"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Monday, May 10, 2010

For Your Consideration: Artistic Appropriation

Recently I met an artist with no ethnic American heritage, who through the course of the conversation, indicated he was trying to change his subject matter from abstract color field painting to images of ethnic (Native) Americans. I was surprised by this radical shift, but it raised some issues that strike me as important.

When is it fair or ok to appropriate imagery from other cultures? Is it ever fair or ok to appropriate imagery from other cultures? And what about materials – especially those intended for use in a spiritual practice? Are they fair game?

Take Joss paper, for example. It’s specifically created for use in Asian ceremonies honoring deceased relatives. Heartfelt prayers are written or breathed into the paper, after which it is burned, releasing the message to the heavens. But Joss paper is also shiny, tactile and colorful, and has been co-opted by artists all over the world for purposes that are almost always secular and sometimes even irreverent. Isn’t that artistic license? Why should an artist have to respect the cultural tradition? Isn’t it ok to use materials without any thought or reference to their origin?

And what about the wildly successful line of candles based on Catholic prayer candles, but with a twist. Gone is the full color Virgen de Guadalupe decal on the side of the 8” tall glass votive. In its place is a new decal with a funny picture and the logo Our Lady of the Dysfunctional Family, or Prayer for Unbridled Fun.

The issue of speaking what we know (or making art about what we know) comes up in my workshops all the time. Artists express an interest in developing a personal visual vocabulary – and that’s great. What’s surprising is the number of artists in a class who are drawn to imagery that has absolutely no resonance with their actual lives. Maybe it’s an escapist thing. Maybe it’s naive. Maybe they aren’t sure where to start or what they care about?

In any event, I think it’s a thread of thinking we should always challenge – whether it’s coming from someone else, or whether the thoughts are our own.

Consider this – as long as an artist can convince me that the impulse is heartfelt, I’ll probably go along with her choice - at least for awhile. I’ve had students who were sure they were Asian (hence the interest in all things Japanese, for example) or ethnic American in a past life, and this was the justification for their interest in using the imagery. I am not going to argue with anyone’s belief system as long as I think sincerity is at the heart of the impulse.

I WOULD however, point out that often people whose culture is being appropriated don’t appreciate it, and may feel even hostile about it. And they have that right. An ethnic American in the El Paso airport (working behind a shop counter as a clerk) really let me have it when I asked her about the Kachina dolls displayed on the glass shelves. Kachina dolls are holy to true believers in the culture and she considered it a sacrilege that they were available for sale.

I’m convinced that most of the time, we don’t consider the ramifications of our appropriation of imagery. So if you think it through and decide to move forward, or are counseling another artist who is making that choice, be intentional when it comes to owning and honoring the imagery as your creations manifest. And try on auditioning what you’ll say if you are asked about the use of your appropriated materials or subject matter. Try on for size the feeling of defending your choices.

One final idea: consider researching – through reading and writing – topics that DO resonate from a personal standpoint. The goal is to turn those topics into subject matter that will allow you to work from an authentic place, rather than an appropriated one. Whatever it might be.


  1. This is a subject that has been the focus of many discussions for me. I feel very strongly about being authentic in your work, which means, for me, that it come from your own experience. I belong to a group that used to exhibit regularly at the Portland Japanese Garden and the requirement was that the work have "an Asian aesthetic". To me that meant, because I have no connection to Japan or Asia, that I study the principles of simplicity and economy and incorporate themes of Nature, but it did not include co-opting specific symbolism and images. Others in the group felt no such compunction and freely used Japanese Kanji symbols, Japanese family crests and images from antique textiles and paintings. It always felt false and "decorative" to me. Thanks for expressing your thoughts on this. I think it is a subject that artists must really think seriously about.

  2. I struggle with this. My family of origin did not have any inherited traditions. The culture of our community while I was growing up was narrow-minded. Traditions of other cultures resonate with me, but I do hesitate to use them in my art. What are we left with if we find the religious tokens unacceptable?

  3. I have different views entirely. Saving the outrageously insincerity in some pieces, I think the use of these ideas HONORS the other tradition, not defiles them. I am human, belong to the human family, and if something genuinely touches me, I will use it. Some of it is regional, I live in the Midwest. The Plains Indians also lived in the Midwest, it is almost impossible to miss the spirit in the land I live on. How can I not acknowledge that spirit - to honor the land's heritage, honor the animals and plants. I don't see it as a problem at all, I love that the world is getting smaller as we get familiar with other cultures. I would always seek to honor those other cultures if I used them in my work. The disconnect may come if we don't seek to truly understand what the symbols mean, and use them in a shallow way. Just another thought, Jane, love this blog, thanks so much for being you.

  4. I've been studying the feminine Divine for some time and attended a workshop in Berkeley, California at the Pacific School of Religion. There were talks and music and lots of banners of various female deities and saints, etc. A friend stayed for the weeklong course, I was there only for one day. During the discussions, this issue came up--unhappiness about groups appropriating images out of cultural context and altering their function. Many participants didn't understand the objections, they were really clueless.

    I think that as artists we must be sensitive to this issue because many images have meaning beyond the visual. I'm certainly not saying not to use them, but be aware and sensitive when you're dealing with someone's beliefs.

    I heard of a young person in art school in Canada who was incorporating the inukshuk figure from the far north into her work. She was chastised by the instructor because she was not Native American, but this young woman had grown up in the inukshuk culture and felt it was indeed part of her heritage as well. It's tricky. Thank you for bringing this up, it's important to me as well.

  5. Your clerk in the airport should have been yelling at a mirror if she objected to herself selling the Kachinas. Some things are holy to some people and not to others. While I respect other's beliefs in dealing with them as individuals, you could totally lock yourself out of all symbolism if you honored the beliefs of all from Druids to all the various religions of the Earth. My upbringing was redneck poor south; not something I wish to honor or celebrate. As an artist I celebrate what I love or wish to see celebrated. What is Holy to me is personal. I do not expect anyone else to follow my beliefs.