In recent years the word ‘appropriation’ has become a fashionable, obliquely commendatory term used in discussions of contemporary art. The implication is that making use of a borrowed image is somehow a radically original thing to do. The less you change that image, the better. In particular, used in this context, the word also implies the existence of an unspoken conspiracy between the maker of what is being presented to general scrutiny as an artwork –‘Yes, anyone can look at this, feel free’ – and a privileged sector of the audience – ‘Congrats, you’re in the know.’
Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia, offers a rather labored description of how all this came about. It traces the origin of what critics and theorists now call appropriation to Cubist collage, then to Dadaist readymades, and finally to Pop Art.
If one scrutinizes these borrowings, one notes that, up till about the 1960s, the images borrowed belonged fairly firmly to the realm of what people immediately recognized as ‘non-art’: newspaper clippings and news photographs, three-dimensional domestic objects, among them Duchamp’s celebrated Fountain – an unaltered porcelain urinal.
The distinction between the two spheres began to blur with the arrival of Pop, and has of course been blurred still further by the birth of the digital age – the computer makes it easy to grab an exact copy of any image, from any primary source, once it has been digitized. Pop, while seeming to embrace the vernacular, in fact, made a constant and rather snobbish distinction between what the contemporary art world and its attendant theoreticians regarded as ‘high art’ and what it saw as being only aesthetically useful when cooked a little bit, fundamentally unworthy in its raw state. Thanks to Pop, an eager exploration of vernacular sources took place. There was Warhol’s use of photographs issued for publicity purposes by film studios, blown up big and made into rather crude stencils in order to create his Marilyns. There was also Roy Lichtenstein’s use of single frames from narrative comic strips.
Gradually the frontier between art and non-art began to dissolve. In this connection it has been interesting to observe the career of Richard Prince, an artist of international celebrity, though perhaps still a bit better known in his native United States than he is here in London. Prince first achieved artistic celebrity with his Cowboys series, made between 1980 and 1992. This was re-photographed from advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes.
There followed his Nurse series, inspired by both the cover designs and the titles of pulp fiction romantic novels featuring nurses. Wikipedia tells one that ‘Prince scanned the covers of the books on his computer and used inkjet printing to transfer the images to canvas, and then personalized [my italics] the pieces with acrylic paint.’
Since then there has followed a series of controversies about his use of borrowed – or, some would say, stolen images. One set of images lifted from a set of Instagram pictures originally posted by a group called the Suicide Girls, provoked an amusing response. The founder of the group, Selena Money, known as Missy Suicide, promptly used the Web to offer prints of the same images for a mere $90, proceeds to go to charity. In other cases the original creators of the images sued. In 2008 the photographer Patrick Cariou, the maker of a series of portraits of Rastafarians taken in Jamaica, sued both Prince and his gallery, Gagosian. The suit was not finally settled until 2014.
The most interesting of aspects of the cult of appropriation are, however, not these controversies about plagiarism or possible plagiarism. They are somewhat different and threefold.
First, there is its central position in the debate about gender. Feminists have always chafed at the fact that the main artistic heroes of the visual arts, at least in the West, are all male. Despite the best efforts of feminist critics, Artemisia Gentileschi still does not have the same position in the accepted history of painting as her close contemporary Caravaggio. Pre-1900, the major female names in art are thin on the ground. Rosalba Carriera and Vigée-Le Brun – who they? The result has been a number of recent attempts to ‘take charge’ of established categories of contemporary art by promoting the work of women, no matter if their work simply replicates what already exists. An early example of this impulse was the acclaim given to Sherrie Levine, for re-photographing prints by Walker Evans, rather crudely, from illustrations in books. Another is the sudden recent attention given to Elaine Sturtevant’s long series of faithful copies of works by male artists who were much better known than herself. She was honored by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in a justificatory retrospective exhibition staged shortly after her death.
Second, there is the fact that certain fashionable artists are now openly paraphrasing the Old Masters, with detailed reconstructions of their compositions. The current show of paintings by Raqib Shaw at White Cube in Bermondsey offers examples. An interesting aspect of these is that the spectator is definitely expected to recognize the sources used. If you’re not well informed enough to do that, you’re left out. This isn’t art for the masses of the type currently being sedulously promoted by Tate Modern – though Shaw has in fact been exhibited by Tate. It is, on the contrary, rather brutally elitist.
The third aspect is more general. The cult of appropriation calls attention to the fact that the contemporary art world is amongst other things a belief system. You sometimes have to declare your loyalty to it by adhering firmly to propositions that are, in terms of everyday logic, impossible. Appropriation Art as an expression of undoubted, ironclad originality? Yes, of course: a true manifestation of the Modernist cult of the new. Come home, Joan of Arc – all is forgiven.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Photo: Richard Prince Instagram Exhibition @Gagosian London P C Robinson © Artlyst 2016