We’ll be diving into everything you need to know about appropriation in art.
We’ll be covering the following topics:
Table of Contents
What is Art Appropriation?
The word ‘appropriation’ means, literally, to take possession of something, which is why artists who use appropriation in their work can say that the finished product really belongs to them, even if it contains content drawn from other sources. Artists who employ this technique often use imagery from commercial sources like advertising, or play on historical art references that are well recognized by many people.
Appropriation in art can take many forms, including object appropriation, where a tangible object is transformed by an artist into something that holds new meaning.
These objects tend to be everyday, mundane objects that take on new significance when an artist uses them in their work.
The key principle of appropriation in art is that something new is created when an artist borrows from an existing source.
Appropriation in art has been around for centuries, but it is most commonly thought of in terms of twentieth-century artists like Andy Warhol and Barbara Kruger.
These artists commandeered popular imagery from advertising and marketing, and turned it into priceless pieces of fine art. But does this really make them original works?
What is the Purpose of Appropriation in Art?
Artists use appropriation for various reasons, but one of the main intentions that has been at the forefront of this movement since the early twentieth century is the idea of refuting the concept of pure originality.
Artists use well known or recognised imagery, and objects, to call into question the historic notion that every artistic creation is entirely new and unique.
Artists who use appropriation techniques bring our attention to the fact that, in reality, everything is derived from something else, and highlight repetitive nature of image-making.
The purpose of appropriation art, for many artists, is to show that everything can be seen as a copy of something else.
However, these copies aren’t just exact replicas of the original. Appropriation artists add a new perspective and context to the images they use, by adding something of their own in order to shift our understanding.
To further explore the purpose of art appropriation, check out this in-depth video by CBC Arts:
Is the Appropriation of Art Legal and Ethical?
There is much debate circulating about this question, but in short, the answer is yes.
As long as an artist isn’t trying to pass off the original work as their own, and they have added or changed something about the image or object they are appropriating, then they can safely call it their own work.
Legally, the use of copyrighted work is permitted for purposes such as criticism and review, research and private study, satire and education, to name a few.
However, the use of appropriation in art is controversial, and has caused some artists to come under fire for their ‘copies’ of other people’s work.
But, as we’ll see, appropriation is very different to copying.
The images that are appropriated are transferred into a new context, and are brought into a different light by the artist through something that is added, removed, changed or altered.
How Does Appropriation in Art Differ From Copying?
Appropriation, importantly, means that something is done to the original image that is being used.
As we saw when discussing the definition of appropriation in art, the word itself means to take possession of something.
This means that an artist who appropriates an image needs to make it their own, otherwise it could be seen to be merely copying. In a copy, nothing is changed about the original image or object.
In appropriation art the appearance, context or fundamental structure of the image or object is altered in some way, to make it appear new and different.
They key notion here is that of authorship: to make a copy, you are not creating something new out of an object or image that already exists.
In order to be considered the ‘author’ of an artwork, it is essential that something new is created, whether that be completely original or simply an original framework for an existing work.
It can be informative to examine and discuss some examples of appropriation art, to see clearly how this technique differs from copying.
To further explore the subject of appropriation vs copying, we recommend watching this in-depth video by The Art Assignment:
What is an Example of Appropriation in Art?
An early and very poignant example of appropriation in art is Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917).
This is also a great example of object appropriation, where Duchamp took a men’s urinal and placed it on a plinth in a gallery, calling it a ‘fountain.’
Duchamp didn’t change anything else about the urinal except its context, and its name.
He also signed and dated the work with an alias, ‘R Mutt.’ By making these minor interventions, he completely altered our understanding of this porcelain bowl as an object.
He gave it new meaning and new significance within an art context.
Duchamp, as one of the Dada artists, was making a very serious critique of the general understanding of art as something unique and original.
He questioned this notion by claiming that something as banal and, quite frankly, as ugly as a urinal, could be considered art if an artist said so. Duchamp called these types of works his ‘readymades,’ coining his own term for object appropriation.
Another brilliant example of appropriation in art is the work of Barbara Kruger, an artist creating striking works from the 1980s onwards.
She famously deploys images from advertising and print media to critique our capitalist, patriarchal society.
Kruger had a background in advertising, and so she was familiar with the techniques used in the industry to attract people’s attention, send a clear message, and ultimately sell them a product.
However, by subtly changing images through cropping, colour-reversing and captioning them, she transformed these works into high art and invited people to think about the mass media we consume on a daily basis in a completely new light.
Should You Appropriate as an Artist?
Appropriation techniques in art are an effective and thought-provoking way to make a statement about your relationship to other artists, art history, works of art, or objects.
It can help you position your work within the context of other artists whose work echoes your own, or it can serve as a way to differentiate you from a historical tradition by posing a critique.
However, if you are using appropriation as an artist, it is important to bear in mind the key differences between copying and appropriation.
Your work should aim to bring the appropriated images you are using into a new context, and endow them with a new meaning. The important thing is that you are not simply using the appropriated image or object as the original artist intended, and putting your name to them.
Similarly for object appropriation, the object you are using should be positioned in a new light, in order to make your audience think about the object in a way they might not have previously considered.
In this way, you are seen to be creating a new work through your response, and the appropriation neatly falls under the legal definition of critique, review, or satire, depending on the context in which you re-cast the appropriated material.
The concept of appropriating images in art to make them one’s own has been around for over a century, and has come to play a key role in contemporary art.
From Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol, artists have used existing imagery and found objects to create original work and generate new meaning for their audiences.
Appropriation in art is also a significant movement within art history, as a result of its role in calling into question the notion of originality, ownership and authorship.
These concepts had previously been unquestioned until the beginning of the twentieth century in art, and the discussion raised about the role of the artist in creating original content has had significant repercussions for artists throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
We now almost take for granted that anything we create might be used by someone else in a different way, particularly with the spread of the internet and the ease with which images can be downloaded and disseminated.
Even the simple notion of a collage can be thought of as appropriation art, in the right context.
Appropriation in art also serves to highlight the divide between ‘high art’ and ‘low art’, where artists who consider their work to be of a higher calibre appropriate images from ‘low art’ like advertising and commercial media. Whatever public opinion of appropriation in art might be, it is clear that this technique is central to modern and contemporary art, and will likely continue to be used by artists and creatives for decades to come.
Harriet Maher a freelance writer based in Otautahi New Zealand, where she grew up. After completing an Honours degree in Art History at the University of Canterbury in 2014, she was awarded a full scholarship for a Masters in Art History at the University of Melbourne, which she completed in 2017. She has a lifelong desire to learn, so she’s passionate about new and innovative art practices, and she’s always seeking out new ways to look at and understand art. Her writing attempts to make the invisible seen, and the unsayable said.