Brief history of appropriation art

One of the reasons why the topic of visual plagiarism is much more complex and nebulous than the topic of text-based plagiarism is due to the long artistic tradition of appropriation, which involves copying elements or using the whole of an existing object or artwork in a new artwork.

Appropriation art is characteristic of a number of twentieth century art movements and well known artists up to the present day.  Although it can sometimes cause controversy and sometimes have legal implications (as discussed in another blog post), it has also become a defining practice in the history of art. A very brief overview of its development and some of its techniques is given below:

  • Collage – The origins of appropriation art in the twentieth century can be traced to the Cubist collages of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque made from 1912 onwards, in which real objects such as clippings from newspapers were included to represent themselves.

  • Found objects – A few years later Marcel Duchamp began to use ‘found objects‘ or ‘readymades‘, such as the famous Fountain in 1917, which consisted of a urinal signed with the pseudonym ‘R.Mutt.’ Duchamp even incorporated a postcard of the Mona Lisa into his piece entitled L.H.O.O.Q., on to which he drew a moustache and beard. Duchamp’s readymades questioned the conventional notions of art as something unique, handmade, and aesthetically pleasing, and instead suggested that the choice of object is the creative act and art is what is defined by the artist. Everyday objects were also appropriated by other Dada artists and later by the Surrealists, for example, Salvador Dali’s Lobster Telephone.

  • Pop art – Pop artists in the middle of the twentieth century drew from imagery in post-war popular culture and the commercial world, challenging notions of ‘high art’ and ‘low art’. For example, Andy Warhol’s silkscreen paintings of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Coca-Cola bottles as well as his silkscreen paintings based on photographs of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe.

  • Re-photography – The term appropriation art seems to have come into common use in the 1980s in relation to the work of a number of American artists such as Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine. Prince and Levine both created photographic works of existing photographs, which challenged the very notions of artistic originality and authenticity. For example, Prince’s series of photographs of Marlboro cigarette advertisements of cowboys, and Levine’s After Walker Evans series, which consists of reproductions of well known depression-era photographs by Walker Evans taken from an exhibition catalogue.

Various forms of appropriation are used by artists up to the present day, such as Damien Hirst, Glenn Brown, and the street artists Banksy and Shepard Fairey.

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