J’accuse

Andrew Miller culture editor, The Economist

Time to relax on cultural appropriation

J’accuse

The point of art and literature, to open up other lives and perspectives, is nullified

A NOVEL ABOUT slavery, or a play about refugees, or a film about homosexuality: a work of art that deals with a minority group and a sensitive theme will be a cultural flashpoint in 2019. Less because of the subject than the identity of the artists—a white author perhaps, or a straight director. The long tussle over cultural appropriation will come to a head.

One of the biggest literary events of 2018 was the publication of the last volume of “My Struggle”, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s gargantuan autobiographical novel. In writing about his own life, Mr Knausgaard incurred risks: accusations that he exploited his family, threats of litigation from irate relatives. But he also avoided one: the charge that he was appropriating the histories of people unlike him.

These days writers who prefer a broader palate run the gauntlet of rejection by nervy publishers and negative reviews. Authors, said Lionel Shriver in a speech that caused a rumpus in 2016, are necessarily “voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal and presumptuous”. She hoped the neurosis over cultural appropriation would prove a “passing fad”. It has not.

Nor is the controversy confined to books. A white American poet using African-American vernacular; a show in Montreal in which white performers sang songs of slavery; a white English chef marketing Jamaican-themed food; even a high-school student wearing a Chinese-style dress to her prom in Utah: in 2018 all of these provoked Twitterstorms over cultural appropriation. Within such complaints lie legitimate concerns, such as the need for artists to be diligent in their research and avoid lazy stereotypes.

Yet the notion that depicting foreign places or different people is a kind of intellectual colonialism is daft. A ban on men ventriloquising women means no “Madame Bovary” and no “Anna Karenina”. Where should the line be drawn? The final instalment of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, a Tudor courtier, is imminent (the previous two books both won the Man Booker prize). Nobody has yet accused Ms Mantel of appropriating Cromwell’s life and grim fate, but it may be only a matter of time.

Follow this dogma to the end, and Mr Knausgaard’s subject (himself) becomes the only one available. The point of art and literature, to open up other lives and perspectives, is nullified. Beneath this counsel of artistic despair is a deeper despair about human nature: a conviction that disparate people are too dissimilar to understand and convey each other’s experiences.

Enough. There will be more fights in 2019. But complaints about cultural appropriation will begin to lose their sting.