This issue marks the 60th anniversary of Communication Arts magazine, and like any anniversary, it’s an opportunity for reflection. I reviewed the columns I’ve written in CA (since 1984!), looking for those that still resonate. I found one from November 1999 that was an indicator of topics I would pore over in the new millennium. It began with this paragraph:
“We know the world through frames and filters. Some filters are tangible, like television, the internet, newspapers and magazines. Some are ephemeral, like current styles and trends. And some are deeply entrenched, like the environments in which we were raised, or the cultures that embrace or reject each of us.”
As my experiences have accumulated over the years, I’ve watched filters shift, each one influencing the way I see the world and my place in it. The most persistent of all was (and still is) the filter of cultural identity.
The definition of cultural identity is how one perceives oneself in terms of belonging to a group, whether that group is based on nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, lifestyle and so on. As an artist, I’m especially lucky when I’m exposed to—and can participate in—the wealth of cultures outside of my own. These interactions bring depth to my work; they make me a better communicator.
But including elements of other cultures comes with the potential of appropriation. I was thinking about this tension in March 2002 in my column titled “Respecting Culture.”
“Artists and musicians (think Picasso and Paul Simon) have incorporated foreign culture in their work. Is it appropriation or creativity? There is such a thing as cultural wealth, and once it has been offered to the public, the original owners have no other choice but to share its value and witness its transformation. On the other hand, sharing culture can instigate empathy and mutual growth, where both parties benefit.”
In December 2004, I wrote about the filter of culture again, because I needed to understand my own conflict: I wanted to include other cultures in my work, and my motivation was admiration and a desire for connection. But did I have the right?
I had just visited Tijuana, Mexico, and was excited by the adrenaline I felt as I walked through the city: “I saw stores, houses, signs and cars that were unique assemblies of resurrected materials.”
I remember how much I enjoyed the vibrancy of this kind of assemblage, and I wanted to bring its riotous color and abandoned objects into my work. But I was conflicted. “Along with this inspiration, I had a feeling of separateness: this is not my culture, so I can only be an observer.”
“In order to create something that truly communicates, the work must be authentic, and authenticity requires first-hand knowledge. I was afraid that any adoption—or adaptation—of someone else’s culture would be appropriation... Worse yet, I did not appreciate the fact that I had a distinct cultural identity of my own.”
When I was writing that column, I sought the advice of a wise friend, and he gave me an alternative perspective. “You do have a cultural identity,” he said, “and it is an amalgamation of cultures. Culture is like chocolate at 98 degrees. It’s sticky, and you can’t help getting it on you.”
My friend made me realize that as Americans, we are exposed to many cultures, and we absorb everything from mannerisms and gestures to ideas and beliefs, and that becomes part of who we are as unique individuals.
This was a turning point for me. Instead of seeing myself as limited to a static cultural identity, I started to recognize that I am part of an ever-changing cultural consciousness. Sticky culture is exciting!
That recognition has since influenced my choices of where I live and what I seek for intellectual and creative nourishment. Now, more than fourteen years later, I enjoy an environment that celebrates the mixture and morphing of cultural identity.
But I have a new and growing worry. As this multiplicity spreads and is exuberantly shared, it is simultaneously being shut down. The value of diverse culture is being questioned at our borders.
We have a president who is disgusted by the stickiness of culture and does not want to “get any on him.” Cultural identity has become a divider. As citizens, we know how dangerous this is to our nation’s health and safety. But there is another, more subtle danger: this barrier-making can rob us of our creativity. Without diverse culture, we will have lives—and, by extension, art, music, dance, theater and literature—that are sterile, colorless and exclusionary. Do you want to be an artist in a country that blocks culture at its borders? This is a threat to our work. If we don’t share our cultural identities, we’re doomed. ca
© 2019 W. Richmond