Appropriation is a fundamental aspect in the history of the arts (literary, visual, musical). Appropriation can be understood as “the use of borrowed elements in the creation of a new work.”
In the visual arts, to appropriate means to properly adopt, borrow, recycle or sample aspects (or the entire form) of man-made visual culture. Strategies include “re-vision, re-evaluation, variation, version, interpretation, imitation, proximation, supplement, increment, improvisation, prequel… pastiche, paraphrase, parody, homage, mimicry, shan-zhai, echo, allusion, intertextuality and karaoke.” The term appropriation refers to the use of borrowed elements in the creation of a new work (as in ‘the artist uses appropriation’) or refers to the new work itself (as in ‘this is a piece of appropriation art’).
Inherent in our understanding of appropriation is the concept that the new work recontextualises whatever it borrows to create the new work. In most cases the original ‘thing’ remains accessible as the original, without change.
Appropriation of visual culture, in some form or another, has always been part of human history. Art History and art historical practice has a long tradition of borrowing and using styles and forms from what came before. Students of art and established artists have always learned and progressed by copying and borrowing. The same is true in music. Cultural creation began with appropriation; borrowing images, sounds, concepts from the surrounding world and re-interpreting these elements. Appropriation can be understood as a key component of the way in which humans learn, communicate and progress.
Some might interpret Leonardo da Vinci as an appropriation artist. Da Vinci used recombinant methods of appropriation, borrowing from sources as diverse as biology, mathematics, engineering and art, and then synthesizing them into inventions and works of art.
In the early twentieth century Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque appropriated objects from a non-art context into their work. In 1912, Picasso pasted a piece of oil cloth onto the canvas. Subsequent compositions, such as Guitar, Newspaper, Glass and Bottle (1913) in which Picasso used newspaper clippings to create forms, became categorized as synthetic cubism. The two artists incorporated aspects of the “real world” into their canvases, opening up discussion of signification and artistic representation.
Marcel Duchamp is credited with introducing the concept of the readymade, in which “industrially produced utilitarian objects…achieve the status of art merely through the process of selection and presentation.” Duchamp explored this notion as early as 1913 when he mounted a stool with a bicycle wheel and again in 1915 when he purchased a snow shovel and humorously inscribed it “in advance of the broken arm, Marcel Duchamp.” In 1917, Duchamp formally submitted a readymade into the Society of Independent Artists exhibition under the pseudonym, R. Mutt. Entitled Fountain, it consisted of a porcelain urinal that was propped atop a pedestal and signed “R. Mutt 1917”. The work posed a direct challenge to traditional perceptions of fine art, ownership, originality and plagiarism, and was subsequently rejected by the exhibition committee. Duchamp publicly defended Fountain, claiming “whether Mr.Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view– and created a new thought for that object.”
Duchamp also went so far as to use existing art in his work, appropriating an apparent copy of the Mona Lisa into his piece, L.H.O.O.Q. Recent speculation regarding Duchamp’s appropriated urinal claimed that the urinal was “non-standard” and “non-functional”, and that Duchamp “allegedly custom-designed it along with his other supposed readymades, however, this has never been substantiated.
The Dada movement (including Duchamp as an associate) continued with the appropriation of everyday objects, but their appropriation did not attempt to elevate the “low” to “high” art status, rather it produced art in which chance and randomness formed the basis of creation. Dada artists included Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Jean Arp, Hans Richter, Richard Huelsenbeck, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, and Francis Picabia. A reaction to oppressive intellectual rigidity in both art and everyday society, Dada works featured deliberate irrationality and the rejection of the prevailing standards of art. Kurt Schwitters, who produced art at the same time as the Dadaists, shows a similar sense of the bizarre in his “merz” works. He constructed these from found objects, and they took the form of large constructions that later generations would call installations.
The Surrealists, coming after the Dada movement, also incorporated the use of “found” objects such as Méret Oppenheim’s Object (Luncheon in Fur) (1936). These objects took on new meaning when combined with other unlikely and unsettling objects.
In 1938 Joseph Cornell produced what might be considered the first work of film appropriation in his randomly cut and reconstructed film ‘Rose Hobart’. This work was to inspire later video artists.
In the 1950s Robert Rauschenberg used what he dubbed “combines”, literally combining readymade objects such as tires or beds, painting, silk-screens, collage, and photography. Similarly, Jasper Johns, working at the same time as Rauschenberg, incorporated found objects into his work. Johns also appropriated symbolic images such as the American flag or the “target” symbol into his work.
The Fluxus art movement also utilised appropriation: its members blended different artistic disciplines including visual art, music, and literature. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s they staged “action” events, engaged in politics and public speaking, and produced sculptural works featuring unconventional materials. The group even appropriated the postal system in developing mail art. The performances sought to elevate the banal by appropriating it as “art” and dissembling the high culture of serious music.
Along with artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol appropriated images from commercial art and popular culture as well as the techniques of these industries. Often called “pop artists”, they saw mass popular culture as the main vernacular culture, shared by all irrespective of education. These artists fully engaged with the ephemera produced from this mass-produced culture, embracing expendability and distancing themselves from the evidence of an artist’s hand.
In 1958 Bruce Conner produced the influential ‘A Movie’ in which he recombined film clips to produce this seminal work that comments on the propensity for humankind toward violence. At the same time Raphael Montanez Ortiz was involved in the ‘Destructionist’ movement in which objects and film were cut up, taken apart, burned and partially destroyed and then reformed to create new works. In 1958 Ortiz produced “Cowboy and Indian Film’, a seminal appropriation film work.
In the late 1970s Dara Birnbaum was working with appropriation to produce feminist works of art. In 1978-79 she produced one of the first video appropriations. ‘Technology, Transformation : Wonder Woman’ utilised video clips from the Wonder Woman television series.
The term appropriation art was in common use in the 1980s with artists such as Sherrie Levine, who addressed the act of appropriating itself as a theme in art. Levine often quotes entire works in her own work, for example photographing photographs of Walker Evans. Challenging ideas of originality, drawing attention to relations between power, gender and creativity, consumerism and commodity value, the social sources and uses of art, Levine plays with the theme of “almost same”.
During the 1970s and 1980s Richard Prince re-photographed advertisements such as for Marlboro cigarettes or photo-journalism shots. Prince’s work spoke to issues of materialism and the idea of spectacle over lived experience. His work takes anonymous and ubiquitous cigarette billboard advertising campaigns, elevates the status and focusses our gaze on the images. The viewer questions the concept of masculinity portrayed in these heroic billboards and their relationship to the advertising campaign.
Appropriation artists comment on all aspects of culture and society. Joseph Kosuth appropriated images to engage with philosophy and epistemological theory. Other artists working with appropriation during this time with included Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Greg Colson, and Malcolm Morley.
In the 1990s artists continued to produce appropriation art, using it as a medium to address theories and social issues, rather than focussing on the works themselves. Damian Loeb used film and cinema to comment on themes of simulacrum and reality. Other high-profile artists working at this time included Christian Marclay, Deborah Kass and Damien Hirst.
Appropriation is still evident in modern society, and its influences throughout the 20th century have contributed to this popularity.