If you think about arts a lot, you’re thinking about human essence. That’s culture’s role.
“Culture is homo sapiens’ chief tool of adaptation,” the anthropological axiom goes. Since the Stone Age or longer, we’ve created ideas and habits for survival. Better methods for making tools, finding shelter and gathering food were adopted when encountered, then passed down. It’s a quick and easy way to adapt to different environments. The more specific a genetically governed behavior is — a spider’s web-weaving, for instance — the longer it takes for mutation and natural selection to spread it.
Culture grows quicker. In homo sapiens’ case, “monkey see, monkey do.” We’re innate borrowers.
Our creative impulse for technology and fascination with the exotic are the same forces that put prose on documents, hands to clay, and musical notes in the air. What we call “artistic expressions” are as much a cultural component as a Clovis spearhead or oral traditions that imparted norms for tribal cooperation.
The more connections we make, the more we trade influences. Italian food connoisseurs know. Historians say pasta came to The Boot in the Middle Ages from across the Mediterranean. There’s another claim Marco Polo brought it from the Far East. And so much of what we consider vital to Italian fare — Southern Italian especially — is from the Americas. No tomatoes, squash, potatoes, peppers or corn and there’s no marinara, baked zucchini, Abruzzese gnocchi or polenta.
In turn, America’s synthesis of disparate origins and traditions became an unprecedented incubator for unique cultural expression. Our central Gulf Coast neighborhood’s most famous artistic mélange was jazz. We melded European instrumentation and harmonic theory with blues tones, gospel call-and-response and Afro-Caribbean rhythmic ideas to create something unprecedented and unlikely, except at that time and place. It became a characteristic of America’s cultural role on the global stage.
Jazz musicians weren’t concerned about what they adapted or from whom, as much as they cared about their creation’s quality. You like a sound, you grab it. They just sought to birth the arts inside their minds and admitted borrowing liberally from what they encountered.
Some were cagey — trumpeter Freddie Keppard was outright paranoid when he covered his hand with a cloth to safeguard his fingering technique — because everyone knew how the game goes. The sentiment “good artists borrow, great artists steal,” attributed to both T.S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso, is acknowledged with a shrug. It happens.
In our current zeitgeist, “cultural appropriation” accusations are familiar. The aggrieved cite historic exploitation. The defensive say we seem more worried about digging moats around genres than using art to build bridges. Like most human arenas, there are off-putting extremes in these arguments with a lot of graduation between. That messy middle area, well, “there be dragons.” Lines between exploitation and inspiration get fuzzy. Emotional, too.
If a Dutch artist spent his childhood in Asia, won’t that Asian culture inform his work? Is he guilty of appropriation? What if his influences were Asian syntheses of American culture? What does that mean exactly?
It means humans are complex critters. It means denying culture’s fluid nature is to misunderstand our species and the subconscious element of creative processes. It’s discounting how many of us stand astride various subcultures simultaneously and subtly code-switch without a second thought.
It also means consideration of others’ intent and actions is exceedingly valuable in a world more connected than ever. Sometimes that extends to accusers and accused alike. Still, asking if we’re “punching up or punching down” is integral. Speaking truth to power has earned favor since power always has patronage as its amplifier.
Not all the aforementioned jazz musicians are neutral on cultural appropriation. I once listened as trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis railed about appropriation at our dinner table, all while I recalled his brother Wynton’s previous comments with another perspective. Their exalted artistic family has differences like anyone else’s. People are complicated.
Ultimately, jazz musicians value other things. They want to listen to and meet players with fresh vision and incredible skill. That matters most.
In the moment of artistic engagement, they’re focused on their emotional connection to a banjo, not whether the American variation on stringed instruments owed more to the Portuguese banza, African kora or Japanese shamisen. Same way no one cared that John Coltrane delved into Asian music or Leontyne Price belted Italian arias.
If their art embodied the questions, turmoil, beauty, aspirations and pain of the human condition, they were on target. Honest self-examination was the only aim.
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