On Thin Ice: Two Russians Skate Off the Reservation

A loin-clothed homage to Aboriginal peoples backfires.

Wall Street Journal

JANUARY 28, 2010, 7:55 P.M. ET, wsj.com

Russian figure-skaters Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, who have been favorites to win gold medals at next month’s Vancouver Olympics, thought they had found an admirably multicultural theme for their ice-dancing routine—an homage to aboriginal peoples. In it, they leap and dance and spin to a hip-hoppy track of sampled didgeridoo sounds while wearing loincloths over bodysuits painted with pseudotribal designs.

They have now learned the hard way that the politics of multiculturalism are tricky: The pair were denounced last week by Australian Aboriginal activists who don’t like outsiders dabbling in their traditions. Bev Manton, chairwoman of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, declared the skaters had co-opted “a foreign culture, and used [it] inappropriately.”

Who can argue with that? After all, there is rarely anything indisputably appropriate in figure skating, an endeavor famous for mawkish overemoting and sequined unitards. The Russians’ aboriginal fantasy is hardly the first or most egregious lapse of taste on ice.

But the Aborigines’ complaint goes far beyond the assertion that the skaters’ routine is corny or crass. The more serious accusation here is that the Russians are infringing on the cultural property of Aborigines. “We see it as stealing Aboriginal culture,” said Sol Bellear, a member of the Aboriginal Land Council. “It is yet another example of the Aboriginal people of Australia being exploited.” Ms. Manton said the performance is “not acceptable to Aboriginal people” because it is “offensive.”


James O. Young, professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and author of the book “Cultural Appropriation and the Arts,” doesn’t see it that way. I asked him about the kerfuffle and he said that for Aborigines to take offense at such a hapless effort at cross-cultural kitsch is rather like a Parisian boulanger getting in a huff when an American tries to ask for a croissant in fractured French. That is, it’s unreasonable.

The Aboriginal gripe is a variation on an argument that has nagged jazz and popular music in America for most of a century. We’ve been told not to celebrate the endless cross-pollination of musical cultures, not to see it as a welcome force for integration in the old melting pot, but to view it instead as theft. For example, the “blues is black man’s music, and whites diminish it at best or steal it at worst,” wrote jazz critic and Rolling Stone magazine editor Ralph J. Gleason in 1968. “In any case, they have no moral right to use it.”

Gleason was unintentionally belittling the blues. To say that a style, an idiom, or a cultural aesthetic is the province of a race or ethnicity is to give it a status beneath that of art. Would we be elevating Beethoven’s odes if we asserted that orchestral romanticism is the sole province of Teutons? When he was a young man, jazz saxophonist Phil Woods expressed to bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie his worry that, as a white man emulating Charlie “Bird” Parker, he was misappropriating an idiom to which he had no claim. “You can’t steal a gift,” Gillespie replied. “Bird gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.”

Hipster-band-of-the-moment Vampire Weekend liberally borrows from the staccato arpeggios of African pop, much as Paul Simon did with his “Graceland” album. The preppy Columbia University grads who make up the group have created something new and different out of the mash-up of cultures, a genre that, with postmodern irony, they call “Upper West Side Soweto.” We can furrow our brows and harrumph that they have inappropriately co-opted a foreign idiom, or we can marvel at the endlessly jumbled global culture that mixes Locust Valley garb with township grooves.


T.S. Eliot endorsed the idea of artistic theft, with the caveat that “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” I don’t think we need to demand that cultural interlopers make something “better” than the sources that inspire them. That would be the real insult—borrowing on the premise that one will be improving upon the original. Instead, it should be enough that a poem or a song or a dance or a play makes for something different—even if it is different in the excruciating way that the joke auditions on “American Idol” give us different takes on famous pop songs. Goodness knows the Russian Olympic skaters have done at least that much (unless there is a thriving tradition of Aboriginal ice ballet in Australia that I’ve somehow missed).

Aboriginal activists met earlier this week to weigh their options and decided that the Russian ice-dancing routine “while offensive to Aboriginal people, is not illegal.” That’s a relief—though we can expect the Russian pair to be treated as cultural criminals at the Olympics nonetheless. Which is a shame, because even as we celebrate the great multiplicity and variety of cultures in the world, there is a case to be made that we all share in them.

“My people,” writes Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, “made the Great Wall of China, the Chrysler Building, the Sistine Chapel: these things were made by creatures like me, through the exercise of skill and imagination.” By “my people” Mr. Appiah means that biggest and most catholic of tribes, “human beings.”

Write to me at EricFelten@wsjtaste.com

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