Devil in the Details

Given my past scholarly endeavors, it generally comes as no surprise to me that cultural appropriation is a diffuse phenomenon.  But it's still not usually part of a discussion about Miss Universe pageant gowns. 

At the moment, however, Boliva and Peru are locked in a cross-border battle over the elaborate outfit worn by Miss Peru, Karen Schwartz (below), in the pageant's national costume competition.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Boliva claims that the Carnival ritual which inspired the costume, La Diablada or the Devil's Dance, originated in the Bolivian city of Oruro and that Peru is guilty of theft.  Peru vehemently disagrees. 

(By the way, yes, you read that correctly:  Miss Peru, Karen Schwartz.  Her full name, which does not appear in the WSJ, is actually Karen Susana Schwartz Espinoza, implying a certain familiarity with cultural hybridization.  Just a thought.)

From a property rights perspective, the Andean argument is about more than competition for a rhinestone tiara.  Over the past half-century or so, the right to recognition of one's culture has become an increasingly important issue.  At the same time,  a dramatic expansion in the economic importance of intellectual property rights has led many countries that have historically been net importers of IP to seek greater protection for a related type of intangible creation in which they are comparatively wealthy, namely cultural products or traditional cultural expressions.  The confluence of these trends resulted in the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.  Even prior to 2003, UNESCO maintained a representative global list of elements of cultural heritage in need of protection, including the Bolivian Carnival of Oruro.  Thus Bolivia's claim that the Peruvian pageant gown constitutes "theft" and is a threat to cultural heritage -- and the tourist money that it generates -- is of more than rhetorical significance. 

Peru's denial of Bolivia's charge, along with Miss Peru's observation that the neighboring countries share almost the same culture and customs, illustrates one of the difficulties of protecting and commodifying collective cultural creativity.  It's relatively easy -- conceptually at least -- to bar outsiders from half a world away from engaging in cultural appropriation.  It's quite a bit more difficult to mediate disputes between cultural cousins over the ownership of a particular song or story.  Miss Peru's costume designer, Richard Davila, may or may not have been inspired by clothing from the Peruvian city of Puno rather than Bolivia's Oruro, or a Chilean town with similar traditions for that matter, but it's almost impossible to say for sure. 

The silver lining in this cultural property skirmish, as with every dispute from the tragic destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas to the British Museum's refusal to return the Parthenon/Elgin marbles to Greece, is that it draws public attention to the heritage in question. 

On the other hand, this particular international incident is unlikely to result in that most cherished wish of beauty pageant participants everywhere:  world peace.