Lady Gaga’s new video clip “911,” Victoria Secret model Stella Maxwell’s photos in daraz for Vogue Russia from 2015 and Kanye West’s Yeezy brand runners named “Ararat” have all recently sparked polarizing opinions on social media. Misappropriation! Appreciation! I’m not sure! represent the general tenor of Armenians’ reactions to seeing their culture in non-Armenian media. If the medium is the message, then who is the primary audience for the message? The cacophony in responses to these appearances of “Armenianness” is symptomatic of the complexity the phenomenon of “culture” embodies in its perpetual relation to the jumble of history, ideas, experiences, power matrices and globalization. But the fact that something seems rotten in the state of certain “representations” ought to make us question any given referentiality.
The historically-attuned mind, aware of Armenia’s centuries-old struggle with colonialism, should participate in the discourse of otherness, especially when the intersections are between the culture of a world power and Armenian culture, which unfortunately still dwells in the periphery. Members of marginalized cultures, due to their lack of representation in the supposed “center” of the world stage, are more likely to undermine or even question problematic instances of cultural appropriation. As an underrepresented culture, despite our cultural wealth, we Armenians quickly revel in fleeting appearances of our flag, sacred mountain, national dress and other forms of display in the international arena, and often feel content with a few crumbs in cameo. It is necessary to think about questions such as, who “owns” culture, what constitutes cultural appropriation, and where one can draw the line, however blurry, between the latter and cultural appreciation, all of which boil down to ethics.
In assessing a report on cultural appropriation from Australian Aboriginal cultures, James O. Young and Conrad Brunk, philosophy professors at the University of Victoria specializing in applied ethics, assert that, “[The] concept of respect is a crucial one in assessing acts of cultural appropriation. […] an act of appropriation can be wrong precisely because it fails to indicate due respect for a culture, its beliefs, its values or its members.” Without jumping into the realm of social media harangues in considering the aforementioned examples, it is imperative to address the nature of cultural property, not limited to artifacts and intellectual property. Lady Gaga’s “911,” for instance, draws heavily from a 1969 film, The Color of Pomegranates or Նռան գոյնը by Soviet Armenian film director Sergei Parajanov (born Sargis Parajaniants). Tarsem Singh, who directed Gaga’s video clip, is no stranger to Parajanov’s mystical and surrealist art films. Parajanov’s influence is also conspicuous in Deep Forest’s 1992 video clip for “Sweet Lullaby” and the 2000 film “The Cell” both directed by Singh. In The Color of Pomegranates, Parajanov’s intent was to celebrate Armenian culture through its 18th century troubadour Sayat Nova using the pomegranate’s symbolic association with life and millennia of history and art in a whirlwind of striking images that reel after reel trigger the viewer’s sensory receptors with constantly alternating stimuli.
As a pastiche, Gaga’s clip is an homage to her own mental states and Parajanov’s enduring work. No one accuses Hovhannes Shiraz of misappropriation for alluding to Goethe in his poetry or Shakespeare for utilizing Seneca’s tragic plots in his own plays. They craft anew old rhymes and thoughts and make them distinctively their own. There is no “works cited” list, for example, in a film that alludes to other films, literature or historical events. Essentialism regarding one’s own culture creates a slew of necessary conditions for referencing it that thwart conversations about a given cultural entity and its relationality to another culture, and as such, stifle opportunities to learn from one another. It is, nonetheless, viable to question whether a given “borrowing” is harmful to the culture from which things are being borrowed. Some viewers of “cultural appropriation” might see anything identified as such as necessarily wrong, as if it were inherently misappropriation. But ethical anthropologists and philosophers suggest that there ought to be criteria for delineating malignant and benign appropriations and to examine whether any rights have been violated that would amount to theft. In her book Who Owns Culture?, Susan Scafidi, a professor at Fordham Law School and director of the Fashion Law Institute, demonstrates that the adoption of source-community culture usually occurs in a legal vacuum. On the other hand, intellectual property rights in the US are not absolute and are protected by fair-use provisions and the First Amendment.
In an attempt to acknowledge Armenian culture and Parajanov’s legacy in Armenian culture, the creators of “911” incorporated the Armenian word զգուշություն (warning/caution) appearing on yellow tape and the phrase, “Armenian Film Festival,” on the marquee that appears toward the end of the video. Lady Gaga also commissioned the floral alien costume she dons in the clip from Armenian designer Karina Akopyan. Are these enough for the clip to come off scot-free in critical debates? It is necessary to understand that when moral questions are not raised, what we are left with is either a compromise or a contest of power. The latter scenario is brutally colonialist at its core, where power determines the outcome. In this case, the disadvantaged cultural community hardly ever benefits from the outcome. Where ethics fail, then negotiation is the best option. Lady Gaga’s appropriation is one such negotiation, where the beauty of art can still be appreciated with some form of acknowledgment of the culture from which it draws its inspiration.
It is also important to note that Parajanov was not only Armenia’s son. The Soviet Empire, though a closed system, was interested in intra-imperial intercultural exchange that instilled feelings of belongingness to the whole. The main actress and muse of Parajanov’s film—Sofiko Chiaureli—was not, in fact, Armenian, but Georgian. Additionally, it would be callous not to acknowledge Georgia as an important site for Armenian intellectuals, especially at the turn of the 20th century and as related to the avant-garde. It is also important to understand that there was a healthy amount of cultural translation and transfer occurring between the two countries. Even more urgently, we must consider the fact that the relationships between the constituent Soviet republics were not based on a power dynamic, which cannot be said about the Russian SSR and its hierarchical relationship with the other 14 republics.
The 2015 photos of Stella Maxwell posing in Armenian daraz for Vogue Russia have been unearthed recently and deemed as cultural misappropriation. There is a misunderstanding among Armenians on social media platforms that the photos were for “Vogue Armenia;” however, no such magazine exists. The images perfectly capture the game of empires: a model from the US does a photoshoot for Russia in exoticized, i.e. Armenian, garb and locales, using the marginalized culture’s resources, photographer and above all, culture. Stemming from an inferiority complex, some Armenians’ positive reaction to the images of the blue-eyed, fair-skinned, and skinny Maxwell prove the unhealthy striving among Armenians to be white and for whiteness. Cui bono? Perhaps it is not the designer’s or magazine’s intent to “steal” from another culture, but these questions, as we know, are more complex than the dichotomy of “mine” and “yours.” Every culture has its own perspectives on what is right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, legal and illegal, and if we address the moral questions that a certain “borrowing” raises, it becomes more plausible that we would appeal to the moral views of only one culture. In other words, there will not be a consensus or a resolution. The best arbiter in this case, it seems, is the source community. Are Armenians offended by the images? Let us hypothetically infer that, no, they are not. Let me then ask these questions: Would we stop viewing a victim of domestic abuse as a victim even if the victim vigorously denies she is a victim? Would we consider someone with Stockholm syndrome “happy” and “fulfilled” with their abuser because the victim claims to be “happy” and “fulfilled”? Is Kanye’s Yeezy Mafia brand shoes, “Ararat,” (which, by the way, was an excellent marketing decision and was sold out within a few hours in an attempt to benefit a billionaire’s growing empire) cultural misappropriation? Without a doubt, it is. And I, as a broken record, ask again: Cui bono?
Culture is fluid, and perhaps some marginalized cultures save aspects of their culture through appropriation, which can act as a form of advertisement. But then again, where do we stand when we must rely on the commodification of our culture to help push it into the center from the periphery, even if for a brief moment, like Sisyphus with his rock, only to see it pushed back into the margins again? “Can the subaltern speak?” asks the renowned postcolonial and feminist critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In postcolonial discourse and within the imperial matrix, the “subaltern” is the “other” that has no access to cultural imperialism.
It just gets tiring when someone else constantly does our speaking for us.