Appropriation in Contemporary Art

By Hayley A. Rowe
2011, Vol. 3 No. 06 | pg. 1/2 |

Appropriation refers to the act of borrowing or reusing existing elements within a new work. Post-modern appropriation artists, including Barbara Kruger, are keen to deny the notion of ‘originality’.2 They believe that in borrowing existing imagery or elements of imagery, they are re-contextualising or appropriating the original imagery, allowing the viewer to renegotiate the meaning of the original in a different, more relevant, or more current context.

"I'm interested in coupling the ingratiation of wishful thinking with the criticality of knowing better. To use the device to get people to look at the picture, and then to displace the conventional meaning that an image usually carries with perhaps a number of different readings."
Barbara Kruger, 1987.1

In separating images from the original context of their own media, we allow them to take on new and varied meanings. The process and nature of appropriation has considered by anthropologists as part of the study of cultural change and cross-cultural contact.3

Images and elements of that have been appropriated commonly involve famous and recognisable works of art, well known literature, and easily accessible images from the media.

The first artist to successfully demonstrate forms of appropriation within his or her work is widely considered to be Marcel Duchamp. He devised the concept of the ‘readymade’, which essentially involved an item being chosen by the artist, signed by the artist and repositioned into a gallery context.

By asking the viewer to consider the object as art, Duchamp was appropriating it. For Duchamp, the work of the artist was in selecting the object. Whilst the beginnings of appropriation can be located to the beginning of the 20th century through the innovations of Duchamp, it is often said that if the art of the 1980’s could be epitomised by any one technique or practice, it would be appropriation.4

This essay focuses on contemporary examples of this type of work.

Les Demoiselles d'Alabama & Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
Left: Robert Colesscott, Les Demoiselles d’Alabama, 19855; Right: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 19076

Above we see a contemporary example of appropriation, a painting which borrows its narrative and composition from the infamous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso. Here Colesscott has developed Picasso’s abstraction and ‘Africanism’ in line with European influences. Colescott has made this famous image his own, in terms of colour and content, whilst still making his inspiration clear. The historical reference to Picasso is there, but this is undeniably the artist’s own work. Other types of appropriation often do not have such clear differences between the original and the newly appropriated piece.

The concepts of originality and of authorship are central to the debate of appropriation in contemporary art. We shall discuss these in depth in order to contextualise the works we will investigate later in this essay. To properly examine the concept it is also necessary to consider the work of the artists associated with appropriation with regards to their motivations, reasoning, and the effect of their work.

The term ‘author’ refers to one who originates or gives existence to a piece of work. Authorship then, determines a responsibility for what is created by that author. The practice of appropriation is often thought to support the point of view that authorship in art is an outmoded or misguided concept.7 Perhaps the most famous supporter of this notion was Roland Barthes. His 1966 work ‘The Death of the Author’ argued that we should not look to the creator of a literary or artistic work when attempting to interpret the meaning inherent within. “The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who created it… (but) it is which speaks; not the author.”8 With appropriated works, the viewer is less likely to consider the role of the author or artist in constructing interpretations and opinions of the work if they are aware of the work from which it was appropriated. Questions are more likely to concern the validity of the work in a more current context, and the issues raised by the resurrection and re-contextualising of the original. Barthes finishes his essay by affirming, “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.”9 , Suggesting that one can and should only interpret a work on it’s own terms and merit, not that of the person who created it. In contrast to the view supported by the much-cited words of Roland Barthes, is the view that appropriation can in fact strengthen and reaffirm the concept of authorship within art. In her 2005 essay Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art, Sherri Irvin argues:

“Appropriation artists, by revealing that no aspect of the objectives an artists pursues are in fact built in to the concept of art, demonstrate artists’ responsibility for all aspects of their objectives and hence, of their products. This responsibility is constitutive of authorship and accounts for the interpretability of artworks.”10

Authorship then, is a concept we most consider when discussing appropriated works. The evidence presented suggests that the notion of authorship is still very much present within appropriation in contemporary art. However, the weight of Barthes argument is such that we must take it into account. Perhaps a diminished responsibility or authorship is something we can consider in this context.

Perhaps the most central theme in the discourse on appropriation is the issue of originality. The primary question we must address is – what is originality? It is a quality that can refer to the circumstances of creation – i.e. something that is un-plagiarised and the invention of the artist or author? We can approach originality in two ways: as a property of the work of art itself, or alternatively as a property of the artist.11 As we have said, many appropriation artists are keen to deny the notion of originality. In a paper addressing the notion of originality within appropriated art, Julie Van Camp states:

“We value originality because it demonstrates the ability of the artist to advance the potential of an art form.” 12

This statement is problematic, as it is almost dismissive of the ability of an artist who chooses appropriation as their form of representation. Let us look to the example of Sherrie Levine, perhaps the most well-known and cited appropriation artist. Levine worked first with collage, but is most known for her work with re-photography – taking photographs of well known photographic images from books and catalogues, which she then presents as her own work. In 1979 she photographed work by photographer Walker Evans from 1936. Her work did not attempt to edit or manipulate any of these images, but simply capture them.

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans & Walker Evans, Alabama Tenant Farmer's Wife
Left: Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans, 1981
; Right: Walker Evans, Alabama Tenant Farmer's Wife, 193613

 By bringing this work back into the conscious of the art world, she was advancing the art form that is photography by using it to increase our awareness of already existing imagery. On a basic level, we tend to equate originality with aesthetic newness. Why should a new concept – the concept of appropriation and the utilising of existing imagery – be deemed unoriginal? Sherrie Levine was interested in the idea of “multiple images and mechanical reproduction”. She said of her work “it was never an issue of morality; it was always an issue of utility.”14 This statement is easily applied to the works of other appropriation artists, as well as Levine’s.

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