Saturday, October 18, 2014

A series of questions on ownership

Mona Darkfeather, née Josephine Workman
Who owns a piece of a culture? If Jane and Joey played the now assuredly inappropriately named game of Indians and Cowboys when they were young, do they have any ownership of the iconography of those Cowboys or Indians? Would it matter if that iconography were historically accurate in whatever sense that is meaningful, or If that iconography came from the Hollywood mythology of the West? And which Hollywood mythology - that of Zane Grey or Little Big Man or Sam Peckinpah? If Penelope and Peter played GIs vs Nazis when they were young, do they own a piece of the symbology or culture of either of those groups: chewing gum, muddy boots, saber cuts on the cheek? Or the Saracens and the Crusaders? If not Jane nor Joey nor Penelope nor Peter, then who? Only the purest descendants of the GIs or the Nazis or the Cowboys or the Native Americans or those of Zane Grey? Or did Mr. Grey not possess the ownership to write his stories in the first place? And if anyone does have ownership, at what distance in space or in time or racial or geographical or cultural mixing is the ownership lost or even merely diluted?  Do blood and pain give ownership? Must it be your blood and pain or that of people close to you, or blood relatives, or Nth cousins removed? Does the closeness of relation affect guilt, do the sins of ones parents? 

In a world that has reduced spatial and time distances to zero, where we all experience all cultures through time and space from the moment we are born, which culture is ours? Is a distance of 200 years more or less than a distance of 2000 miles? Does sacredness or meaning or significance determine ownership? Who now can own the Liverpool sound, or punk of the 70s, or Grandmaster Flash? I heard the latter in more depth before the former, and Ligeti well before that. Which is my heritage?  And when I studied the tabla or the instruments of the gamelan, and played those better than the piano or the guitar, which do I own the most or the least? Which must I respect and how and what aspect? Am I free to use or abuse those instruments? These instruments all have their histories - not just one or two paths back through time but a thousand, a million - at least one, mostly likely more for each person who has ever touched them or even considered them - which is the proper heritage?  Which is the appropriated?  Does a colonial child in India own more or less of the music of India than an Indian child owns more or less of British mathematics?  

Do objects that are sacred to one group become untouchable by others? Does this depend on which group is which, on cultural superiority, who were the winners and losers, the matters of in-the-wrongness / in-the-rightness, power and might, economics and genocide? What is sacredness? Is a crucifix sacred? Is a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine sacred? Is it acceptable for the descendant of a Nazi to be angered by the misuse of the SS-Runen in a comedy made by the winners, or does the Nazi's absolute wrongness in all things and all ways and their miserable evilness remove for always the cultural ownership of all their artifacts, ceding it to all others for all time to be used and abused and (we hope) denigrated? And is the same true for the absolute evilness of the 13th century Mongols, or is that too far off in the haze and fog of Western-biased history for us to be so sure of good and bad? 

And does something have to be sacred, or to be serious to be owned by whomever it is that might claim ownership? Or are jokes and fun owned by all?  And what about an object or a music that had another life before that?  People have been around for a million years, so did those things ever have another meaning? Is there not another group long dead who were borrowed from or traded with or conquered or laughed at or sat with or from whom it merely blew off their head in a strong wind? 

I have my own culture, formed from my experiences. Is that mine? Can another touch it who hasn't experienced exactly my experience?  Does it depend on how important it is to me?  If I have a religious experience in my music, does that make it too sacred for others?  When I write something, how does it affect the correctness of that in the world if anyone else in all of history on this world and all others has done that before or will do it in the future? How am I to know whether it is right or wrong?  

And, almost too obvious a question, how important is privilege? Maybe I can't do it but someone whose life is worse than mine can.  Someone poorer - there are always those - or someone sadder, or sicker, or more abused, or whose group or country or race or ancestors were sadder or sicker or more abused?  I was born in the US and thus I have great power and wealth. I was not born rich for the US but absolutely rich for the world. I was shy but I was not teased, I was smart but not made fun of, but I have always been depressed.  I was lonely yet popular, happy on the surface, did well in school, but didn't see life beyond school, had serious illnesses, suffered pain, have had friends die, was an asshole.  Which and how much of these allow me what?  What can I appropriate and what can I not, or do I need to start at the beginning, to invent my own biology and from that, language and sound and sight and touch all my own? How can I guarantee that I haven't failed?

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