In light of a rash of articles across the internet condemning Fine Art America because of so called, "cultural misappropriation" of public-domain Maori people images, I feel compelled to continue questioning the very logic of the whole idea.
From Stanford Library, Stanford University, home of Stanford Law School - ranked the second best law school in the United States:
The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.
This alone means that the claim about Fine Art America's cultural misappropriation of Maori people images, symbols or designs does NOT have any legal foundation.
What about ethical foundations?
To answer this question, we have to consider what IS and is NOT ethical. Is it ethical to put an image of Jesus on a roll of toilet paper? This all depends on one's personal feelings about the human body and the human body's functions or on one's personal views about Jesus. If we view the act of defecating as a disgusting lowly act to be denied and avoided (the ultimate dirty act), then we might feel that Jesus on toilet paper is unethical. But is this the ONLY way to view human defecation? Suppose somebody does not even glorify Jesus? Why would we automatically accept a disgusting view of defecation, amplified by glorified worship of Jesus, and allow THIS one viewpoint as the ONLY viewpoint to dictate our definitions of "ethical"?
Another view is that defecation is a natural bodily process necessary for life itself, and that Jesus on toilet paper might adorn this bodily function with greater spiritual meaning. Or Jesus was just an activist and not the son of God.
Even if we believed that Jesus is the son of God, then why would Jesus on toilet paper not make the act of defecating more religious rather than the act of defecating making the image of Jesus more insulted? In other words, are we ethically obligated to accept only one culture's sense of defecation in one historical epoch? Isn't this itself a form of cultural discrimination? And isn't using this discrimination to define a restrictive use of imagery merely a further extension of such discrimination?
Also, why should the demand to know the meaning of all cultural symbols have any validity in a "cultural appropriation" claim? Ask an artist what his or her painting means, compare this to what a total stranger thinks the artist's painting means, and you will most likely get completely different explanations of meanings. It is NOT the moral or ethical duty of the viewer of an aesthetically pleasing image to know what the original meaning is. Meaning is a fluid thing. If different people can find different meanings (or no meanings) in the same image, then this is a good thing, because this is what the creative human mind naturally does.
Any person, then, who advocates restricting the images, symbols or designs of one culture from all other cultures seems to be practicing cultural discrimination -- first by segregating aspects of one culture from another culture, and second, by trying to control how other cultures bring new meanings to these aspects or incorporate these aspects into their own cultures.
Do we, as a modern enlightened civilization, really want to segregate cultural attributes in this way? Isn't this the very thing that we should be trying to avoid?
How is restricting access to public-domain cultural imagery substantially different from restricting access to riding at the front of a bus in public transportation? How is restricting access to public-domain cultural imagery substantially different from restricting access to public bathrooms? When we start isolating cultures and demanding segregation in the name of "respect", isn't this regress instead of progress?
When we start talking about "dominant cultures" vs "minority cultures", we only intensify the problem with faulty divisions. These two labels discriminate in a negative way, plain and simple, and so they seem self defeating from the very start. These labels, then, are of zero use in discussing the idea of "cultural appropriation" with any wisdom. We are better to speak of "human beings" and their great variety, and the blending or fusion of all cultural aspects that leads humanity as a whole to a mass world culture, where all this variety can be used creatively by everyone.
Artists, as individuals, and artists, as business people, are creative. Creative people find new uses for the available materials that surround them. Condemning creativity, therefore, in the guise of preventing "cultural appropriation" is a misappropriation of logic.