Sunday, 30 September 2012

Appropriation vs Inspiration

I have been thinking about something a fair amount lately, I wanted to share my thoughts with you. I'd be curious to hear what your opinions are, but no pressure. I need to share two little snippets of information with you in order for us to to get to The Actual Point, hokay? So bear with me.

Snippet the First:

About a year ago, a lot of controversy surrounded a line of Urban Outfitters merchandise that was based on Navajo designs/patterns/ideas.* Many people were upset by this blatant appropriation of Native American culture, and horrified by the cheap representation of meaningful symbols and designs on underwear, flasks, and t-shirts. It certainly didn't help that the CEO of Urban Outfitters is none other than a very rich, very White man. There is something very icky about someone who is so traditionally privileged benefiting from the appropriation and sale of Navajo-influenced pieces.

Snippet the Second:

At a recent visit to the Chihuly Glass Museum at the Seattle Center, I was reading a sign about some of Chihuly's earlier influences. It was very interesting to see from where he drew inspiration, and to note the designs that existed in nature and were replicated in his work. He has an absolutely stunning glass sculpture of sea life, for example, and another one of a whimsical garden. They are breath-taking. Before visitors reached this stage of the museum, though, we had the opportunity to view some of his work that had been inspired by patterns and designs he saw in Native American basket and blanket weaving. Unsurprisingly, the results were stunning in glass as well as in the wall of woolen blankets on display. The glass didn't exactly replicate the colours, designs, and patterns, nor did his pieces exactly mimic the shape of the baskets, but the influence was clear. He had been inspired by their art.

In the case for of the first example, hearing about and seeing the appropriation of Native American (specifically Navajo) art made me feel sick and sad. Since we ("we" the Europeans) first set foot on this continent, we have systematically destroyed Native American life and culture. We should be ashamed. We should be making amends. I include myself in this though I did not, of course, have anything to do with the earliest genocide of the Native Americans. A huge proportion of this country is White, living on land stolen from the people who were here first, who had (and have) a connection to this land that most of us will never understand. Doesn't it just seem to add insult to injury to start displaying their stolen culture on our review mirrors and thin cotton t-shirts (never mind on our underwear and flasks, for godssake)?

On the OTHER hand (and this is the one I can perhaps see as an argument, but don't actually agree with): Isn't fashion, to a degree, "art"? Now, I'm not saying that Urban Outfitters in particular is especially artsy or original, but just go with this idea with me. Clothing and household chotchkies are inexpensive, ubiquitous types of art. Not museum quality, no, but art nevertheless. Everyday art. And doesn't art always derive some of its influence and inspiration from the world around us? Of course Native American art is beautiful. I have never heard any debate over that. Isn't it understandable that designers (of clothing or anything else) might want to incorporate those designs?

And, after all, it is somehow acceptable (to me, at least), that Chihuly would use this inspiration in his art. Though I wouldn't go so far as to say that his use of the art is a "tribute" to Native American culture, I would at least certainly say that it respectful and not offensive.

So why do I see these as so different? Surely I'm not the only one, as there has been tremendous backlash over the Urban Outfitters merchandise, but not (as far as I know) over the Chihuly glass.

After all, they are both types of "art," are they not? More and less highbrow and meaningful for sure, but still art.

After all, they both profit financially from the creation and sale of these pieces.

After all, they are both produced by well-to-do White men.

And yet, one makes me super prickly, and the other does not have the same effect. Chihuly's art makes me think, but it doesn't raise my hackles in the same way.

While I recognise that other people have very different reactions to each of this situations, I can really only examine my own... at least, right now. I hope you'll chime in with your own gut-reactions or measured opinions.

*Urban Outfitters is far from the first, and certainly not the last, to be ridiculed for their appropriation of Native American culture. I don't think they are any better or worse than anyone else out there who has done this same thing, but they were the example I had on hand.

**ETA: I was at Jo-Ann Fabrics on Friday, and came across these fabric patterns (in micro-suede type fabric), wedged in between a whole bunch of different animal prints. Yep, you could get leopard skin, zebra stripe, cow pattern, and dalmatian (which... what? are we channeling Cruella deVille?)... or you could get "nebulously Native American." I'm letting this one speak for itself, in part because I am getting tired of throwing my hands in the air and stomping around, and in part because I'm very curious to see what others may say about it. (And sorry for the poor picture quality. My phone camera is not as awesome as I'd like!)


  1. Hmm my "gut" reaction or first thoughts on this mirrored yours. The usage of Native American designs by Urban Outfitters seemed like appropriation of designs for the purpose of profit. Plus the usage of the term Navajo in describing the various products was at the very least inconsiderate if not outright offensive. Meanwhile the art gave me the impression that the artist appreciated the beauty of the Native American designs and therefore he incorporated elements in his pieces.

    Upon further thought, the issue seemed to grow murkier.(Seems like lots of issues seem to get murkier rather than clearer with more thought. Maybe that's why I was told as a kid to trust my gut.) Art is something to be appreciated but at the same time the pieces are sold and the artist does profit from them. Therefore, it would seem that the artist was not that different from the Urban Outfitters designers. However, allow me to take a bit of a tangent.(Which I am always inclined to do and do quite frequently.) The definition of physical art is something that I feel is very undefined for a lot of people.(Physical art being something that is created and unchanging.) It seems like lately the general consensus is that nearly anything can be considered physical art. However, I do not think along those lines. I feel that physical art is something that should be appreciated for what it is and nothing more. For example you don't buy a painting and use it as an umbrella. Sure you could, put it's purpose is to be appreciated for what it is, art. Therefore, while I see the beautiful pieces created by Chihuly as art inspired by Native American designs created to be appreciated, I see the items made by UO to simply be clothes that appropriate Native American designs to make a profit. Their primary function is to be worn. Not to be appreciated for the designs and the culture that inspired them. So while it is not an impermeable argument, these thoughts made me more comfortable with my gut reaction to the issue.

    Unfortunately, rather than going to sleep, I thought even further and examined the issue on a personal level. I myself am half Mexican Indian(also have a very small amount of Native American thrown in too)and a part of me is fond of the history, culture, art, and legends. Even my name comes from this history and has an accompanying meaning and legend. However, I own a shirt made by makes some awesome shirts) which incorporates a Mexican Indian design and I never saw it as offensive or an attempt to make profit from my heritage. I instead enjoy the unique way the design was incorporated into the shirt and it is one of my favorite shirts. So why do I not see this in the same light as the products made by UO? Is is just because I find the shirt to be tasteful while panties and flasks using Native American designs aren't? I'm actually not exactly sure and I will have to think about that more. Maybe part of the reason is that the website sells the shirts at a low price and designs are submitted by independent artists. Or maybe it is just because I am not easily offended. Hmmm

    Anyways, please forgive me for being insanely long winded and rambling for long sections. I didn't expect something like this to inspire so many thoughts and my response just seemed to keep growing. Thanks though for making me think!

    1. Wow, thanks for the in depth comment! Your thoughts on this are very interesting, and I love that you can come at this from a slightly different perspective than I can ("nebulously European" is sort of a hard background to co-op and turn into a t-shirt).

      A of all: I see where you are coming from with the definition of art, and I agree that in the case of Chihuly vs Urban Outfitters, the differences are pretty clear cut. But I don't think art can necessarily be so easily defined. I mean, yes, there is the difference in intended use between different types of art (or art and non-art), but then there are all the "in-betweens" that are a little harder to define. An elaborate mosaic, for example, would be Art, yes? But what if that exact same mosaic was set into a counter top? Or the tile wall of a shower? What does it become then? I'm slightly off track because I find the idea of "what is Art?" very interesting, though I'm entirely unqualified to say. I need to get one of my art-history-major friends in on this too, I think...

      But maybe the difference between types of art/art v non-art is significant enough for UO and Chihuly that we can let that interpretation stand. Because I agree, they are very different types of products, regardless of how one chooses to define them. They serve different purposes and are marketed toward different audiences.

      B of all: I'm very interested by your experience with the Mexican Indian design on the t-shirt. I think you bring up a good point, by saying that it was designed by an independent individual rather than a large store, and that they are priced so that many can afford them, but I think fundamentally the idea is the same. I wonder if part of the difference could be that you, someone who can relate to and appreciate the culture represented in the shirt, are the person who bought it (at least, as far as you know... I'm sure other people have purchased the shirt too, of course). It's one thing to wear something that represents your own personal history, and another thing for someone with no connection what so ever (or worse, a negative connection) to own and wear it.

      And yeah, underwear and flasks are definitely a different medium all together than t-shirts. I totally agree with that too.

      I'm also adding an update to the original post, because I found some fabric while I was Out and About that seems to fit in with this whole thought process.

      You know, it would be so much easier to go through life without questioning everything one sees and reads. And yet, I think I would like it so much less.

      PS Sorry this whole reply is so garbled. I am having a hard time getting my thoughts in a logical order. And my cat is trying to help me, which is not as helpful as you might expect.

    2. You definitely don't need to apologize for thoughts being garbled. Heck my post was so full of tangents I thought it might be unreadable. My mind jumps all over the place so I feel like my thoughts are always garbled.

      First off, I want to say that I clearly didn't think through all of my statements enough.(partly because it was almost 4am) I knew there would be exceptions to what I considered art and you presented some perfect ones. I guess the part of my statement that I should have focused on was the intentionality of the artist or designer. In my mind, flawed as it may be, I see an artist as a person that creates something for the sheer enjoyment of the act of creation and the beauty of what is created. They don't create art because they know it is something that people will pay for but rather they create it because it is what they love doing and is something that fulfills a desire in them.*(See side note) I view Chihuly's work as something he created not with the focus of selling but for the beauty.(I could of course be wrong) I however do not think that a chain like UO ever makes a product just because they think it is pretty and don't care whether it sells or not. IMO their focus is on making a product that will sell. And that is what their focus should be because IMO they are not artists but rather a company that makes clothes(that sometimes may be beautiful) to sell. I think the intention is everything in this case.

      On the second point regarding my personal view of the Mexican Indian design, you have helped me with why I feel okay with it. Part of it is as you state that I identify with the culture represented in the shirt and the way it is displayed actually reminds me of the legend associated with my name. So on a personal level, I enjoy it. Also the manner in which the shirt designs are created appeals to me. They are created by various designers including guest designers, in-house designers, and 3 days a week by community members whose design is voted in. So I feel like the company makes money by producing cool and funny designs that are created by different people and not for the sole purpose of selling. Might not be a great reason but it's part of what makes me appreciate the shirt.

      Side Note-*I have many friends who I consider artists who create all manner of things and I can see the enjoyment they derive from making whatever it is they enjoy creating. I believe that everyone has this desire to create in some amount. For me, I know it may be smaller in proportion compared to others. I do sometimes create but I just know it is not the main source of enjoyment for me. Or perhaps I simply have not found the creative outlet for myself yet. For me personally, some of the things I enjoy are experiencing(music, travelling, hiking, eating, etc.), thinking, and solving(problems, puzzles, riddles, games, etc.). Being friends with creative people is great because I get to marvel at what they create and it completes a part of me that is lacking.

      Hope that post was a little clearer and less tangential than my last one.

    3. Yes, very clear :-)

      And I agree. I think the intention of the designer is key. That is a good way of looking at it.

      Also, I think I'm going to have to check out this shirt website!

    4. You definitely should. You might have to check back a few times since it is a new shirt every day. But click "Reckoning" at the top of the page and the current Top25 shirts are available there. I probably own 8+ shirts for various reasons.

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