Artists, can you Exploit Your Own Culture?

“You have to have a realisation, that when you exploit your own kind, that you are in effect, counter revolutionary. That you are hobbling and crippling the struggle of black people’s freedom and dignity” – Robert Beck.

There are two definitions of exploitation, the first being to “use or utilisation, especially for profit.” This can be understood as common practice in creative industries, where art and business intersect, and cultural identity is commodified.

An example of this would be ‘Blaxploitation’, a term coined in the 1970s to refer to a genre of black action films, aimed at black/African-American audiences. The genre rose after the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, as many African Americans became actively dissatisfied with the lack of representation of their culture in Hollywood’s film industry. Whilst the rise of the genre had much cultural significance, it was also heavily criticised for reinforcing socially damaging stereotypes of black characters and for its lack of artistic integrity.

Exploitation can also be defined as “selfish utilisation,” synonymous with “taking advantage” and also understood as “the act of treating someone unfairly, in order to benefit from their work.” In the arts, exploitation is often discussed under the umbrella of cultural appropriation and ethics. Where “members of the dominant culture (or those who identify with it) [exploit] the cultures of minority groups.”

However, since we are asking if it’s possible “to exploit your own culture?”, appropriation does not apply to the progression of this particular conversation. 

For several possible reasons, “the exploiter” is always in a higher a position of privilege or power to those they exploit. Be it through class, access to resource, access to knowledge, heritage or wealth. It is important to note that these factors of privilege are not exclusive to those of the “dominant culture.”

Rarely, do we discuss how a culture can be exploited by those within it, and what kind of effects this has. In an article about Film Director Lee Daniels’ proposed remake of ‘Paris is Burning’, Myles E. Johnson explores how Daniels uses “his material proximity to a culture or experience in order to exploit it.”

“Lee Daniels’ ability to exploit narratives is never questioned because we often only look at shallow evidence of who is a part of a community and who is not.”

Meaning there is a general assumption that, if you are part of a community, you cannot exploit it. So, Lee Daniels being both black and gay, recreating a film (Paris is Burning) that represents also black and queer individuals, the assumption would be that he cannot exploit exploit this experience. Thus ignoring other evidence, such as the “transcendental” privileges of his wealth and integration into Hollywood for example. Both of which the characters of Paris is Burning were not afforded, or able to obtain, and were further affected by being marginalised within the drag scene/ball culture of New York. (Please read the article by Myles E. Johnson, for further clarification).

Whilst the dominant culture is quickly called out and critiqued for its exploitation, the language to critique those who identify with the minority is still very limited, and must be explored intersectionality. For example, Brett Bailey, the white South African artist behind the controversial ‘human zoo’ exhibition.

Another case of misplaced privilege. Whilst Brett Bailey maybe African, and his exhibition was about an aspect of African history. He is white, and of European descent. His whiteness makes him able to distance himself from the harsh realities of the black experience, as and when he wishes.

“Those who have caused Exhibit B to be shut down brand the work as racist. They have challenged my right, as a white South African, to speak about racism the way I do. They accuse me of exploiting my performers. They insist that my critique of human zoos and the objectifying, dehumanising colonial/racist gaze is nothing more than a recreation of those spectacles of humiliation and control.” – Brett Bailey.

The “they” Bailey speaks of are black people, the descendants of the mothers, fathers and siblings, who he displays as lifeless objects in chains and cages – reinforcing painful imagery of lived experiences and subjecting them to “public interpretation.” So as Bailey wishes, the public “explores the meaning” of this evocative and in many cases traumatising work, and then what happens next? How does this push society forward?

Those who have privilege of being able to look at the work subjectively, have a new topic for their dinner time conversation, whilst those who are directly affected by it, are left to process the trauma caused by it. The work is violent and emotionally abusive, as well as exploitative.

So again I ask, as a critique, how does this work push society forward? Why is it always those with privilege, even if they identify with the minority, who feel entitled to create this controversial work? There are many questions that need to be asked and answered by the artists behind such work, BEFORE, they are sponsored and granted residencies to exhibit it. Accountability is a vital virtue.


Scafidi, Susan (2005) Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law (Rutgers Series: The Public Life of the Arts).