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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


In Part 1, I focused my attention on the ways in which the concept of "appropriation" was falsely applied to Marvel Comics' IRON FIST property. I pointed out that the idea of a fictional white Westerner "appropriating" a cultural product like "martial arts skills" from the East was not significantly different from the real-life instance of a martial artist like Bruce Lee borrowing Western fighting-style for his own martial system. "Appropriation," in fact, has become a new buzz-word for people who don't know Roland Barthes from a hole in the ground. (Granted, the two are almost equally empty, but still.)

The word recently appeared in the statements of black artist Hannah Black as she argued that "Open Casket," a painting of 1955 murder-victim Emmett Till, ought to be removed from public display and destroyed, because it represented "the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people" (full remarks here). This artist certainly takes a Barthesian position in that Black conceives of Black culture as being something that only other Blacks can comment upon, while if whites do so-- like Dana Schutz, the artist who painted "Open Casket"-- their only motive can be to "transmute Black suffering into profit and fun." Ms. Black was slightly hypocritical on this matter. In the body of the protest she makes clear that she will not accept white attempts to empathize with Black suffering. Underneath it she's quoted as saying that she chose to delete names of "non-Black" posters who agreed with her, yet she was OK with said non-Blacks helping "in other ways" to have the offending painting expunged from human history.

This is such an extreme view of the idea of appropriation that even the ladies of the ABC-TV talkfest THE VIEW agreed that Black simply didn't understand what real appropriation was. And given that this talk show skews very liberal, I think it significant that Whoopi Goldberg equated Ms. Black's attempt to destroy a piece of art with the repressive tactics of Nazi Germany.

Black's uncompromising view holds much in common with the "We Must Have an Asian Iron Fist" argument, in that all such proponents have formed an exaggerated idea of the extent to which a given culture can "own" anything, be it a cultural practice or a history of suffering and marginalization. There certainly have been examples of white artists putting forth bad art with respect to the race problem: Stanley Kramer's movie "The Defiant Ones" comes to mind. But I don't want to see the movie eradicated from history, and even if Schutz's painting were as bad as the movie, I don't think it's ethical to call for its marginalization and/or destruction.

When it comes right down to it, the protest over both the painting and the Netflix series (for which I've now posted an incomplete review) comes down to certain individuals feeling marginalized by something they don't like to see in art. For Black and her supporters, it's the image of Black people suffering, at least when depicted by non-Blacks; for the Iron Fist ideologues, it's the unfair prevalence of Caucasians in popular entertainment. In both cases I think the proponents have devoted themselves to both bad logic and bad ethics. But at least they're not actually distorting historical fact, like the 2015 film SELMA, whose factual inaccuracies have been widely exposed in essays like this TIME article.   In one interview, director Ava DuVeray defends the accuracy of her portraits of both Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover, but somehow both she and her host fail to mention that she imputed Johnson as having colluded with Hoover in attacking King, which is pure fiction.

In an essay I can no longer find online, one writer asserted that SELMA's appeal for Black audiences was to rewrite history so that it seemed that only Black People got the Civil Rights Act passed, without any help from an ofay like Johnson, much less from Jewish rabbis.  Clearly, when things get to a point where a filmmaker like DuVeray falsifies history for her agenda, or an artist like Hannah Black calls for the destruction of a fine-arts painting, one can no longer blame such bad behavior purely on the offenses of white culture, ranging from the really egregious (BIRTH OF A NATION) to works that supposedly marginalize minorities by doing the same thing SELMA did (MISSISSIPPI BURNING).

And where does a commercial property like IRON FIST rate in this cultural equation? Well, if the comic book had ended with its fifteenth issue and the character had never been seen again (unlikely though that would be at Marvel Comics), then he would have remained a big fat zero in the matrices of culture. But Marvel didn't just cancel IRON FIST: they teamed him with the also struggling character POWER MAN, transforming the latter's book into POWER MAN AND IRON FIST with the title's forty-eighth issue.

For the remainder of the magazine's original run, the series remained fairly lightweight with respect to race issues or anything else. Nevertheless, I think that even if the feature didn't change any hearts and minds in and of itself, I have always believed that its implied "Ebony and Ivory" theme meant something within the world of comic books. It signified a basic faith, like the 1960s teleseries I SPY, that blacks and whites could overcome their differences.

I don't know what long-term plan the producers of the IRON FIST show have in mind, beyond the public announcement that at some point, Luke Cage and Iron Fist will be teamed once again, albeit in a larger team using the rubric "The Defenders." (Apparently the original idea was to revive the "Heroes for Hire" brand, but someone thought "Defenders" more salable). I think it likely that the series-producers wanted to duplicate some of the "Ebony/Ivory" theme from the comics, and that this is one big reason why "Asian Iron Fist" ran counter to the producers' long-term plans. There may well be important social statements one could make in the teamup of an Asian-American hero and an African-American hero. But I think the pairing of white and black still has a greater resonance within American culture, and that even flawed works like Kramer's "Defiant Ones" don't diminish that resonance. Any attempts to erase or efface the truth of that symbolism must be viewed as mere political power-jockeying.

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