Appropriation: is it just stealing?


“Originality is way overrated. To make, you need to take. All great artists do.” – Darby Bannard.

Art is built upon context. To make art, you need to contextualise your work. This is what art school teaches you. You must reference contemporary artists, take inspiration, take note, be a by-product of the contemporary art world.

But what if you just take?

I attended a lecture on ‘Appropriation’ in my second year at university. Here we learnt that appropriation and the art of ‘taking’ is a big part of the art world and has been for some time. From Andy Warhol and the Pop Art movement to Duchamp and his moustache-laced Mona Lisa, artists have been taking from other artists for centuries. One of the most notorious forms of appropriation is the aforementioned Mona Lisa, by Duchamp. He appropriated the image from da Vinci and altered the face, so that the feminine features were enhanced by a moustache. Duchamp was revolutionary in many of his concepts and is the proclaimed Grandfather of the contemporary art world; everything links back to Duchamp.

He made it acceptable to directly copy another person’s work – even someone as influential as da Vinci. If the guy who basically founded the contemporary art world gave the OK to start taking from other artists, then why shouldn’t we?

This paved the way for artists such as Andy Warhol, Hannah Hoch and Man Ray to continue making work using appropriation – to the point where it has become commonplace. Collage is another example of artists taking an image, or a series of images, from different people and collating them to form their own unique image. But, because the images are altered, because they are given a different name and put into a different context, we no longer look at that work in the same way.

There is a different artist claiming this work, and the viewers are looking at something so different that it must be separate from the original. Or is it? One thing about art, especially when discussing the idea of appropriation and stealing, is that there is no clear-cut answer. It is left open for the viewer to interpret.

But it does beg the question: can anything be original anymore? Have we reached a point where everything has been done and the only way for art to move forward is to take from other artists? Artists are currently using techniques, images and ideas that were thought of centuries before them. There is a sense that the art world, as a collective, is at a bit of a standstill; in an era where originality is dead, we, as artists, strive for the impossible.

However, a new era is filtering its way through contemporary art – that of hyper hyper-realism. The art of copying something so exact, that it’s almost like you’re looking at a photograph. But is it stealing? Artists are currently creating images with such a high amount of accuracy and detail that the mind is boggled when confronted with pieces such as Gottfried Helnwein’s massive installations.

If these new artists are creating these like-for-like copies of real people/photographs, isn’t that just plagiarism? Is the notion of taking something exactly and replicating it in a new medium stealing? Or could it be that the notion of creating art is something beyond the actual piece. By completely ignoring the effort, technical skill and intelligence it can take to create art, are we just simplifying it to a point where the same conclusion is reached: that art is just stealing from art?

The great thing about appropriation is the debate it opens among viewers, artists and art critics. It creates a conversation where there is no right answer. The image becomes altered, and because it has been altered it becomes a different art work. Laws around the subject are still blurry, but the numbers of artists using appropriated works and being successful in doing so are increasing. Artists are continuing to make work, regardless of what the critics, courts or other artists’ actions are. The tenacity of artists and the encouragement of talent is what will keep the art world thriving.

Originality may be dead, but art isn’t.


Words: Deanna Miles
Image: Katherine Butler

One thought on “Appropriation: is it just stealing?

  1. It’s interesting that if it weren’t for appropriation of art written language would likely not have developed. All of the oldest languages, such as Sumerian and the heiroglyphic Egyptian language originated from the copying of images created by other people and given meaning. It’s hardly a new phenomenon.

    Outside of art being in a very functional way, to convey straightforward meanings – ‘this is my wine and if you touch it I’ll kill you’ – the impact of appropriation of the development of more complex style of art is interesting. To an extent, it is necessary and inevitable for the development of artistic styles and of artistic technique from rudimentary skills to the more refined techniques we have today. It is necessary to allow this development and it is inevitable because our idea of art is largely defined by the art we are exposed to in our society and so the art we create is largely defined by the parameters set by previous artists. What we value in artwork is also determined largely by preexisting pieces. Artistic progress is about widening these boundaries slightly with every step and maintaining the balance between building on older works and pushing these boundaries. The Kouroi of Ancient Greece demonstrate the dangers of artistic stagnation in their formulaic style, the innovation in the Kritios Boy which evolved from this archaic style balances tradition and new ideas. However, even the carefully identical kouroi can be compared to each other to show progress made over the centuries. Innovation is necessary for progress but so is appropriation to allow works to develop and be given new meaning. We need to be careful not to narrow our focus to ‘technical skill and innovation’ and ignore creativity; we also need to not narrow our focus to only creativity at the expense of technical skill. The Kouroi were valuable in that they allowed techniques to be developed for sculpting in marble and bronze but striving for perfection only by copying previous work is not as interesting as striving for it by building on new work.

    Of course, the current debate is more centred on the validity of appropriated art in its new form than the necessity of appropriating art to further the progression of artwork itself, giving us trends in the type and style of artwork produced over time.

    ‘The Grey Album’ is a remix of ‘The Black Album’ and ‘The White Album’ and although it is entirely made up of appropriated art, I think that it gives new meaning and significance to the work by contrasting and mixing the two pieces and so can be counted as art in its own right.

    There’s a two way aspect to this as well. Jay-Z, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr all gave approval to the project, but if they hadn’t would it be acceptable to credit them with it? Anne Carson’s rather unconventional ‘translation’ of Sophocles’ Antigone references Beckett and Brecht and ‘To The Lighthouse’, all of which were after Sophocles’ time. Although it is curiously literal in places – ‘dear head of my sister’ it is rather more than a simple translation. Should she be allowed to call it a translation? It is a translation more of her interpretation of the play and the ideas it includes than of the play itself. However, could she be said to simply be more direct about it than most translators? All translators are surely biased to an extent by their interpretation of a text when they translate it, and Antigone is a piece which is constantly attributed new and different meanings, as is shown by its popularity among both the French and the Nazis in Nazi-occupied France as standing for the virtues of both opposing sides. Does this mean that the piece in its original form no longer truly exists because it is impossible to access it in the manner it was intended to be accessed in? Even when reading it in the original Greek we are subject to biases imposed upon us by our society’s differing sensibilities when compared to Athenian society of the 5th Century. Should translators not be allowed to translate it, for fear of plagiarising another’s work, or of attributing (possibly sub-standard) work of their own to another, particularly in its political context which has repeatedly caused it to be used as propaganda giving a message about a contemporary issue? We can’t be sure what Sophocles would have thought of the Nazis; was it therefore wrong for the French rebels to use his work as an attack on the Nazi occupation?

    Perhaps a piece counts as new art if it is given new meaning, but all art is constantly being given new meaning as it ages and as people with different values are exposed to it. Forged art from centuries ago which convinced the people who saw it at the time is often entirely unconvincing to modern eyes simply because we look for different things in the piece. Clearly our perception of the piece is fundamentally different to the perception of it at the time the forgery was created; even leaving aside the status of the forgery, does this mean that the original painting is in some way a new piece of art? Clearly not, but even an copy made with an attempt at exactness can have a different meaning to the original because of the context it was created in and can be artistically interesting in that it can tell us what the artist behind the second piece was looking at in the first. It gives us a different interpretation of the first piece and its meaning. Is this damaged by modern technology? A photograph gives us a copy of the piece but if it is a photograph of the old piece it is more exact and so less interesting. Yet a painter trying to copy a piece exactly before it was possible to do so with a camera was surely no more artistic than someone trying to reach the same result with a camera or a photocopier so how can their work be more ‘art’ than the work of the photographer? It can be more artistically interesting, but can it be more artistic?

    A photograph of a preexisting piece can of course be art, but only if it gives new meaning or a new interpretation of it. If we look at something from a different viewpoint it changes our perception of it and the architect of a building who designed it to be looked at one way surely cannot take credit for its appearance when looked at in a way that he did not think of or make provision for. If it is a photograph of a view deliberately created by the architect then it is not art made by the photographer because the architect created the effect made. Even though the painter of a piece of course considers its appearance, if a forgery looks different to the original and gives a different message than it is a distinct piece of art; the problem lies in whether the forger can be credited with it as they deliberately copied the message and images shown in another’s work and made no attempt to give it their own message or any new features – what they gave it was an accident. It is technique devoid of creativity, as what is created that is new is solely an accident. If modern artists, seeing the difference between the original and a forgery in the past decide to replicate this by copying an original as closely as they can, knowing that their is a difference in message and features but unable to see it, does this make them more artistic than the earlier forger? It does in that they are knowingly adding another dimension to the work, but if they can’t see the difference between their perception of it and the art itself, can they really take credit for it?

    Artwork is constantly being reinvented and given new meaning and to an extent we have to allow and support this process, the difficulty lies in to what extent the creator of a new piece built on appropriation and the creator of the older pieces it appropriated should be credited for it, and the extent to which appropriation should be taken.

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