Thursday, August 21, 2008

Appropriation Art and the Internet

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,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


Anonymous said...

I do think they should let the other artist know they are using their work
or parts of their work as their own.

Anonymous said...

I think it is good to let someone know if you have taken their images off of a site. Better to let them know before hand. I get tossed on this stuff because you could also say that someone who paints a painting should list all the influences that went into it.A painting might not be a copy but it can kinda copy past styles or the look of a painting from the past. But styles can't be copyrighted either. So I guess art has rules afterall?

Anonymous said...

I think that when an artist publishes work online, he runs the risk of it being grabbed and used in any number of ways. It might just be someone who likes it for their desktop pattern, or it might be someone who uses the image to decorate something. A friend of mine stopped at a diner once to find one of his paintings was on the paper placemats! The worst sort of offense is when it is taken and presented as someone else's. Parody is one thing. Outright theft, another.

The thing is, once the image is out there, then it is highly unlikely that the artist can call it back. The likelihood that it might be nicked and used for anything is high. It's not ethical, but it will happen.

I think that if an artist wishes for his work not to be open for this, then it is a good idea to only publish low resolution jpegs online. This really messes with reproduction of the image, and it will still allow the work to be viewable, although not in great detail.

Balhatain said...

"I think that if an artist wishes for his work not to be open for this, then it is a good idea to only publish low resolution jpegs online. This really messes with reproduction of the image, and it will still allow the work to be viewable, although not in great detail."

Very good point. Documentation is also important. If you do have to defend your rights it will be handy to have photographs of the work in progress.

With that said, I don't think that people should let these concerns stop them from gaining exposure online. If you are overly concerned about it you may just want to reduce the number of images that you upload. You might want to be selective about what you make public. Just don't restrict yourself.

Anonymous said...

I think Appropriation Art is inappropriate. How much talent does it take to build on from a work that already existed? The concepts can be interesting but the application is nothing to write home about.

Anonymous said...

I have mixed feeling about this. I don't thinks its right to appropriate an image from an artist and reshape it. That's kind of cheating. Then the other side of the coin. There are certain designs or images that are shared. Like Treaty Belts. Iroquois people made belts when they had deligations. Now these designs are used over and over again in many forms of art. Not to be forgotten. Which is great. Now the internet. I put my art out there to share it. If it inspires someone, great! Another artist inspired me, and I did contact him on the internet to ask if it would be ok for me to imulate his style but not subject matter. I was blown away but his style, technique and effects. I have my own ideas as for subject.

Anonymous said...

I say break some rules. Why follow the herd? But also be courteous.

paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I actually have a website up selling artwork ( and we've, on several occasions, caught people stealing ideas from our artwork. ALMOST ALL WEBSITES THESE DAYS ARE COPYRIGHTED. What gives other people the right to take other people's ideas.

We've found that it's hard to accuse someone of stealing your art. I still, however, find the "need" to voice my opinion to those who steal other people's work.

Anonymous said...

I thought I should point this out: you make appropriation and being influenced by an artwork sound like the same thing. To me, appropriation of an artwork and being influenced by it are totally different concepts. Being influenced doesn't mean that the artist will take someone's work and copy it inch by inch. Artists are constantly look for new ways to express their ideas, concepts, and talent. Being influenced by someone simply reflects that point in transition from an old style to a new one.
I agree that some artworks can look similar to another, but that is simply a result of what has been deemed acceptable at that time. For instance, during the Renaissance, the only publically acceptable paintings were those that showed pictures from religion. Even how the painting was painted had to match a certain style.
All new art forms that had ever appeared through history had been first denied and then accepted as its popularity grew. Is it not safe to say that appropriation art is just following that trend and will eventually be accepted as more people grows into it?