Appropriation - Textile Lunch V

I'm trying to recall the discussions during lunch on Friday the 18th.

"Appropriation", in the art context and the way I was explained, is a catch all phrase for using things other people created to make your art. Making a collage or doodling on magazine photographs to create your own work can be appropriation, as can using found objects to create a sculpture. Appropriation can be done in vastly different ways and in varying degrees. I'm not sure where the exact border between it and plagiarism is, but with appropriation the artist would put her/his own name on the work.

Then came the era of copyrights, intellectual property and cultural sensitivity, and even the Internet.

The first issue is cultural sensitivity. In New Zealand, there have been discussions on the ownership of indigenous Maori intellectual properties, among them the Haka (the war cry ritual at the start of many sports matches), and their many traditional motifs and patterns. There was an outcry of, for a want of a better word, blasphemy in some quarters when Robbie Williams got what to us is a clearly Maori design tattoo. I can't go any further because I've not studied the subject beyond what I hear on the radio news, but suffice it to say unless I get permission, and blessing, from Maori, it doesn't feel my place to research or develop ideas based on their culture, history or motifs, to make my own work. The same goes for the various Pacific Island cultures. (And now I'm thinking about my tapa-inspired series. Yikes.) To a degree, I not only get this, but sympathize. But things are nowhere near as clear cut as this in New Zealand.

As a Japanese, I cringe to see the costumes every time I heard of a new production of Madame Butterfly, especially the loose necklines or open hemlines. I cringe at the Hollywood rendition of geishas, samurais, Japanese tourists, or Japanese businessmen. And I feel uncomfortable, sometimes, seeing shibori or kumihimo, because they are taken out of the Japanese cultural context. Still, I don't feel any ownership of them, and I am amazed when I see genuinely good work, in or out of any context. In fact, theater forms such as kabuki and noh have enjoyed a resurgence because of their popularity overseas.

(You have to give me this one however: haiku and other poetical form just cannot be done in any other language, and outside the Japanese psyche. You've got to let me cringe big time at those.)

In short, we are used to anyone doing whatever they like with Japanese motifs and material.

But there is a problem. Most anything Japanese pre-1980's came from people and places to the west of us, via China and Korea, a large majority of it from the Han people, I think. So if I go to the extreme, not only can I not research and develop ideas on my pet subjects like Arabic writing, Rococo, Kente cloth, and Larsson, but about the only Japanese motif left to study would be Pokemon and co. Rosie, who is English, has similar problems with her heritage.

The second point is about originality vs copyright, and it gets murkier. Who owns rights to images? This is less of an issue in the style of weaving I do, i.e. not pictorial, but for example in painting, can I use Campbell soup, or Coca Cola or McDonalds to make a point, a social commentary? Is it "more" OK to make fun of large internationals? Is it OK if I'm celebrating their work? If I want to paint landscapes, can I paint your house in it without asking your permission? The list went on and we started to feel distraught.

There is no obvious conclusion, and I don't foresee there being one. Still, I would like to work ethically, and we felt it was important to ponder the point.

This is Dick Frizzell's True Colors, a spoof on the Four Square Man, which Frizzell himself designed as a graphic/commercial artist.

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