PC, not too PC
Tommie Howell

Essence Theory and Art

Currently on college campuses there is a philosophical idea about race that Syracuse University Professor Laurence Thomas has called "The Essence View." This worldview, simplified, says each race has some proprietary attributes, folkways, and heritage. I think this is a sound statement.

The problem comes as we round out the theory and see what some of its defenders do with it. I am going to use the example of rap music for putting some meat on this theory. There are those who embrace this idea of essence who would say that white rap performers like Eminem have no right to perform rap music. Now I might be of the opinion that no one should perform the stuff Eminem puts out... but that's another rant for another day. Some in the African American community who hold to the essence view would go so far as to say that non-blacks do not have a right to even listen to the music that they consider to be of African essence, nor should they make comment on it, let alone perform it.

To be fair, there are certain historical truths that cannot be shared. There are ancestral experiences that happened to certain people groups and not to others. We will never be able to fully share in those experiences. To that degree, the essence view of race is correct.

I will go so far as to say that there are folkways and stylistic elements that have come to us from uniquely ethnic environments. As far as that goes, these things do belong to those cultures that birthed them. Kung Fu belongs to the Chinese, country music belongs to the North American hill people, and ikons belong to the Eastern Orthodox.

The statement made by the stronger proponents of the essence view is that no one else besides those folks should participate in the originating group's art. Many stronger proponents would go further and say that you and I shouldn't even be able to view or listen to those arts.

Today, the essence view has a name, but the concept has been around for a long time. I have a great friend who has worked in polymer clay for many years. A friend of hers, who is a member of a well-known Native American tribe, asked her to do some cane work. The canes were of some Native American symbol; I do not remember which. The canes were done and my friend's friend was quite taken with them. She wanted to incorporate them into her own work. When she showed them to the head of the tribe, she was told to learn to make them herself. Most of the reasoning given was that the artist who made the cane was not Native American and had no right to make things with their symbols. The tribal leader didn't call it the essence view, but at it's base, that is what it was.

I am sure Dr. Thomas had no idea that he would be spawning an article on arts and crafts when he faxed his note to Dr. Laura Schlessinger. But I happened to be on my way home in my car and heard it on her show (I admit that I am a talk radio junky), and his words, coupled with the story I had heard from my friend, made me think about the essence issue.

After mulling it over, I have come to the following conclusion. Please direct all hate mail to anyone other than me!

While I respect the origins of an art that comes to me from another cultural heritage, I do not feel that for a people, innovation means ownership. As long as one acts in such a way that is generally respectful, the artist should be able to incorporate the imagery and style of any people group into his or her artwork. I mean, let's face it folks. If the Asian community banned polymer clay artists from using Asian imagery, 90% of us would have to find something else to do.

Some people would argue that a line should be drawn at the sacred. Still, I respectfully disagree. Art has been in the business of representing the sacred for as long as either concept has been around. A tasteful and respectful use of sacred imagery is a fine practice in making art. Sure, there will always be those who take this as a license to be patently offensive. However, we can't let the disrespect and vulgarity of a few individuals take this realm of inspiration away from everyone.

If we really believe in the concept of a human family -- the "siblinghood of non-gender specific individuals" if you will -- if we really think this is the case, then don't all products of the human experience belong to all of us? Whether we believe in a creation story or an evolution story, there comes a point where we have to say at X time in history, there was the first human. That first human is the progenitor of us all. Any differences we might have are pretty minimal in the scheme of things when compared with our fundamental similarities.

With this in mind, I say create to your hearts content and pay no heed to the essence view. Those folks are going to have their hands full with Dr. Laurence Thomas.

That's it for yet another missive from the snow covered Pacific Northwest. Till next time, I'll be listening to some rap music while watching anime cartoons, eating tacos, and trying to make Zuni Bears.

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