A Slap Upside the Head: Attending to power, privilege, and cultural context in panel process

Posted by Anne Mulgrave, Jul 26, 2017 0 comments

This post is part of our Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change blog salon.

At a recent panel discussion on cultural appropriation, hosted by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council (where I am the Manager of Grants and Accessibility), the discussion with about 40 people began with writer Brian Broome telling us a story about how he learned about cultural appropriation:

All the Black folks [here] in the audience, we know it when we see it. We learn it from our mamas. I’ll give you an example. After watching Bo Derek run down that beach with those … corn rows? cane rows? Who knows what they were? All my mother said was, ”Black people can’t have sh$t.”

I laughed along with everyone else, but inside I knew that Brian had just slapped me upside my middle-aged, middle-class white head.

 In 1979, I too laughed at Dudley Moore and Bo Derek in “10,” but inside I felt a little uneasy. Something in that movie’s image felt off—like something didn’t quite fit. I get that same feeling sometimes when I am reading grant applications and find myself jotting “cultural appro?” in the margins. But my gut is more wrong than right. My panelists do not see cultural appropriation where I do, and don’t point it out where I miss it. I do not always know it when I see it.

As grantmakers, we distribute scarce resources, so I worry when panels cannot have an open, honest discussion about important issues like cultural appropriation and how that might result in how we mete out funds. I educate myself, look for facilitation tools; anything that will improve our panel meetings and eventually the panel decisions. If tokenism limits the ability of people of color to impact grant decisions, or panel dynamics shut down discussions about uncomfortable issues, we are not doing our jobs.

The 11 attributes offered in Aesthetic Perspectives provide a new framework for evaluating applications that could facilitate productive and meaningful panel meetings. For example, the attribute of cultural integrity describes an appropriate way to integrate culturally-specific artistic traditions into current artwork. This positive framework centered on respect for cultural communities and their traditions gives us new language to evaluate the applications we receive.

The concept of cultural integrity urges me to assess whether the artwork “demonstrates integrity and ethical use of material with specific cultural origins.” And if I do not know it when I see it, I can ask my panelists if they feel that “the artists have explored the relationships of power, privilege, and cultural context within the process of making the work.”

Cultural integrity examines the artist’s relationship to the cultural community that created the artistic tradition, whether the artwork is authentic and credible, and how the members of the originating cultural community experience the artwork. Cultural integrity focuses on respect.

And, cultural appropriation and cultural integrity are different. Cultural appropriation involves commoditization—theft of a cultural form for profit by someone outside the community. Thanks to the Aesthetic Perspectives framework, I now have the ability and language to more confidently and clearly differentiate these two concepts and better facilitate grant panel discussions.

As grantmakers, we all want to distribute funds fairly. But, as we know, that doesn’t always happen. The attributes defined in Aesthetic Perspectives are tools that grantmakers can apply to do our jobs better. We can use the questions to refocus panel discussions. We can adapt the attributes and use them as criteria to evaluate the applications. These attributes help us figure out what “good art” is in a way that allows us to look deeply at why it is “good.”

Before I had a name for it, cultural appropriation made my stomach churn. I knew something was wrong, but it was a mystery. Brian’s humorous slap upside the head and my personal journey toward racial justice revealed how much my privilege blinded me and prevented me from understanding why my gut was in knots. Having the cultural integrity lens through which to review grant applications can move us into new conversations about respect and fairness with a better understanding that ultimately makes us better grantmakers.

Anne Mulgrave is a member of Americans for the Arts.

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