The theme of this year’s Met Gala, often thought of as the “Superbowl of the fashion industry,” was China Through the Looking Glass. There have been some discussions online (from the usual suspects for this sort of thing) about the racism and implications of such a theme, alongside and overshadowed by some rampant mocking of beautiful fashion creations by actual Chinese designers (Rihanna’s cape, which took one person two years to make, and has become the virtual omelette of cyberspace) and Beyonce pretending to be naked. While the gowns were truly works of art, questions of culture aside, I could not help but wonder what protected this as an acceptable theme in our modern, Western minds. To be blunt, would we have so easily seen the artistry in “Africa through the looking glass,” or a theme focused on international indigenous cultures?
Over the past couple months, a conversation about cultural identity, the owners of culture, the actors of culture, and appropriation has arisen. Though it has had the opportunity to be poignant and interesting, it has largely failed at that and at being productive. Let me first say that we need to have a conversation about cultural appropriation, and the often brutal and torrid history that accompanies cultural traditions. However, the current conversation does not account for the effects of globalization and mainstreaming on how certain types of appropriation become acceptable, and how cultural exchange is overwhelmingly at least a two-way street.
I no longer have the authority to lecture deeply on the anthropological effects and implications of cultural exchange, though, I probably could lecture a little bit on how the syntactical structure of the current conversation on cultural appropriation functions as its own form of censorship. I strongly urge those interested in furthering these conversations in a productive manner to read up on the anthropology of globalization and Pierre Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital, and the use of language and syntax in constructing symbolic power. In other words, the way we talk about appropriation and culture, either in the process of using it, protesting it, or protesting another’s use of it, defines how we think about these things—and perhaps more importantly defines how the next generation is conditioned to think about things. If the pen is mightier than the sword, it is because a weapon is a means to an end, but words are a deliberate window into the past for the people meant to read them in the future.
It is this process of conditioning that makes the response to the theme of this year’s Met Gala so interesting—we are forced to face the fact that over the last 400 years of progress, we have all embraced the definition of “the East” as “other” to “the West.” With or without realizing it, we have embraced a tradition of appropriation that dates back to before the 1400s and the Silk Road, and was reinterpreted through British Imperialist obsessions with chinoiserie, and is still found as a detail that is particularly on-trend and identified as a “timeless” element in American interior design. And right or wrong, we have to ask ourselves, what makes this different? What makes this culture okay to fantasize, or reinterpret, or bend endlessly into predictable, bad tropes with no knowledge of the origins of what we borrow? And we all need to ask these questions across all modes of thought—political, religious, cultural, etc.—before we can even enter into questions of cultural ownership or appropriation.
The world grows ever smaller; but as we struggle to reconcile who owns what and who has rights to what, we run the risk of becoming more ignorant, more isolated, and losing more of the roots of our global, human culture. It’s food for thought: how much of your culture is actually yours, if you start tracing the origins of your beliefs and traditions back far enough. And once you know that, how much do you really own?