Living things, by nature, are appropriators. The universe itself is one big mega-appropriator, ultimately sampling from the infinite, eternal pool of resources to arrive at whatever works. One culture has no special privilege in this grand scheme to demand control over any particular results of this pool of resources, in light of the fact that this is how civilization naturally evolves – by blending, fusing, copying, recombining, and reinterpreting all the various elements of all the cultures of the world.
Music evolves this way. Fashion evolves this way. Food evolves this way. Industry, science, philosophy, humor, … you name it … evolve this way. How is it, then, that the use of imagery should be any different?
Images are made by humans. If a paintbrush or a camera makes images, then this is a tool of humans used to capture some idealized, momentary form of an ephemeral event in the cosmos. How can anybody lay special claim to images that are idealizations made with a human tool – the camera? – images which represent cultures long gone, cultures who made no issues about posing for the camera or taking zero measures to avoid the camera for fear of image misappropriation by another culture in the future?
And who is to say that an image printed on canvas for a living room wall is more honorable than an image printed on toilet paper for the bathroom? Both canvas and toilet paper have valid functions. In an enlightened civilization, the cold, nonliving material base of the canvas wall hanging should NOT have a greater place of esteem than the paper used in a warm, active, living, organic exchange of nutrients transgressing into waste products of a living being, in a bodily function that is positively essential for life itself. Any idealization of the wall hanging over the toilet paper, then, is purely arbitrary – itself a more serious cultural bias than the simple preference of using one image rather than another in either domestic location.
I bring all this up because of a recent flurry of emotions about certain images of a certain culture being made available by Fine Art America on commercial products such as shower curtains or decorative pillows.
A wise point of view would seem to frame the whole issue raised in this emotional flurry as ludicrous self-interest at worst, or, at best, grossly erroneous thinking.