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!)