ATT: Appropriation

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

The word appropriation has a negative connotation associated with it as the action of taking something for personal use, often without the permission of the original creator. When spoken of in terms of cultural appropriation, this remains true; however, when used in relation to the art world, the association is less clear.

The act of appropriation in art traces back to Cubism and Dadaism, and their use of everyday or “found” objects and “readymades”, through 1940s Surrealism and 1950s Pop art. These uses challenged traditional perceptions of fine art, ownership, originality, and plagiarism as the objects took on new meaning through their re-contextualization. Of course, well before the 19th and 20th centuries, the arts (literary, visual, musical, and performing) have used pre-existing materials with little to no transformation from the original. The Silk Roads promoted an exchange of not only goods but ideas, visually shown in the architecture from that period. Today, we hear this most easily in music through the sampling and remixing of classic and contemporary beats and chords. Artists, whether musical or visual, are in a constant state of theft because no work is completely original. All creative work builds on what comes before; and, as Austin Klean notes in his bestseller, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, stealing in the form of studying, crediting, remixing, mashing-up, and transforming is different from plagiarizing, skimming, or ripping-off other artists. In fact, without this principle, progress in the arts wouldn’t be possible. Art movements constantly build off of and purposefully react against each other to innovate; without this, art would stagnate. For example, Chuck Sperry incorporates wallpaper patterns from British textile designer William Morris in the background of his Greek myth-inspired prints (below, left) while Steven Sorman incorporated pieces of canned tomato labels in some of his collages (below, right). Where is the line, then? How can artists responsibly use images that are not their own, especially when those images are linked to the history of another, often minority, culture?

Of course, at the height of the Silk Roads, copyright infringement was not at the forefront of an artist’s mind; instead, it was focused on the discovery, for example, that building in a triangle shape (a ziggurat in ancient Mesopotamia or a pyramid in ancient Egypt) was sound structurally, so everyone followed that discovery. In the digital age, appropriation is a result of the overproduction of reproductions, reenactments, recreations, and reconstructions of art in all its forms. Consider how many versions of Romeo & Juliet there are in film alone! These transformative and derivative works (looking at you, Baz Luhrmann), once copyright has expired, often fall under Fair Use. The Copyright Act of 1976 helps to determine whether the use is “fair” based on the purpose of the use, the nature of the work (fictional or factual), the amount of the original work that is used, and the effect of the use on the market. Visual artists in particular have driven the conversation around fair use as copyright evolves. While creating a direct copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is an obvious copyright infringement, bordering on forgery, Andy Warhol’s appropriation of images from pop and commercial culture like the Campbell’s Tomato Soup can or Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation of comic book style art is less straightforward. Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation inspired a generation of artists, like Crash and Carlos Fresquez (below), to follow suit and continue to push the boundary of “fine” art. Where should artists draw the line? With the proliferation of images today, the challenge of defining originality and authorship continues without a straightforward answer. Balancing the adoption and sampling of pre-existing images, objects, or ideas with proper documentation and credit to the original creator is key as artists continue the modernist tradition of questioning the nature and definition of art itself. When examining appropriation in a cultural lens, however, the divisions are easier to make.

Cultural appropriation is considered by many to be another form of colonialism as it exploits and fetishizes the appropriated culture. The issue arises when a dominant culture appropriates from a minority culture, re-contextualizing their traditions, fashions, symbols, language, or music. Without a mutual exchange, this form of appropriation harms the affected culture and perpetuates stereotypes and misinformation. Not only is it offensive, but it can also subvert original cultural traditions and undermine authentic works of art made by those in the community. Recently, sports teams and Halloween costumes have come under fire for their misappropriation of Native American names and images. In the art world, artists must be cognizant of the provenance of the objects and images they are using as they develop artistic styles and movements to ensure they are not misusing or misrepresenting a culture that is not their own. While Modern art has benefitted from the artistic transformations of objects in collages, constructions, readymades, assemblages, and other media, it must be done responsibly. It is also important to remember that not all appropriated art is culturally appropriated, and, in fact, much of it comes from within the artists own culture through their visual exploration and contextualization of the world around them.

Are the images below (on the left, Lesley Dill; on the right, Katja Oxman) appropriated? Lesley Dill incorporated words from a poem by Emily Dickinson into her lithograph while Katja Oxman includes postcards of her favorite artworks in her still lifes. Are these homages to the original creators? What is the line between appropriation and inspiration? Appropriation is the intentional use of another artists work to inform their own; what role does intentionality play in furthering modern art, and where would art be without it?

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