by Bobduh
My answer to anti-feminism by Foxy Lady Ayame