The Cultural Bankruptcy of “Cultural Appropriation”

Man Ray self portrait

by James A. Bacon

Yesterday my son and I visited the Man Ray exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Man Ray was the Annie Liebowitz of his day, photographing the celebrated poets, painters, novelists, singers, dancers, and composers of Paris in the 1920s, a time in which the City of Light was the world’s undisputed center of artistic ferment. The exhibit displays Man Ray’s black-and-white portraits ranging from American writers Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway to European painters such as Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. The exhibit portrays Man Ray himself as a creative genius who experimented with new photographic techniques and used cinema to explore the interplay between movement and light.

All in all, the exhibit was informative and well done. It illuminated a period of history for which I had little appreciation, providing context for America’s famous “Lost Generation” of expatriate artists, as well as dozens of Frenchmen, Spaniards, Englishmen, Latin Americans, and even Romanians of great renown and modern-day obscurity. (Who knew there were so many celebrated Romanian artists in the 1920s, certainement pas moi.) The exhibit also highlighted the role of women in the intellectual movements of the day. Paris in the 1920s was a crucible for women’s emancipation.

But there was one spoiler — a cringingly awkward placard about cultural appropriation. Man Ray, you see, had committed the cardinal sin of appreciating African art and incorporating it into some of his photographs. That, lecture the exhibit’s curators, amounted to “a blatant act of cultural appropriation,” which showed how “even an ‘enlightened’ and forward-thinking artist like Man Ray could be blinded to his own participation in the visual legacy of colonialism, as well as his white privilege.”

Are these people serious?

France was indeed a colonial power, but the French were not racially segregated as most of the United States was at that time. Paris was the center of a vibrant community of Blacks of American and Caribbean origin who were widely celebrated for their jazz, song and dance. The American-born Josephine Baker is the best known, but there were many others. Man Ray photographed many of them.

Placard in the Man Ray exhibit on “cultural appropriation and colonialism.” Click for more legible image.

The exhibit credits Man Ray for opposing colonialism, protesting the 1932 International Colonial Exhibition, and breaking the U.S. color barrier by placing a photograph of a Black woman in Harper’s Bazaar — the first time a Black model appeared in a major American fashion magazine. He also gave visibility to African artistic traditions by placing masks and headdresses prominently in some of his compositions.

Regardless, states the exhibit, “the cultural appropriation and exploitation of people of color in these portraits is important to acknowledge.”

The placard reflects far more poorly on the intellectual poverty of our own time than it does on Man Ray or 1920s France. Contemporary Americans, it seems, are far more fixated on race as a defining personal characteristic than the avant garde artists in Paris a century ago.

The concept of “cultural appropriation” is absurd. The history of humanity is the history of the dissemination of technological, institutional, philosophical and artistic innovations. Civilizations and societies have borrowed from one another since the dawn of time, adapting and reshaping other cultures’ innovations to their own purposes. Societies that have been open to other cultures’ innovations have prospered; those that have closed themselves off stagnate or decay. For non-European examples in the 19th century, compare Meiji-era Japan, which embraced Western technologies and ideas, with imperial China, which walled itself off.

As Frans Johansson, the bi-racial author of “The Medici Effect,” has written, innovation occurs at the intersection — the intersection of technologies, of disciplines, and of cultures. Innovative societies borrow elements of other cultures, combine them, and reshuffle them with elements of their own. To accuse Man Ray of cultural appropriation for featuring African masks in his photographs is as obtuse and wrong-headed as criticizing African-American musicians of culturally appropriating European-invented trumpets, trombones, clarinets and pianos into their jazz compositions. Without cultural borrowing, jazz never would have been invented!

Apologizing for borrowing from other cultures is crimped, narrow-minded, retrograde, and harmful. It is a recipe for stasis and stagnation. It is divisive. It feeds grievance and resentment. It drives wedges between the races. And what possible good does it accomplish? Does the decrying of cultural appropriation make anyone, anywhere, better off? No, it doesn’t.

The United States is comprised of peoples from across the globe. We are the world’s greatest mixing bowl of cultures. The innovation that results from all the cross-borrowing is a major source of vitality. What a sad commentary it is that so many in our intellectual class are so obsessed with signaling their virtue on matters of race that they fail to appreciate this fundamental truth. Shame on the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for injecting such contemptible thinking into an otherwise marvelous exhibit. Shame!

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50 responses to “The Cultural Bankruptcy of “Cultural Appropriation””

    1. No, but he did do a couple of dog portraits (or portraits with dogs in them).

  1. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
    Ronnie Chappell

    I suppose if the folks at the Virginia Museum could have their way Denzel could never play Macbeth and Idris Elba will never be offered the role of James Bond.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I would never offer Idris Elba the role of James Bond. To me, he is John Luther, which is a far cry from James Bond.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Well, there’s always Desdemona. Ooooh, no. That would be cross dressing.

    3. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Was just watching Hamilton again. I felt so angry…:) Denzel was one helluva Macbeth, BTW!

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    so, now it comes to this… virtually everywhere that JAB ventures has been corrupted by “leftists’…. tsk tsk

    I did wonder – if “borrowing” is the same as this: ” Cultural appropriation takes place when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.”

    I’m quite sure “leftists” see this differently than non-leftists… 😉

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      If we are to have communities of color then I must insist the term “redneck” has to go. I prefer CCG. Communities of Country Gentlemen.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Good point. Next time I see that used in a museum, I will file a complaint about cultural virtue signaling.


    2. So….. that means blackface and lawn jockeys. Not artistically incorporating African masks into photographs.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        Larry, there is no level of foolish virtue signaling you will not defend. Amazing.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          not me fool: read the words: ” … in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.”

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        on second thought, there may be confusion over what is overtly racist symbols versus insensitive cultural appropriation…..

      3. LarrytheG Avatar

        it can mean this also:


        or this:

        some of it may well be in the eye of the beholder but I’d not rely on a Conservative these days to know the difference or, more importantly, to acknowledge that this kind of thing went on for quite some time before enough others called it out and standards evolved – which many Conservatives these days seem to have trouble with – i.e. CRT-like.

        In the eye of the beholder and the opinion I value the most are those whose culture are what has been “appropriated” – much more so than the folks who never thought it was a problem to begin with and still don’t.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar


    3. Sad to always be looking for “leftists in the bushes” instead of just enjoying the moment. Who knows how many more days like that JAB will have with his son.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        these days, it will be everyday life, I suspect. I wonder how well JAB related to the SuperBowl haltime show or many of the commercials with non-white guys?

        1. Probably, the rightists just left the room when they saw the show starting. Any of them that actually watched were most likely no longer thinking about CRT but rather WRT. Their fears of being replaced were being born out right there on the screen as the “others” were taking over the place.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            indeed. 😉 and throw in the black coaches deal , holy moly…

  3. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    If you ask me, it appears that cultural appropriation is a racist’s way of saying he/she/they are not racist?

  4. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I agree with you, criticizing someone for cultural appropriation is nonsense.

    1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      I did not read that plaque as critical of him. It simply recognized that even with someone as “progressive” as he was, cultural appropriation was so pervasive even he could not avoid it entirely. It is a well-deserve critique of colonialism and nothing more, imo.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        Larry has company….actually, I would like to see the photo. May google it…or I see the exhibit runs through next weekend. Jim may have bumped attendance.

        1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
          Eric the half a troll

          “When cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context ─ sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of members of the originating culture – the practice is often received negatively.”

          Did not see the referenced picture but this sure sounds like what is going on if the plaque was accurate. Again, it seems the plaque is making a critique of colonialism and the times not Man Ray himself. At least that is how I read it.

          1. Stephen Haner Avatar
            Stephen Haner

            Signed up for Disney for the grandkids (hence can see Hamilton over and over…love it). I understand why no “Song of the South,” but the warning label on “The Three Caballeros” was just mindboggling and silly. The Redskins fan Larry referenced above, well I guess that is “appropriation” to some and “admiration” to others. But it was at Indian trading posts along U.S. 66 that I first saw them for sale. If they sell it to me, who is doing the appropriating?

            The TR statue can certainly be viewed as an expression of privilege by somebody, but in no way is cultural appropriations.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            yep. in the eye of the beholder to a certain extent and even though the “redskin” thing has been settled – not in the minds of others who still disagree.

            This changed – after decades of being “ok” and the “new” standards simply do not set well with some.

            I will agree that the Museum got out over it’s skiis perhaps but saying that may expose me as not completely trained to properly virtue signal.

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          something other than a neanderthal viewpoint, maybe? 😉

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Why, heaven forbid, we might end up with a Victorian on DoG Street.

      There is only taste. Good taste and tastes good.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    So JAB … COULD have given examples of what he thought are and are not so we could better calibrate his viewpoint – as opposed to just rejecting views different from his and again the key distinction is this; ” … in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.”

    JAB could have made that distinction and then offered his view that he did not agree that it met that standard (and I MAY have not disagreed with him if he laid out examples he DID think met that standard – for decades – perhaps LIKE the Washington Redskins.

    I actually, for decades, enjoyed the Washington “Redskins” and I’m sure I was not alone.

    But times do change and we have to deal with it and that means understanding that others of other cultures may have a different view and rejecting it out of hand may not be the best response.

  6. Donald Smith Avatar
    Donald Smith

    “Are these people serious?”

    Some are. Others (and I think this is the more likely explanation) are scared of backlash if they don’t parrot the approved way of thinking nowadays. In this case, if someone somewhere might view Ray’s photographing of African art as “cultural appropriation,” then VMFA probably decided to not take any risks, and included those silly comments about white privilege.

    The risk those people run, is that a critical mass of the rest of us will decide that those people are silly, even stupid, and too lily-livered to be trusted with authority—and especially public monies.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      yep, and so they cross that museum off their list as having gone ‘leftist”?

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      I’m not!

  7. tmtfairfax Avatar

    The Broadway play Hamilton is cultural appropriation. So is all the non-Irish wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day. Ditto for us non-Asians using chop sticks.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      yep – but this is the relevant part; ” … in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.”

      and that is somewhat subjective, especially depending on what your own culture is WRT to the culture being appropriated.

      some folks are bound and determined to have a hissy fit over it especially those who never thought much about it before and now things have changed.

      1. tmtfairfax Avatar

        What is respectful about wearing a cheap, shinny, green paper hat?

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          who decides what is or is not – you or the culture you are appropriating?

          1. tmtfairfax Avatar

            Personally, I think cultural appropriation is crap. American culture is much richer because of the additions to it from people who have come here from all over the world.

            But if one group says “no cultural appropriation” for certain group’s culture, it has to apply across the board. Some little Woke t**d doesn’t get to decide and exclude others from deciding.

            If it’s wrong for a non-Mexican American to party on Cinco de Mayo, it’s wrong for non-German Americans to participate in Octoberfest. Or non-East-Asian Americans to celebrate Lunar New Year. Or non-Scottish American to wear a kilt or play a bagpipe.

            Needless to say, a person who came or his/her ancestors came from the nation affected can object to cultural appropriation. And if the ban is now a rule of society, anyone can object.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            you and I as white guys might but I can assure you that is NOT the case with some people of color.
            And again, it’s not the positive appropriation, it’s the other kind that can be insulting and stereotyping, etc… just like the Washington Redskins. White guys loved it, not so much Native Americans.

          3. tmtfairfax Avatar

            Larry, you’re jumping to conclusions. What is positive cultural appropriation? What is negative? Is it in the eyes of the beholder? Or is their some “objective” standard carefully guarded in the HQ of the New York Times?

            The biggest problems in this country have always been caused when someone plays “heads, I win; tails, you lose” with someone else. And both sides continue to play it. It’s no more right when some woke person does it than when some white racist does it.

            I’ve never gotten off on the Washington Redskins. But what about the Minnesota Vikings? Langley Saxons? McLean Highlanders? Michigan State Spartans? San Francisco Giants or 49ers? New York Yankees? And so on and so on.

            If it’s wrong to make human beings mascots, it’s wrong to make human beings mascots.

          4. LarrytheG Avatar

            no jump to conclusions at all. I’ve said it’s in the eye of the beholder and that the person whose culture is being appropriated may have a different view than the person who is appropriating and not of that culture.

            The big thing to me is that if a good number of people in a given culture consider appropriation to be insulting and negative that plain ordinary acknowledgement of their feelings is reasonable and to ignore
            their concerns, insensitive and insulting. In other words, if a friend of yours finds your nickname for him to be insulting – you heed that no matter what you think unless he’s not really a friend and you don’t care. We need to do that as cultures too. IMHO.

  8. David Wojick Avatar
    David Wojick

    I guess stereo ethnic and cultural jokes are out. Screw that, these are great jokes. Here is my favorite Irish joke. (Irish is a culture, right?)

    Why did the English invent the wheelbarrow?
    It was the only way they could get the Irish to walk upright.

    What we need are jokes about wokes.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      The difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish wake is one less drunk.

    2. how_it_works Avatar

      Q: What’s the problem with Irish jokes?

      A: Ones like Ted Kennedy get elected.

  9. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Can a hot dog be your hero? Or, a taco your gyro?

    Nonsense! No such thing as “culture appropriation”. Only good taste and poor.

    Am I supposed to feel guilt eating a noodle? A pizza? Ice cream? Wait. No, that pizza is ours. Guilt free pizza? Maybe I’m on to something?

    The only practice of culture appropriation that should stop immediately is golf.

    It appears we are in a conundrum. There are those who will kill you for not believing in their gods, and those who will stone you for appropriating them.

    What’s next? Condemning Werner Oland’s award winning performances? Ralph Northam’s moonwalking?

  10. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    There are only cultural appreciation and culturally malappropriated.

  11. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    JAB makes a well founded, however nuanced, point concerning cultural appropriation. “The history of humanity” I submit is far more energized by migration (immigration in current terms) dynamics than the elements cited. Migrants were and are the carriers of culture. This nation’s treatment of indigenous peoples reflects the colonialism criticized by Man Ray, and tacit, active acceptance of “manifest destiny” as public policy. IMO, theses are the underlying concepts the poorly framed language of the poster seeks to expose.

  12. Elliott Webb Avatar
    Elliott Webb

    That “acknowledgment” by VMFA is rubbish, pure and simple.

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