The Title image is by A.R. Penck: The Start of the Lion Hunt. The photo was taken in 2020, by M. Perron at the Musée des beaux arts de Montréal.

From MBAM

Introduction

As soon as I came across this painting in the MBAM, the debate about cultural appropriation that continuously rages in my head was reengaged. There may be a perceived line between inspiration and appropriation, but it can be blurred by open-mindedly unpacking sub-definitions of appropriation and the intentions of the artist. Primitivists like Picasso, Gauguin, et al. embraced what they were aesthetically attracted to in composing their narratives. They sought to understand the aesthetics, but does that mean they intentionally trivialized the cultural origin of the muses?  This paper will unpack appropriation and propose that in expressing their intentions, artists can draw awareness and open conversations about other cultures and/or ways of seeing the world. Artists like A.R. Penck exemplify a Post-Modernist offshoot called Neo-Primitivism and may even  present a positive argument for appropriation. 

Arguments

Young (2001, pps 303-3) lists five appropriation subcategories as functions of how an artist represents their works. By focusing on how the artist cites the sources of their ideas and work they demonstrate a clear distinction between theft and inspiration. They are: material, non-material, stylistic, motif, and subject appropriation. 

“Material appropriation” is the outright theft of material works from other cultures; “Non-material” would be more in tune with our current arguments about intellectual property and is a clear copying of the work of another artists. “Stylistic” & “motif” appropriation are exemplified in the widespread playing of American Jazz styles around the world. Musicians from all over get moved by this style and it’s innate nature of innovative reinterpretation, or playing between the notes, lends itself clearly to being inspirational. It becomes an excellent example of welcomed appropriation. The final category is where things get tricky. Young may focus his argument for subject appropriation on literature, but it can be lent to the debate about how to teach culture in the classroom. 

Before digging deeper into subject appropriation, let’s remind ourselves of the message behind Picasso’s famous quote: “Good artists copy; great artists steal”. I have found no evidence that Picasso is suggesting we claim ideas to be our; rather he may be extending the Ecclesiastical passage: “there’s nothing new under the sun” into a learning philosophy about making art.  If something is good, do that, but in your own way. He also said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artists.” What does an artist do? They interpret the world as they see it. However, does this relieve them of the ownership of their interpretation? Can they be free of the possible impact of what they do? 

Young (2001, p. 303) illustrates a warning I’ve gratefully come across in my own teaching practice in regards to representing another culture while not having life experience in it. My wake up call was in my aesthetic representation of “African Masks”, without understanding the vast diversity of artistic expressions across the diversity of the African continent. This miss-step opened the doors to inquiry that is continuing to build my awareness and fascination with this inspiration. The more I learn, the greater my curiosity to understand grows, and the greater my humility towards all I have yet to learn becomes. Young uses the literature of Joseph Conrad and W.P. Kinsella to illustrate how temporal mindsets can both lead to misrepresentations, but also open conversations against previously accepted prejudices. These are but two of many authors who voiced the regional semantics of their times and n ow allow us to build greater sensitivity to today’s cultural needs. We can still use their creative output as inspiration for new interpretations. We can appropriate their ideas in new ways, more acceptable for today. This reminds us that as society progresses what we produce now may be seen as backwards to future audiences. They will undoubtedly appropriate it in their own ways. 

In the October 26th, 2016 edition of Art History 101, we are introduced to some harsher impacts of cultural appropriation. The main two steaming from the articles definition of what it is. The author points out the twin pillars of culpability being as follows: “The person who appropriates often gets cultural or economic capital – such as admiration, money, or artistic inspiration – from it, while the appropriated culture gets mistreated for doing the exact same thing.” Imagine, as an example, that you paint figures stereotyping certain traits and then attribute these traits to a specific people. Now, imagine your work becomes widely popular and then accepted as a truthful representation of this subject group. Your work on this subject becomes more in demand while the subject group becomes ostracized for what you represented, even when they don’t exhibit the behaviour. This is a clear outcome of a careless art practice, or miss-appropriation of a perceived observation. 

It is easy to find examples of this in cinema and literature around WWII. When  depictions of everyone other than “White Men” were laughable, but now makes many cringe with embarrassment. Even before James Bond and his ability to conquer foes as well as women with perfect white maleness, we had artistic movements explained as only the false superiority of colonial mindsets could. Primitivism was depicted as celebrations of “otherness” when they really celebrated white privilege and colonial might. The Art History 101 article explains “the 19th century… when tourism exploded and travellers were able to bring back a sizeable number of artifacts from outside of Europe” showed the surge in interest in the other. It even suggests that the industrial revolution spurred tastes towards the “more simple” crafts of Non-Western production.  Moreover, it is really the language that arose to define this passion for otherness that trivialized, rather than celebrated other cultures. The value of the art made in other places was seen as artifacts; trinkets and curiosities, but not really art. The famous artists described what they appropriated as primitive, or as elevated interpretations of primitive expressions.  

There may have been little or no discussion on who should be allowed to make this type of art, much less one of doing it with cultural sensitivity. Today, we can look back and go deeper than judgement about the artists who did make these works;  to what their intensions might have been. A.R. Penck becomes an excellent example; born in Dresden in 1939, raised in White Eurocentric systems, we have to wonder how he evolved out of Modernist and German Expressionistic forms into a Neo-primitivist. Let’s start with defining Neo-primitivism.  

According to Victor Li’s book, The Neo-Primitivist Turn: Critical Reflections on Alterity, Culture, and Modernity (2006), it arises from a disillusionment with the Western ideology of superiority and modernist expression. It celebrates other cultures to learn from them and to act as a “discursive element of rupture, a structural antithesis to Western thought” (Li, 2007, p6). This indicates the movement has an ongoing evolutive mindset that previous movements didn’t have in the labeled categorizations. It seeks to continuously incorporate more perspectives into its expressions. Again, we find A.R. Penck (a.k.a Ralf Winkler) a wonderful example of this. His MBAM biography explains how he both embraces multiple sources of inspiration from all over the world, while demonstrating a rejection of his own Western heritage.  His ArtNet.com biography, further explains his name comes from that of the 20th century palaeontologist, Albrecht Penck and his style from American graffiti artists Harring & Basquiat. 

One could call him a post-modern appropriation master.  “The Start Of The Lion Hunt”  (1982) combines a stylized and perhaps idealized vision of a hunt, with colours commonly imagined to be from African mud hut decorations, and lines from the popular graffiti of Keith Harring. He pulls inspiration from all sources to produce an aesthetically appealing work. His painting was shown in the MBAM show, “Big Bang” surrounded by a room of collective graffiti created for the showing by En Masse. (2019). Without the context of its history and road to MBAM this painting feels like an example of appropriation and Primitivism. With the benefit of its journey, we become aware of much larger and ongoing conversations.  

Conclusion

“Cultural appropriation is sometimes to be condemned, but equally to be avoided is a restriction of artists to their cultural homelands. Such a restriction is not demanded by morality and it is contrary to the demands of aesthetics.” (Young, 2001, p. 316)

“The Start Of The Lion Hunt” by A.R. Penck (aka Ralf Winkler), 1982 brings us on a journey of personal growth. Allowing for the idea of inspiration over appropriation as a guiding intention of the artist, we find the possibility of ongoing discussions and evolving awarenesses. Opening the door for discourse between the artist, the institutions, and the public further grows the meanings of these works. Even if the visual aspect of the work seems to exemplify appropriation, we learned from Penck that we cannot allow it to end the discussion; we must resist what was before, reinterpret it, and keep the conversation going.

“Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.” (Euripides)

Additional Resources & References

Tate Museum Biography (2020): https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/a-r-penck-1753 

MOMA Collection of A.R. Penck (a.k.a. Ralf Winkler), (2020) : https://www.moma.org/artists/4546#works 

ArtNet Biography & Collection of A.R. Penck (2020): http://www.artnet.com/artists/ar-penck/ 

Blumberg, N. & Yalzadeh, I. (2017-19). A. R. Penck – German Artists And Musician: https://www.britannica.com/biography/A-R-Penck 

Admin., (10-26-2016). Art History 101: Why Primitivism was Cultural Appropriation. Taken from howtottalkaboutarthistory: http://www.howtotalkaboutarthistory.com/uncategorized/art-history-101-primitivism-cultural-appropriation/ 

Li, V. Postcolonial Text Vol 3 No 3 (2007). The Neo-Primitivist Turn: Critical Reflections on Alterity, Culture, and Modernity. University of Toronto Press, Toronto

Young, J.O.The Dalhousie Review (2001). The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation. Taken from https://dalspace.library.dal.ca/bitstream/handle/10222/63438/dalrevvol80iss3pp301316.pdf?sequence=1 

What’s Showing in Montreal: Big Bang at Museum of Fine Arts (2019). Taken from https://www.pickledelisquare.com/blog//2012/01/whats-showing-in-montreal-big-bang-at.html 

Videos:

Penck: https://youtu.be/ZUskCN20Ckw 

A.R. Penck: https://youtu.be/tFka9Wxcty8

A.R. Penck – New Paintings at Michael Werner (2009): https://youtu.be/1pqmrv2pcss 

Fritsch, Dr. Lena. 2019. A.R. Penck: I Think In Pictures: https://youtu.be/74Uj1pszHiQ

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.