Art Theory: Appropriation
*This article is part of Arts Help's Art Theory series.
The word appropriation bears varied meanings for diverse individuals. In English, appropriation is synonymous with the words adoption, allocation, or assumption; roughly defined, the term gestures the action of taking something (an idea, an image, a custom, a sum of money) for personal use. Appropriation may connote something different to a lawyer, an economist, a cultural historian, or a fashion designer. In the past several years, the concept of appropriation has become more widely understood for its cultural implications as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Perhaps less commonly known is appropriation’s historical context as a theoretical term and practice in the arts. While there are slight differences to the definition of appropriation, at its core, appropriation in art is a purposeful and creative practice that reuses, references, copies, or reclaims other artworks or artists’ visual materials. In the history of art, the act of appropriation has profound theoretical and conceptual roots; it is a practice that has sprouted through centuries of art-making and distribution, manifesting in a myriad of ways.
After the Industrial Revolution, which caused technologies and social systems to evolve rapidly, the era of modernism in art erupted. Modern art focused on experimentation, advocating for artists to challenge perceptions and definitions of art—the invention of technologies such as photography and film allowed or new mediums of art to spread. The appearance of these technologies also meant that media could be reproduced and widely distributed. Photographs of historically significant artworks, rather than the actual artworks themselves, would circulate through books, papers, and printed materials. Because of these new conditions, theorists and philosophers began to question the status of art and art makers. Before modernism, theorists of Romantic and Classical art held artworks at high and almost holy standards –– believing paintings and sculptures to be works of mastery and originality. Cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, queried the status of artworks’ aura in his historically critical essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935). As Mine Yong summarizes, aura “refers to the authority held by the unique, original work, which under modernity is liquidated by the techniques of mass reproduction.” For Benjamin, the new reproducibility of an artwork’s image would change the aesthetic experience of an “authentic” artwork’s aura. In summarizing Benjamin’s words, Eric Larsen says, “Benjamin acknowledges the reality of artistic reproduction throughout history, although he suggests that mechanical reproduction introduced an entirely new and revolutionary change in the experience of the artwork.”
Philosophers continued to theorize about the effects of mechanical art and media decades after the reproduction of media became commonplace. Their theories elicited further dialogues surrounding concepts of authorship, originality, and authenticity. Throughout this time, artists, in turn, responded to these new cultural theories and changes in media processes by making the question of authorship and authenticity, as well as the method of appropriation, the conceptual backbone of their practices. Dadaist artists, like Marcel Duchamp, physically adopted, found visual materials and objects to make artworks in the form of collages or multi-media paintings. For Duchamp, the process of appropriation ranged from minor to drastic. Duchamp manifested artworks into what he referred to as readymades. These artworks began as found “ordinary” or “everyday” objects that he would either reconstruct into new configurations or impart additional elements. Sometimes, Duchamp wouldn’t make much change to these objects at all, as is demonstrated by his work Fountain (1917). For this work, Duchamp simply affixed a fabricated signature (R. Mutt) to a urinal body.
It can be argued that Duchamp spearheaded, inspired, or is referential of the standard methods of appropriative art because of his influential creative processes. The artist Sherrie Levine has an oeuvre dedicated to appropriation. Her work Fountain (Buddha) pays direct homage to Duchamp’s readymade urinal. In 1996 Fountain (Buddha), Levine builds appropriation off of appropriation, and as ArtNet interprets, recreates “works specifically by male artists who commandeered patriarchal dominance in art history.”
Despite the common practices of artists like Duchamp, appropriated elements can appear in artworks in purely visual and abstract ways. For example, artists often reinterpret the aesthetics of other artists and incorporate borrowed imagery into their work. This “building” of aesthetic is adequately represented throughout art history and generally shows a natural progression of how artists learn and grow from one another. Other artists, similar to Duchamp, borrow imagery, objects, and media from the world to respond to the conditions of changing societies, peoples, and cultures.
Varied use of appropriative qualities exists in countless successful practices and among many of the most acclaimed modern and contemporary artists (John Baldessari, Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman). From the 1960s – 1980s, Pop artist Andy Warhol continually referenced design, advertising, and iconic imagery through his various silkscreen prints of Campbell’s Soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, sculptures of Brillo boxes, and more. In the 1980s, Louise Lawler began photographing acclaimed artists’ artworks in museums, collectors’ homes, and salesrooms. Her practice considers how art is valued by exploring “the conditions and procedures of the exhibition, selling, and circulation of artwork.”
Graphic and text-based artist Barbara Kruger also became popular in the 1980s for appropriating images from mass media. Iconic in aesthetic, her works boldly combine phrases such as “I Shop Therefore I am” with images sourced from vintage advertisements and magazines. As the Broad Museum contextualizes, Kruger’s works challenge “the stereotypical ways mass media influences society’s notions about gender roles, social relationships, and political issues.” For artists like Kruger and Levine, reclaiming imagery is an expression of feminist position and dialogue. Appropriative art has guided artists, thinkers, and viewers to further consider the potentials of art –– how it can communicate, evolve, or respond to the contemporary conditions of society, culture, and the world. Artist and educator Michael Mandiberg argued that “Appropriation is a way to experiment with images and objects by shifting the context around them, and reframe their meaning in the process.”
The existence of appropriation, to some degree, is a constant in creative industries; examples are: utilizing sampling of sound bites in music mixing, reusing trends in fashion, and incorporating archival footage in documentaries; appropriation manifests in music, fashion, film, and so on. In these examples, however, the appropriation of copyrighted and licensed media is usually legally upheld. For example, legal permissions are generally granted to creators for the fair use of content that is not legally “theirs.” While there are still legal protections for artists to own and protect their creative work, the appearance of borrowing imagery without permission in the art industry is common because of the conceptual history of art practices. It is also common for other industries to appropriate imagery and aesthetics from modern and contemporary art and artists.
The brand Supreme launched in 1994 and is one of the famous street fashion brands known worldwide, specifically recognizable for its logo. Supreme distinctly adopted Barbara Kruger’s aesthetic by using the same white Futura Bold Italic and red backdrop as her artworks to compose their logo. Jacob Victorine argues that Supreme’s use of Kruger’s aesthetic is a misappropriation because their logo is a “label for a commodity.” Supreme’s intention is completely divergent to Kruger’s work because her practice “explicitly and implicitly questions the way we relate to one another within the structures of capitalism, advertising and patriarchy.” Victorine presents a critical consideration of the use of appropriation. He notes, “While appropriation isn’t always a bad thing (Kruger appropriates as well, after all), it is when the appropriator obscures or profits handsomely off the person or artwork they’re appropriating from."
Alongside these moral complications of fair use and financial gain, the appropriative borrowing of imagery can also be ethically problematic. Renowned artist Pablo Picasso, for example, was known to adopt cultural imagery from African paintings, masks, and sculptures. He incorporated African and tribal art aesthetics into some of his most prolific Cubist works. Many argue that Picasso’s use of African masks is problematic because it is an example of colonial ideology. Appropriation creates issues of ethics and power when an artist uses another culture’s sacred and cherished symbols, images, stories, and meanings out of their intended context and for a divergent, aesthetic, and potentially demeaning conceptual purpose.
In his article, Picasso, Primitivism And Cultural Appropriation, Christopher P. Jones quotes Contemporary Ugandan artist Francis Nnaggenda, “People tell me my work looks like Picasso, but they have it wrong. It is Picasso who looks like me, like Africa.” Nnaggenda expresses that when an artist takes an element from another culture, they erase that element’s history or original context only to derive a new context that the element becomes known for. According to Robert Jago, “Some defenders of cultural appropriation argue that the practice helps spread ideas, and protects and revitalizes endangered cultures by making their cultural output more widely known. In effect, however, this type of appropriation can also kill ideas, strip them of us and feed them back to us—the people who know them best—as acultural pablum.”
Colonial oppression has a deep-set history in Canada. Indigenous peoples have been subjected to the appropriation and misrepresentation of their cultures and history for centuries. For some contemporary indigenous artists, appropriation acts as a resistance method towards, and critique of, cultural oppression. Cree artist Kent Monkman recreates North American 19th Century landscape and narrative paintings (which excluded visuals of first nations peoples and cultures) by inserting himself, or his alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, and other indigenous figures into the visual forefront of these paintings. In his work, Monkman seeks to generate conversations surrounding queer identity, “which he sees as something that is accepted, even valued, in First Nations culture.” He places these contexts into his works “to shock, then gently nudge the viewer into an awareness of the humorous irony of White expectations of cultural dominance.”
Another example of an artist who uses appropriation to critique colonial conditions is a Canadian artist of Dane-zaa and Swiss ancestry, Brian Jungen. Between 1998-2005 he became known for his series of sculptures, The Prototypes for New Understanding. Jungen created these sculptures by taking apart and reassembling Nike Air Jordan shoes to configure representations of northwest coast indigenous masks. Today, he is known as one of Canada’s most prolific contemporary artists for his work as he continues to bridge capitalist objects with sacred imagery to question what is deemed as culturally important in capitalist societies.
Curator and writer of Tlingit descent, Candice Hopkins, elicits why appropriation is embedded with a complicated nature in her article, The Appropriation Debates. Early in the article, Hopkins introduces the painting Open Casket by American artist Dana Shutz, which was presented at the Whitney Biennial in 2016. The painting references an image taken in 1955 of 14-year-old Emmett Till where he and his brutally harmed body are shown laid down in his casket at his funeral.
Till’s murder, and this image, are historically symbolic for movements that advocate to expose and overturn the deep-seated white supremacy and racial injustice in America. Using this image to create her painting, Shutz faced criticism as many accused her of creating spectacularization towards the death of black people. As Hopkins alludes, there is an ethical implication of Shutz taking this image to use for her own subjective and artistic benefit. Hopkin’s demonstrates that appropriation can and often, “takes place when there are imbalances of power when one attempts to represent the other.” Her article brings forth crucial considerations about appropriative practices in art: artists are those who work to conjure debate and question the status quo of society, yet that doesn’t mean they have the inherent right to speak through, about, or for another’s culture, history, or marginalization.
Appropriation has a significant purpose as a practice of art. Still, it is essential to remember that appropriation is a complicated practice within a complex moral history. As Nishnaabekwe Artist Aylan Couchie expresses, recognizing that the canon of contemporary and modern art is tied to a community of European (or settler) artists, Western ideologies, and whiteness is important in understanding how appropriation has operated throughout art history. Despite productive examples of appropriative art, it is essential to recognize there are ethical implications when the appropriation is used in a system of power to dominate and perpetuate injustice. Even so, appropriation is a nuanced practice and has been a method for diverse artists from diverse backgrounds to critique and contemplate conditions of society, art history, and culture. In art, appropriation is used to contemplate history, reframe ideas, generate conversation, and produce new ways of thinking, exploring, and informing.