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Commentary: What does art appropriation really mean?


Art museums and articles on art are constantly using the term art appropriation, so what does that really mean? To appropriate is to take possession. Appropriation artists deliberately copy images to take possession in their art. They are not stealing or plagiarizing, nor are they passing off images as their own. A lot of folks don't really understand the meaning of this process.

The intent is for the viewer to recognize the original work of art and view it in a new context, the context that the appropriation artists wants you to see and feel. These artists are deliberately borrowing to re-contextualize the work.

Andy Warhol is the most glaring and well known appropriation artist with his Campbell Soup cans. He didn't want us to lose that “um um good” feeling the image originally stood for. He also built on the image of consumerism, big business and food representing love.

And then there is Sherrie Levine with her 1981 photograph, "After Walker Evans” which is a photograph of a famous photograph. She photographed a reproduction of Evan's work. She didn't use the original negative or print to create her silver, gelatin print.

Levine is challenging the concept of ownership. Whose photograph is it really?

Manet and Picasso used pre-existing mass media--newspapers--which they reproduced everyday images in their now famous collages.

Then there's the Japanese appropriation artist and performance artist Yasumasa Morimura who likens his practice to reconstituting freeze dried tofu and serving it up to eat now. Morimura has been embedding himself into iconic images appropriated from art history, mass media and popular culture since the early 1980s to create his works. Morimura uses elaborate costumes, makeup and staging, drawing comparison to Cindy Sherman. And there's Nam June Paik--father of video art--and one of the founders of modern appropriation art. Paik's large body of work includes video, sculptures, installations, performances, videotapes and television productions.

An article on "Artspace" says, "Appropriation reached its apogee in the 1980's with artists such as Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince challenging the notion of artistic originality altogether by emphasizing the act of borrowing existing images itself. Unlike copying or forgery which attempt to trick the viewer into believing they are looking at something unique, appropriation hinges on the ability of the viewer to recognize the original source of the image and all of its connotations.”

Shepherd Fairey who is involved in the street art scene and is most known for his photo of Obama and the word Hope wants to make art accessible to the people and he believes in using any means to connect with the public.

There have been numerous court cases dealing with art appropriation. One very famous case dealt with Jeff Koons in Rogers vs Koons. Jeff Koons has been sued many times, but this one is still constantly discussed. Koons was sued after he appropriated a photograph taken by Rogers of two people holding a bunch of puppies. Koons made a sculpture of puppies and changed the color of them into a bright blue. The court rejected his parody defense and it remains one of the most noteworthy court cases involving modern art today. This information which came from a list of court cases of appropriated art on Artlyst, an Instagram site, also talks about Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" (1917). Duchamp submitted a urinal that he had purchased in the showroom of J. L. Mutt Ironworks for an art society exhibition. He turned the object on its side and placed it on a pedestal, undermining its utilitarian associations. He signed the piece "R. Mutt,1917" and named it “Fountain.” The piece inspired heated arguments among the Art Society's directors and was rejected an hour before the exhibition's opening. The piece went on to form the concept of the "readymade” in art.

And then there is cultural appropriation which is another subject but has a certain commonality with artistic appropriation. A lot of musicians with wide appeal today have been accused of cultural appropriation such as Madonna, Gwen Stefani and Miley Cyrus and I even saw the new movie, “Elvis” which details Elvis Presley’s borrowing heavily from the Black culture. These musicians often borrow from Native American, Black and Asian cultures and claim the music as their own.

"Talent borrows-Genius steals” is a statement attributed to the playwright Oscar Wilde.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than forty years on numerous arts related boards.