Context seems to be a major factor in how we understand the appropriate usage of cultural artifacts. Once when I was in the Museum of Natural History in D.C., I was struck by the display of a totem pole. It seems odd that we, as a culture, would pull an object that had specific cultural and (in some cases) religious significance and set it up in a museum where it is used as an object of aesthetic contemplation. It seemed somehow inappropriate to me to take an object out of its religious context and use it for a different purpose. As I reflected on this, I realized how often this occurs in our culture. Altar triptychs are displayed at art museums. Statues of Apollo — originally used for worship — are placed in sculpture gardens. Music that Bach wrote for worship services are regularly removed from their religious context and performed in concert halls.


It might be that the aesthetic judgement of the 19th century is correct and that these cultural artifacts have aesthetic value apart from their religious context. They can be wrested from their original locations and used for the purposes of aesthetic contemplation in a way that their original creators could have never imagined. For that matter, they can even be used today in commercials. Music written for religious services can be used to hawk products. So maybe knowing the context of something doesn’t matter that much. Most of the professional musicians that I know can perform Bach quite beautifully and convincingly without holding the religious convictions of an 18th century German Lutheran.


In much of the recent discussion about cultural appropriation, there is a push for knowledge as a gateway for permission. So, for example, it has become a sort of popular béte noire to go after people incorporating a specific style (like Negro Spirituals) without acknowledging the history and cultural context from which the genre arose. Agreed. Fine. Everyone should learn about that. The tricky part is, how much do you have to know before you are allowed to proceed, and what exactly are you supposed to know?


In my mind, this is the resurgence of 1950s-80s style cultural anthropology where a culture is observed without judgment in order to provide the context to explain the art object. The downside of this approach is its underlying assumption that the music isn’t powerful and universal enough to speak on its own. It needs a set of training wheels to get it up and running in another context. Kofi Agawu describes this transition as it occurs in ethnomusicological approaches to African music.  The earliest descriptions we have of indigenous African music comes from slave traders. The descriptions are racist and offensive, but Agawu points out that the racists descriptions had the advantage of people actually using their ears to evaluate the music. “When in later periods of ‘proper’ ethnomusicological discourse such descriptive language and its attendant ideology are excised, we enter also a period in which, perhaps only coincidentally, writers are less confident about what their ears tell them. With this new, mediated response, this elevation of symbolic above semiotic order, comes a substitution of false piety for an authentic, personal engagement with the phenomenologist’s Sachen selbst. The fate of African music reception is not helped by such piety.” Agawu is pointing out that sometimes knowledge of the cultural context can be used to remove personal engagement.


So where does the epistemological hunt end? How much do you have to know to cross the threshold of treating something respectably? The terminus ad quem always winds up at the question, “Do I need to kill my wife in order to perform Gesualdo’s music properly?”


How much knowledge is required about the Lutheran Pietist reaction to the previous generations stale formalism to do a Bach cantata? Whatever the answer to that question might be conceptually, the practical answer is “not much.” Most of our institutions of higher education have people conducting Bach without even knowing what the words mean much less having read anything about performance practice or Jesulied. When I hear the argument that we need to treat the Spiritual with as much respect as we treat Bach, I find it slightly jarring in light of my personal experience in the academy. Most American conductors have more innate cultural knowledge about the Spiritual than they do about 18th century German Lutheran Pietism. And to be fair, most of the people conducting Bach in the university setting manage quite well without much knowledge at all, so it makes me question what the “knowledge as a gatekeeper” argument is trying to do.


Of course, the reason the discussion around this topic is so littered with befuddled and fatuitous thinking is because the framework for the discussion is wrong. We don’t take a relation with another (or in the technical anthropological sense “an other”) through knowledge. Or rather, whatever sort of gnosis accrues in the course of a relationship is not the center or basis of the relationship. The center of relationship is love. It is love that grounds the use of cultural artifacts in an appropriate fashion. Knowledge is no guarantor of love. We can easily imagine a situation where someone used a cultural artifact or art object in a way that made us feel uncomfortable AND had vast knowledge about the culture and context from which the object arose. For example, a white choral conductor might have read 10 books about Spirituals and use that knowledge to make a black student feel inadequate for not knowing as much. We can also imagine a situation where someone without knowledge can use an object from another culture in a way that doesn’t offend us. Just imagine a child repeatedly listening to a song from a different culture. The child begins to sing along — sometimes even in a foreign language that they don’t speak — because they like it. No cultural knowledge is present, but it isn’t offensive because it comes from a place of innocence and joy.


It turns out that knowledge isn’t really the deciding factor when it comes to cultural interchange. It is love and respect. It’s not really who uses which rhythms and tropes that are culturally identifiable. It’s whether the person is coming from a place of love. In my personal experience, people are almost always willing to share their culture in the same way that they are willing to share their thoughts. They just want to be listened to and heard. Lack of knowledge of cultural contexts is sometimes a portent of a deeper apathy toward a culture, but a tumescent knowledge of an art object is not a shibboleth that affords permission for use. Love is the only thing that can ground our interactions and artistic creativity in a way that allows us to participate in true dialogue with others.