The Caged Bird

The previous posts have presented poems by Irish Nobelist and esoteric explorer William Butler Yeats, which have influenced me in the choice of my comic's title, Goldenbird. Even though I love his imagery, his philosophy remains alien to me, even though I can appreciate the longing for a perfect Platonic ideal on an intellectual level. Yeats' world-view is a very aristocratic one, however. Even though he supported the Irish revolution, he belonged to those interwar intellectuals in the West who feared the lowly "masses" and envisioned an apocalyptic clash of civilizations - it should not come as a surprise that Yeats appreciated Spengler (he thought that his wife, a medium, channeled Spengler even before Der Untergang des Abendlandes had been published).
It is easier for me to identify with the notions expressed in the "caged bird" tradition of the African-American writers. I have been taught to sympathize with the weak and the oppressed, and to feel joy when they triumph over their obstacles. This teaching is central to my world-view, even though my own childhood and youth was relatively privileged. I can't feel the same sympathy for old intellectuals lamenting the modern world (which Yeats did, but Spengler didn't) or the temptation to lump together individual human beings in sweeping, demeaning categories such as "nations", "races" or "civilizations". Those terms are like gilded cages for singing birds. And yet, how can the individual break free without the help of yet another imagined community? How can we avoid turning our liberation movements into gilded cages?
In the next posts, the "caged bird" poems will be explored. Before that, contemplate this painting by Harry Roseland (1868-1950). It often appears in sales lists of art reproductions, especially of African-American interest, sometimes advertised as genuine depictions of Southern AA life. However, Roseland was a white painter who never left Brooklyn. Are his paintings romanticized cultural appropriations? Does he romanticise African-American history, or are his paintings relatively "harmless" and even encouraging examples from an otherwise viciously racist period in history?
Cultural appropriation is a huge theoretical and practical problem. Some people would say that you cannot claim to say anything about people with other social and cultural background, whether you're an artist or a scholar. Needless to say, I disagree (why should I be confined to writing and drawing stories about myself and the handful of people who share my ethnic mix, when I don't even believe that this mix guarantees that we have anything in common...). On the contrary, I think that we need to increase the amount of people who explore other people's perspectives. But we should never forget the power relations that shape our relationships even now. Roseland's art may be sentimental and even deceitful when it serves to calm white consciences ("oh, the old days weren't so bad after all"), but "feel-good-art" can also serve the identity-building of the minority, and in effect, resistance towards the "superior" culture.
In the end, the artist's original purpose is not necessarily relevant to the interpretation of her or his work, but it is important to study the circumstances that influenced it. Why is it important? Because when we look at a picture or read a poem, we feel different things, depending on where we come from and what we have been taught. Whether we respect our neighbor's opinion or not, we benefit from studying its historical background. This ought to be valued in a society that claims to support freedom of expression, unfortunately it is often seen as a waste of time and "giving in" to the opponent's arguments. Freedom of speech is confused with freedom from listening...

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