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The appropriation debate

On the power of real art to transcend its person, time, locale

The appropriation debate

Of late, there has been plenty of talk about appropriation in literature, film and theatre, with emphasis on cultural appropriation. In simpler words, it means that a certain situation or a character should only be written or filmed or acted by the person who is familiar with that situation or a character type. By stretching it a little more, it may be envisaged that the people, writers, actors from outside that particular locale or a place should not write about it, create a situation and to act it out.

The appropriation debate has come up again and again, and this time around with more vengeance because it has been noted that when a writer creates a situation or a character that he does not belong to, it can very easily reek of inaccuracy and inexactness. Taking it a step further, many have blamed the writers and filmmakers in particular to be prejudicial about such portrayals and the creation of situation. Some have even gone a little further and have accused them of doing it deliberately. In the present context, it has been egged on by the fear of white appropriation of everything that is non-white.

It has been implied with more seriousness than before that it is not possible for a white actor to play the role of someone who is non-white. It focuses these days in greater particularity if the actor belongs to another race, meaning a white playing a role of a person of African descent.

In the West, in particular the film industry has come under scathing criticism about doing so on a large scale, and it is seen as a process that vitiates the truth and its actual portrayal. It compromises on the abilities and feeling of that character, and casts it in such a way that it conveys something that can be the very opposite of what is being intended on the surface. It can also mean that the white man has taken upon himself or herself the task of speaking for the rest of humanity, no matter where it comes from and what the pigment of the skin is.

It has been implied with seriousness that it is not possible for a white actor to play the role of someone who is non-white.

In other words, only Africans should play the roles of the Africans, the whites should play their own roles, the Chinese theirs, and Muslims only strictly so. It is not right for a Muslim to play the role of a Christian or a Jew to play the role of a Muslim, and similarly a Buddhist to only act his own religious type. If he plays an atheist living in Harlem, he will be seen as vitiating that attempt, either deliberately or unintentionally and be

But then all this should not stop here. Can it be said that it is not possible to write about the times that one is not living in? Quite a lot of literature and subsequently drama and film have been based on characters that existed in the past. The times or the era in which the characters lived in also determined their extent of choices. The entire age, so to say, defines the options that can be exercised and so judged for the choices made against all the array of choices thrown open by those times.

By the same token, probably, it is not possible for a man to create a woman’s character. It is not possible, given the parameters of the argument, that a man can create female characters, for if they do so or if they have done so then it is possibly be considered the worst case of appropriation. How dare men write about women against whom they have been have been pitted since times immemorial?

If one looks at all the angles exposed by this line of reasoning, it is safe to say that a quite a lot of literature will have to be consigned to the dustbin or trashed for having advanced biases or harboured only prejudices. That it is not possible for a mere mortal to rise above himself, his times or take a dispassionate look at what really has been happening and to evaluate no matter how imperfectly the age that he or she has been living in.

This is putting the entire argument about what is art on its head. It begins to challenge the very intrinsicness of art or literature.

It is true that the colonial experience of the recent past has not been very savoury for the world that was colonized; but we only talk about it because it is of very recent past. In parts, it is still casting its long shadow on the way the world is being run and managed.

But just pause and wait and consider: Was there a time ever in human history when colonisation in some form did not take place, or that one race or a community was not subjugated by another, the subjugation being of values, race, religion, language, arts, music and literature? It is only the angle from which one is looking that can be of critical importance. One thought is that art which opens itself to multiple interpretations is a legitimate way to access or view because the definity about everything is mutated by the complexity of the metaphor — it can yield at many levels and operate at many layers offering multiple interpretations.

One of the important aspects is that of transcendence and the artist; the work of art transcends its person, its time, its locale and can possibly communicate at some higher level beyond the same prejudices that may have initially fed it. The real talent of a writer or an actor is to get under the skin of the character and if he/she failed to do so then it is bad writing and poor characterisation and it should be blamed for that rather than cast it as a heinous act of appropriation. If “negative capability” is a skill not honed enough then any actor would find it difficult to be authentic. An actor is supposed to play a role that is not from his own life and if he fails to do so he is not an actor. Period.

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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