Appropriation Art and the Internet
To appropriate is defined as taking exclusive possession of, to set apart for or assign to a particular purpose or use, or to take or make use of without authority or right. With the advent of the Internet works based on direct appropriation, as in borrowing the whole of an image in order to produce a new work of art, has taken an entirely different meaning and many observe it as a growing threat as far as displaying art online is concerned. In many cases the appropriation that one can discover online is observed as nothing more than mere theft no matter how the laws define it. Due to recent concerns over copyright issues, such as the Orphan Works bill, I am certain that people will view those specific images with great disdain and the artists behind those works with utter disgust.
Needless to say, appropriation art involves taking possession of an image for ones own use or to “borrow” aspects of a piece in order to create a new work of art. With that said, people need to think about the history of art before arming themselves for battle, so to speak. In a sense, we all appropriate to some degree regardless if we acknowledge it or not. We are influenced by historical works of art and that influence is reflected in the art that we create, true? For example, have you observed a contemporary work of art that reminds you of a piece created by Picasso? It is safe to say that we all have-- and one could say that Picasso was a master of appropriating styles and techniques in his own right.
We all appropriate from our environment and from subjects outside of art to some degree. However, when an artist ‘borrows’ an image that he or she has found online and alters said image digitally for his or her own purpose the act of appropriation often becomes clouded with questions of ethics over the use of the original work and of the integrity of the artist who has ‘trespassed’ on the creative grounds of another artist, so to speak. At that point the acceptance of appropriation throughout the history of art is forgotten-- lost with the concerns that “maybe my art will be stolen next?”.
Is appropriation within the context of visual art a form of theft? If so we are all thieves. To not acknowledge this fact would be like, as they say, the pot calling the kettle black. I think the ease in which someone can appropriate images today is the main source for this frustration and the denial of our own creative trespasses. With the technology of today it is easier than ever to utilize direct appropriation in this manner. One need only save an image from a website in order to print it for physical use or to use it digitally with a program that can alter the work beyond the intention of the artist who created the piece in the first place. That is where the panic is rooted-- and in many cases I’m certain the panic is warranted. At the same time, one must remain rational.
Based on conversations I’ve had with artists and collectors it seems that this ‘ease of use’ is what concerns people the most. One negative aspect of digital forms of art appropriation-- in the opinion of a collector I spoke with about the issue-- is the concern that people will appropriate the work of successful artists in the hopes that they too will have some degree of success riding the coat tails, so to speak. Another concern involves the possibility of original works of art or prints being devalued due to appropriation art based off of them-- which could harm the financial success of the artist involved. One digital artist that I spoke with expressed her concern that appropriation art involving the Internet and image programs cheapens works of digital and computer based art as a whole in the minds of a countless number of individuals. She went on to say that appropriation of this manner-- and the concerns that stem from it-- is one reason why people tend to question the validity of works that have been created with computers in general.
As mentioned, appropriation within the context of art is nothing new. It has been with us since the dawn of human existence. In many ways it is a natural response as far as the urge to create is concerned. However, the term ‘appropriation art’ did not come into common use until the 1970s and 80s. Artists, such as Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, and Barbara Kruger, addressed the act of appropriating itself as a theme or method-- as a point of creative exploration-- in order to delve into other possibilities via the use of images that had been created by others. Supporters of appropriation art that is based on the application of the Internet will often use these specific artists as a form of validation for the work that they are creating and their use of appropriation. However, as the collector I spoke with mentioned… one could say they are still “riding the coat tails” by enforcing that validation. The question is, are they “riding” more than artists who create art in a more traditional manner-- such as painting, sculpting,.. etc.? Again, we all appropriate to some degree.
Appropriation artists who utilize images that they have found online will often proclaim that it is within their rights to create new works from those images due to fair use or parody. When reminded that original works are copyrighted and that photographs of original works have protection as well they will often spout names of specific artists, like Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, in order to prove the validation of their work. However, they often are not aware of the fact that Warhol was challenged with several lawsuits involving appropriation and that he was known to settle out of court over those issues. Fair use and parody as a defense does not always work.
When reminded of those facts some appropriation artists utilizing the net will state that their work is “revolutionary” because they have “challenged” the laws. In other words, some feel that appropriation artists attempt to manipulate laws that protect visual artists in general only to lash out at those same laws when their defense is crushed. This is another reason why you will find debates online that are hostile against the idea of appropriating images by digital means. Again, appropriation in general is nothing new… it is not revolutionary as some would have you believe in order to validate their work. The application of appropriation art by utilization of the Internet might be considered revolutionary by some, but the act itself is not in my opinion.
Do you have concerns about this issue? Do you support appropriation artists who utilize the Internet for inspiration? Should an appropriation artist inform other artists that they plan to use their images? Is it ’theft’ if they don’t? Should we observe the historic context of appropriation and art? How can artists combat appropriation art that is considered unethical? Should ethics be an issue? What role will the Orphan Works bill play in the validation of Internet based appropriation art if it is passed? Consider this an open debate about appropriation art and the Internet.
Take care, Stay true,