This paper discusses critically the concept of ‘appropriation’ and evaluates the usefulness of applying the term in the analysis of cross-cultural communication in a global world. Specifically, I look at contemporary art practices that involve the ‘appropriation’ of ideas, symbols and artefacts from other cultures. Early twentieth century theories of cultural change and cultural contact (in German-speaking anthropology, the United States and Britain) were clearly interested in the ‘migration’ of particular elements (symbolic and material) across cultural boundaries, but suffered from a holistic view of bounded cultures. Recent theories of cultural globalisation on the other hand do not pay sufficient attention to the individual actors (as opposed to groups of individuals) in cross-cultural contact. Hybridisation, creolisation, transculturation and other concepts focus more generically on mixtures of different cultural practices in entire societies, but less on individual strategies. Appropriation then is reevaluated as a hermeneutic procedure, an act of dialogical understanding, by which individual actors negotiate access to, and traffic in, symbolic elements which have no fixed meaning.
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