imago corvi

adventures in enamelling, stories, music and travel

Cultural Authenticity and Cultural Appropriation in a Multicultural Society

In Canada we have the great privilege of living among people from many diverse cultures. We value pluralism and take pride in our cultural mosaic, which we contrast to the American melting pot. But we forget that without support and attention the mosaic will slowly disintegrate, one unsupported culture at a time, till all we are left with are broken shards.

While bolstering the unique individual identities of our diverse cultural landscape we need to also pay attention to what holds it together in the bigger picture that is Canadian society, and to do that we need to examine cultural authenticity and cultural appropriation.

These are thorny questions, and ones I have been struggling with as an artist and musician from the beginning of my career in the early 1980’s. That was a time of immense interest in all things Celtic, but also a time of challenges.

I want to start by saying that I don’t have any answers, and indeed I don’t believe that there are any. Some of the worst excesses have been committed by those who think they have all the answers. I certainly have no desire to set myself up as the arbiter of authenticity, and I doubt that anyone has that authority. These issues are not simple or black and white, but are very complex and nuanced. The best that I can hope to do is expand on the kinds of questions we should be asking ourselves, and encourage more open conversation. The cultural mosaic is not a static finite thing, but is a garden that needs to be carefully tended.

At a Celtic convention perhaps the first order of business is to de-construct the term “Celtic” a little.

Celtic Expansion 3rd c BC

Celtic Expansion 3rd c BC

Celtic is related etymologically to the Greek word “Keltoi” originating in the classical period. Early Greek scholars were extremely insular and often referred to people who didn’t speak Greek as ‘mute’ or ‘barbarians’. These were not terms of judgement and did not reflect on the sophistication of the societies in question, but simply on their language abilities. The word “Keltoi” simply referred to those tribes on continental Europe who didn’t speak Greek. It is quite possible that it referred to Germanic tribes as well as Celtic ones. The important thing to remember is that it was NOT a term that the Celts used to describe themselves. It is used by scholars now to refer to a group of tribal peoples whose language had a similar root. Celtic languages are extrapolated from inscriptions and place names as we have no contemporary literary examples. We do know from the archaeological record that even in very early times so-called “Celtic” cultures were extremely diverse, and often hostile to one another.

There are some ways that language is the key to Celtic connections, but common language roots do not always mean cultural affinity. This is true in ancient times as well as modern times. For example, excavations from most of Continental Europe and also Britain in the early stages of Celtic culture show large and complex cities – but the record of the same period from Ireland show single dwellings only. Any larger fortifications that have been unearthed in Ireland show no evidence of dwellings, but only evidence they they were used as meeting places. This speaks to immense cultural diversity. So in archaeological and historic terms – the word “Celtic” generally refers to a language group rather than a culture and has no definite cultural meaning.

In general modern usage the term “Celtic” still has no real proper definition. It may refer to the cultures that share common language root, but more often it refers to a vague notions: sometimes about neo-pagan goddesses with a Victorian flavour or sometimes to rowdy pub music.

There is a cultural acceptance for the inclusion of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Mann and Brittany as “accepted” Celtic nations – this is also largely a language grouping and does not include, though it does imply cultural community. In fact peoples actually from these nations are extremely diverse, and often fiercely nationalistic. Irish people rarely refer to themselves as Celtic. They refer to themselves as Irish. So I like to think of Celtic as a miniature cultural mosaic of its own within the larger Canadian cultural mosaic.

This lack of definition also means that the term “Celtic” is available for use in exploitative contexts as well as inspirational ones. It is also important to acknowledge that it has become something of a marketing term.

So what can it possibly mean to be authentically Celtic, and what can it mean to appropriate Celtic culture?

My strategy will be to start from my own personal experience and hope to tease out some of the issues and concepts that I feel are at the core

I have been a professional “Celtic” visual artist and traditional singer for over 30 years

Most of my artistic repertoire has for many years been rooted in Irish Iron Age design. This came from an

Celtic Ornamental Bronze Plaque. 100 AD

Celtic Ornamental Bronze Plaque. 100 AD

inspirational discovery (on a trip to Ireland in 1984 to study music) that the Irish were some of Europe’s first enamellists, beginning before the turn of the millennium and continuing well into the 8th c AD. This is an extraordinarily long and distinguished relationship with this medium. Being a historian by nature I did extensive research on the history and archaeology to inform my work. And yet my experience as I went to exhibitions and festivals was that the only artwork that the general public acknowledged as “Celtic” was knot work and illuminated manuscripts exemplified by the Book of Kells. My “authenticity” was continually questioned. And while I was usually able to communicate on an individual basis where it lay for me, this information never penetrated to any kind of general knowledge. Knot work and the Book of Kells were (and continue to be) the standard measure for the authenticity of Celtic design. This is not a problem in and of itself, the Book of Kells is a spectacular and worthy candidate for this place – but it means that the culture has narrowed. That other equally worthy aspects can be lost or forgotten.

Arthur Rackham illustration for  Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens

Arthur Rackham illustration for Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens

This prejudice is actually rooted in the Victorian Celtic Revival. The Celtic Revival covers a variety of movements and trends, from the late 18th to the early 20th century, which drew on what was referred to as “the traditions of Celtic literature and Celtic art” but in fact, in the visual realm, drew on only one tiny area of design history: what historians call Insular art, i.e. the Early Medieval style of Ireland. Although the revival was complex and multifaceted, occurring across many fields and in various countries in North-West Europe, its best known incarnation is probably the Irish Literary Revival (also called the “Celtic Twilight”) including William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, A.E. Russell, Edward Martyn and Edward Plunkett (Lord Dunsany) It brought us fabulous poetry and exceptional art, but also some of the most entrenched misconceptions about what it means to be “Celtic”.

St Columba Bidding Farewell To The White Horse 1925 by John Duncan

St Columba Bidding Farewell To The White Horse 1925 by John Duncan

In a way this was the first appropriation of Celtic culture. It was not appropriation by a different culture – but by a different class. Much of the mythological material that informed the literary work was “collected” from unacknowledged sources who had been maintaining this material for generations. If there was “ownership” of this material it was surely owned by the country people, especially in the Gaeltachts (Irish speaking areas) who had kept it alive, even through the desperate days of the famine. The content and construction of the stories was changed to serve the political and nationalistic aspirations of the literary establishment; an establishment that did not include the very country people it had exploited. The people who told the stories were forgotten. So while this cultural elite constructed a “Celtic Twilight” informed by these appropriated stories, it manifested its vision in a visual aesthetic that began with Medieval insular art but in the end owed more to the Pre-Raphaelites than it did to any actual historical trajectory of Celtic design.

The Day Dream by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Day Dream by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This 19thc Celtic revival is often the only reference point that modern people have for Celtic art and many of the romantic notions from this period are now taken as history. It is the clear source of how “Celtic” has been appropriated in modern times by several constituencies, most notably by the neo-pagan movement, the ecology movement and the feminist movement. I refer to these movements as “appropriating” because they pick and choose from Celtic history only those aspects that further their own agendas and while I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with looking to past cultures for inspiration in modern ones, the tendency to reduce the culture to a few oversimplified precepts is one that needs to be watched and addressed.

This kind of examination, sometimes critical, is often very unwelcome as it questions peoples dearly held beliefs. People are often quite attached to their notions and often respond with resentment and anger when challenged. But my intention is not to criticise, but to encourage people to look deeper. To make the journey from the surface to the roots.

Champleve Cat by Catherine Crowe enamel, copper, copper cloisonne wire

Champleve Cat by Catherine Crowe enamel, copper, copper cloisonne wire

I understand that journey because I made it myself. MY first true inspiration was the Book of Kells. I was inspired by the Celtic Revival. But for me that was just a starting point. it became a journey into the past and to what I hope is a deeper and broader understanding. My journey began largely because of my natural interest in history but I am not implying that everyone needs to be a historian in order to be authentic. Authenticity is not a quality that is arbitrated by some kind of board of experts. I believe it is a quality that come from the desire for growth and in cultural contexts, of understanding origins and of connection with others within the culture. When you think you have it all figured out, that is when you need to find a way to push yourself into a deeper understanding and that push is often uncomfortable. I know this because my own experience of coming to a deeper understanding of anything always involves some discomfort.

I want to be clear that in general I have deep respect for all of these movements I hope that I am a feminist and an ecologist as well as a Celt! But there are more sinister appropriations also. IN the USA White Supremacist groups see “Celtic” as a rallying point for the “white race” and often use Celtic design in their propaganda.

In the musical realm I had a similar experience.

My first musical experiences were actually rooted in the community. In the mid 70’s when I was 18 I got a job in Toronto for the summer, and stayed with my Uncle Gerry, my fathers youngest brother, and the one one most connected with his Irish roots. My Uncle was very connected to the Irish community. At parties, he functioned as an MC, and at some point, usually later in the evening, when people were a little lubricated, he would get everyone to perform. A song, a poem, a recitation, a piece played on a musical instrument – any of these was possible – but no-one was let off the hook. Everyone had something to contribute. I could see that it was coming around to me, and was ashamed that I had nothing to offer. I thought I could make it through a Leonard Cohen song, as I was listening to him at the time, so I launched into “So Long Marianne”, and a voice came out of my mouth that I had never heard before. It took me entirely by surprise, but I managed to make it through the song. After the party I had a desire to explore this new voice, ,but it also gave me a sense of responsibility. I wanted to have something to offer wjhen I attended these parties. So I was finding my voice in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. That made the experience feel very authentic.

Steeleye Span

Steeleye Span

Like many people caught up in the Celtic music revival of the 70’s I heard revivalist singers like Dolores Keane and June Tabor and Bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. In the beginning I shamelessly copied their performances and the bands I was in shamelessly copied their arrangements. It wasn’t until travelling to Ireland in the mid 80’s to go to the Willie Clancy school that I began to realize that I had a further responsibility to understand and investigate the song tradition. I met some real traditional singers, and began to understand that singing “popular” songs was in no way part of their tradition. Quite the contrary, they took pride in having songs that no-one else knew. In this kind of atmosphere it was a serious social faux pas to learn a song without the express permission of the singer, and quite rude not to acknowledge them whenever you sang it. That was when I began learning my songs only from field recordings, not only field recordings from Ireland, but I eventually discovered the rich source of material that is contained in the Canadian archives. Most North Americans don’t have the luxury of learning from real traditional singers, as there are so few now living. For me the archives was the answer to that dilemma. As I travelled to the American festivals like The Catskills Irish Arts Week and Elkins Irish week, I got to know fine singers who were willing to share their songs with me.

Song sessionThere is a complex protocol at singing sessions much of which is unspoken, but reasonably easy to understand if you take some basic precautions of listening and watching the dynamics before leaping in. Like the instrumental music sessions they are not essentially performances. They are a dialog among the musicians where the songs and tunes are the conversation. To not be paying attention, and to throw an inappropriate song or tune into this dynamic, or to try to change it to suit ones own musical tastes is simply rude.

In the North American incarnation of the Irish music session I think this is the least understood dynamic and the place where most people get into trouble. A song session is often mistakenly thought to be like a campfire, where the goal is to have everyone sing along. Or mistakenly thought to be a series of small performances like a song circle. Consequently many of the song sessions I have attended here in Canada and the US tend to be rigid affairs where everyone sits in a circle and each person gets their “turn”. These can be grim affairs with hardly any conversation or conviviality. I have also been greeted at a Peterborough song session with the words “You are welcome to sing any song that everyone can sing along with” which effectively meant that I couldn’t sing at all.

Inishowen Song SessionA traditional song session would be much more organic, and involve conversation, which would bring a song to mind, which would remind another singer of a story or a song, and no one would be worried about getting a “turn” but only contributing to the dynamic. The thing with this kind of a session is that you need to have a really large repertoire of songs in order to have one that is appropriate to the “conversation”, also mostly songs that no-one else has. This requires a great deal of time and effort and many people attend sessions with only one or two songs which they are determined to get out, whether they are appropriate or not.

Session at Dora's

Irish music sessions at Dora Keogh’s in Toronto

A similar dynamic happens in instrumental sessions. A session is not a performance – but a conversation between the players. You will notice that they don’t care if anyone is listening and will play on into the wee hours for the pleasure of each others tunes. I met a very fine fiddle player once (who shall remain nameless) at a party who said she played Irish music. I asked her if she had been to the session at Dora’s – one of the more established sessions in Toronto, and she was immediately angry. She said she had been made to feel very unwelcome there and had no time for that kind of elitism. SHE had played with the Chieftains. They should have been delighted to have her playing with them. I am sure she was a very fine player, but if she had gone with this attitude, she would not have been welcome. She probably went with the best of intentions thinking she needed to impress them in order to be made welcome, but in actuality this attitude would have done the opposite. In fact when the Chieftains themselves go to Dora’s, as they have, they never expect to be welcomed into the session. They sit at the bar first, have a pint, listen and watch for a while, decide who is the leader or leaders, and then courteously ask if it is OK if they join the session. They don’t start tunes – they play along with whatever is happening until they fit into the dynamic, and then they might start to add to the conversation. It’s an intricate process – but sadly most people who claim to be “Celtic” music aficionados don’t understand this dynamic at all, and it’s at the core of most traditional Irish music.

Alan Stivell

Alan Stivell

In the 60’s folk ensembles were being formed and the contemporary sounds of singer songwriters and classical/baroque musicians were being fused to traditional music in Ireland, Scotland, England and Brittany. The likes of Sean O’Riada, Ewan McColl and Alan Stivel were popularizing traditional music, by accompanying it with new instruments like guitar (in the folk/rock contexts) and harpsichord and harp in the classical contexts. For some this was an appropriation, but for others (myself included!) it was the first taste of something that we didn’t know existed.

As was the case with the Book of Kells – the Chieftains are a magnificent and worthy ambassador for Irish music – but there is so much more that is being lost of forgotten. For me, there is another aspect of this “dressing up” of what was an originally spare and minimal music, particularly in the case of sean nos singing – the subtle nuances and ornamentation gets lost in accompaniment. But anyone who has really listened to the great players, like Tommy Peoples for example, will know that there are subtleties being lost in the instrumental music as well.

It is important to note that one of the factors that shaped the changes in both visual and musical arts was that these cultural experiences had became a commodities that were consumed in a market economy. In my opinion this is an absolutely key part of the puzzle of understanding modern cultural development. For the peasants and farmers that they collected from – or the medieval monks creating decorated manuscripts of the bible – it was simply a way of life that they would not have dreamed of associating with commerce, but as a modern artist I know that without actual monetary support these practices, which are no longer part of people’s daily lives, but have become the purview of “professionals” will surely die out without financial support.. I don’t think that market forces in and of themselves taint cultural expression, but professional standards are set and gatekeepers such as the artistic directors of festivals, the promoters of concerts and the administrators of grants play a huge role in what will be supported and what will not.

Close attention needs to be paid to the agendas of these gatekeepers to ensure fairness, diversity and some sense of authenticity.

Times have changed and our desire as cultural artists is not to perfectly replicate some ideal past – but to bring our living traditions into the present (and on to the future) in a way that is relevant and inspirational and diverse.

We are the guardians of our culture and it is our responsibility to maintain the fluidity that keeps a culture alive instead of a static reproduction of the past (even if that past is a revival from only 50 years ago)

We also need to acknowledge the larger cultural mosaic that is Canadian culture and find ways to engage with other cultures around us.


“Ursa Major: the Great Bear” by Linda Weibe. One of her designs to advertise the Goderich Celtic Roots Festival


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This entry was posted on May 5, 2015 by in history, mythology, process, teaching, Uncategorized and tagged , , , .


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