Cultural Appropriation in Ceramics

13th Nov 2016

Back in September, the author Lionel Shriver gave a talk at the Brisbane Writers Festival, addressing the issues around identity politics and cultural appropriation. In summary, this says that people should only live within their own culture - no writing about other peoples, no buying foreign clothes on holiday, no copying designs from another culture. As Shriver says, taken to its logical conclusion an author can only write their own autobiography, and how much poorer that would make our culture. Yet Guardian journalist Yassmin Abdel-Magied took such exception to the talk that she stomped out before the end, and published her opinions in this piece.

Yet, as Kwame Anthony Appiah shows in this year's Reith Lectures, concepts such as country, culture and colour are complex, fluid, and dependent upon the person's point of view. Try to define any culture or identity in isolation and you are doomed to failure, much to the disappointment of those in UKIP or the Tory right wing. So we cannot grasp any identity that can be "misappropriated".

Also, at the beginning of the year I did the FutureLearn MOOC "What is a Mind", looking at neuroscience and psychoanalysis. Amongst other things, this discussed work by neuroscientists such as Jaak Panksepp, looking at instincts present in all mammals (including humans) (read more about Jaak's work here). This shows that seeking out things new is a fundamental instinct, whether it is a dog sniffing round to explore new territory, a scientist seeking out new knowledge, or an artist developing new ways of expression. Where there is communications, this seeking will often be built upon what others have already discovered.

Looking at how this applies to ceramics, it's whole history is one of copying and appropriation. The Chinese were heavily influenced by the Koreans; the Japanese copied the Chinese, and started a war with Korea to capture its potters. Delftware, Majolica and Wedgwood's Creamware were attempts to imitate Chinese porcelain. Bernard Leach imposed a strong Japanese aesthetic in his creation of the studio potter movement in the UK. And in China, after the near collapse of ceramics in Jingdezhen, East Germany (re-)exported porcelain expertise to the town as part of the Soviet bloc's support for China, though this part of Jingdezhen's story is seldom told as it claims ascendancy in Chinese porcelain. Without cultural appropriation, British ceramics would still be earthenware, with an occasional lead glaze.

So let's forget the excesses of criticising cultural appropriation, and accept that we all build upon what we have seen and what others have achieved before us, regardless of where that inspiration may come from.