Appropriation and Critical Thinking

George Miscamble

In the contemporary-art world, the claim of originality in appropriated works of art has long been a controversial issue. The postmodernist movement saw a preponderance of creative appropriation, sometimes even an exact reproduced copy of a source image re-exhibited as authentic new art work. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the notion of an individual creative genius was challenged as artists embraced an open culture of sampling existing ideas, images, and even works. Photography was one of the first mediums to embrace this newfound attitude towards creative expression, likely due to reproducibility and dispersion. Artists such as Sherrie Levine were groundbreaking and controversial in their bold acts of photographic appropriation. Levine’s work in particular challenged conservative academic notions of authorship, originality, and copyright. In doing so, she prompted important questions about the role of the artist and the aura surrounding art as an object of commercial and cultural value.

As much of the conversation surrounding contemporary art takes place within an academic discourse, we should first examine academia’s stance on originality and plagiarism. In order to encourage a genuine intellectual process, all universities create Standards of Academic Integrity. According to Fordham University: “A University, by its nature, strives to foster and recognize originality of thought, which can be recognized only when people produce work that is theirs alone and properly acknowledge information and ideas obtained from the work of others.” (Fordham University). At the core of this statement is the belief that it is the role of higher education is to foster a thought process simultaneously grounded in originality and the work of others. Finding a harmony in this union requires the acknowledgement of existing work and ideas through the use of citations. These citations act as a scaffolding for borrowed ideas. They protect authorship, ensuring the legitimacy of the research process. The failure to adhere to this system of authorship results in what academic institutions consider plagiarism. According to Fordham University:

Plagiarism occurs when individuals attempt to present as their own what has come from another source… failing to use proper citation for information obtained from print sources or the internet, according to citation criteria specified by the instructor or in cases where instructor guidance is not given, by standard manuals of style. (Fordham University)

This definition suggests that students will accumulate, assemble, repurpose, and recast ideas from sources, such as print and the internet, and present them as their own work. However, by declaring the failure to correctly cite as an act of plagiarism, academic institutions have set parameters in which the legitimacy of the work and the originality of the author are at stake.

While the academic world provides clear definitions concerning originality, the art world has embraced a post-modernist attitude towards the notion. In the 1970’s, many artists departed from modernism and traditional art theory. For the first time in history, artists created works that challenged the very idea of what constituted a work of art. This movement – now known as post-modernism – saw an explosion of creative works that adopted new techniques and practices. One of these practices was appropriation, the process of taking an existing work or object and presenting it as one’s own. This act rests on the idea of ‘re-purposing,’ or ‘reframing,’ as opposed to plagiarizing. Appropriation and its virtues was brilliantly executed and discussed in American writer, essayist, and bestselling author Jonathan Lethem’s 2007 Harpers Magazine article, “The Ecstasy of Influence.” In the style of a collage essay, Letham paints a picture in which the production of all art and literature rests not solely on the individual, but on a dynamic continuum of appropriation and exchange. Letham states that “most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by a master…finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing affiliations, communities and discourses.” According to Letham, it has always been commonplace for artists to find inspiration for their own work from that of existing works. To demonstrate this, Letham presents his readers with a legacy of works in which originality and appropriation co-exist. Letham refers to such works as having a “complex genealogy.” His examples include the lyrics of Bob Dylan, the artwork of Jeff Koons and the poetry of T.S. Elliot. For Letham, however, the harmony of appropriation and originality is broken when we attempt to reconcile this “complex genealogy” with our current laws and thinking pertaining to copyright. Letham believes that our aggressive copyright laws deny the appropriation reality of the creative process and serve only the interests of corporation and government. Letham encourages individuals to move beyond this mostly legal discourse and to embrace a post-modernist attitude of “building freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work.” The post-modernist movement and attitude described by Letham – ecstasy versus anxiety, appropriation versus plagiarism – created the environment in which much of the art of the previous four decades was created.

Perhaps no other artistic medium was better suited to exploring this new post-modernist spirit than photography. To coincide with the post-modernist movement, the 1970s also saw the release of and influential theory on photography. Originally published in 1977, On Photography is writer Susan Sontag’s examination of the historical and contemporary role of photography. In the text, Sontag makes a direct connection between the act of photography and appropriation, stating that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power. According to Sontag, the act of photographing is an act of appropriation, and an act of appropriation is a statement about the world. If we consider photographs not only as images but also as statements that communicate ideas, then photographers naturally hold positions of power. Photographs are powerful tools for communicating big ideas. Composition, lighting, and editing constitute a language and the arrival of post-modernism added “appropriation” to its vocabulary. Art critic, New York Times reporter, and George Washington University professor Andy Grunberg commented on the prevalence of appropriation in his 1982 piece “In Today’s Photography Imitation Isn’t Always Flattery.” Grunberg states:

Historically, photography’s mission has been to claim the world, to select and order those parts of life that can signify our experience of it. In the present-day condition we have come to call postmodernism, however, photography is increasingly concerned with recycling its own imagery. Many younger photographers now on the scene – especially those who grew up under the spell of conceptual art – seem to feel that the entire world already has been devoured by the camera. The only recourse they perceive is to borrow or steal images that already exist. (Grunberg)

According to Grunberg, it was the sheer excess of photography in the world, combined with a fashion for conceptual art, that created an interest amongst photographers to explore acts of appropriation in their work. In 1977 – the same year that Sontag’s On Photography was published – an important exhibition titled Pictures was held at Artists Space in New York. The exhibition included photographic works that rested entirely on acts of appropriation. Examples from the show include Cindy Sherman’s and Laurie Simmons’ appropriation of objects from their own lives, Richard Prince’s repurposed images from advertising campaigns, and Sherrie Levine’s re-shooting of historical photographs. In the context of art appropriation, the show was groundbreaking. It was also controversial. In defense of the exhibition, Douglas Crimp, the show’s curator, famously stated that “underneath each picture there is always another picture” (Kantor 26). The show prompted the public to look closer, to question notions of authorship and even the legitimacy of photography as an art form itself. The Pictures show ultimately laid the foundation for much of the experimental and appropriated photography that continues to this day. The participating artists – at first criticized, later celebrated – were to collectively named The Pictures Generation.

In 1981, three years after participating in the Pictures show, Levine opened a solo show at Metro Pictures Gallery New York titled After Walker Evans. Walker Evans was an American photographer and central figure in the social realism movement of the 1930s. Evans was best known for his work commissioned by the Farm Security Administration between 1935 and 1938. His images documented American life in the South during the Great Depression. In time, Evans’ images would be recognized not only as works of art but also as iconic imagery that served as historical evidence. His images ingrained themselves in the national conscience and, over time, formed an authoritative narrative of the depression years. In her show, Levine presented twenty-two of Evans’ images as her own. Without any manipulation, the images appeared to be identical. They were, in fact, not appropriated from Evans’ negatives, but photographed directly from catalogue reproductions. Levine’s images were reproductions of reproductions, yet presented as new and original works. The show was hugely controversial, and while some critics celebrated Levine for a bold act of appropriation, others accused her of stealing historical works of national importance. Evans’ estate, which held the copyright on the original images, saw Levine’s show as an act of copyright infringement and acquired all works to prohibit their sale.

If we accept After Walker Evans as a work of “complex genealogy” instead of copyright infringement, we must as the question: What are the virtues of the work? What is Levine attempting to communicate in her act of appropriation? In his 1994 book Beyond Recognition: Representation Power and Culture, art critic and journalist Craig Owens talks of Levine assuming multiple roles in the After Walker Evans show. Owens states that “Levine had assumed the functions of the dealer, the curator, the critic – everything but the creative artist” (115). In this sense, Levine is acting outside the realm of the traditional artist. Her act of appropriation is intertwined with curatorial, critical, and even economic statements about Evan’s original work. To the naked eye, there is no difference to be found between Evan’s and Levine’s images – with the exception of a grammatical inclusion. By inserting the word “after,” Levine forces her audience to consider both works within the context of the other. Most importantly, there cannot be any “after” until the arrival of Levine. Art critic and Hunter College professor Howard Singerman touches upon this in his October journal article Sherrie Levine’s Art History. Singerman stated that “the original work appears as an original, as a before, only when it has been called on to defend itself form its double – only after Levine’s work has come after it … there is a space between them that constitutes difference” (98, 101). By appropriating Evan’s images in such a literal manner, Levine encourages her audience to consider this invisible “space” in which the difference between the two works can be found. This is a “space” of conflict. Ideas such as male artist and female artist, originality and plagiarism, artistry and evidence, and positive and negative occupy meet each other in opposition in this space. Levine herself discusses these differences in a seminar at the Getty Institute. In her seminar, she states that she is “interested in that infra thin difference between what was decided on but does not make its way into the work, and what makes its way into the work but what not decided on” (Levine). In this sense, it can be argued that Levine is examining the very theory of photography itself. Is a photograph an authentic documentation of reality? Or are they rather documentations of decisions made by the photographer, an appropriator who decides what is worthy of inclusion and exclusion, later to be presented as fact? What is the artistic and economic value in a work that can be endlessly reproduced and reprinted? Postmodernist art critic Craig Owens discusses these questions:

In representing these canonical images of the rural poor – the expropriated – Levine was calling attention to the original act of appropriation whereby Evans first took these photographs [FSA project], as if to illustrate Walter Benjamin’s observation, in ‘The Author as Producer,’ on the economic function of photography: ‘[Photography] has succeeded in making even abject poverty, by recording it in a fashionable perfected manner, into an object of enjoyment, i.e., a commodity. (114)

According to Owens, Levine is challenging Evan’s right to authorship of the original work and its content. She is forcing her audience to examine the conditions in which the original work was created and to consider the inherent objectification and commoditization of its subject matter. In this sense, After Walker Evans is a powerful and important work of analysis. Levine takes her audience on an intellectual journey in which they grapple with questions at the core of the human experience. The work functions as an exposé of history, inequality, artistic license, and photography.

By analyzing the process and role of appropriation artists like Sherrie Levine, I have been suggesting that appropriation art is in fact grounded in an academic tradition and not an artistic one. Remarkably similar to the academic process, appropriation art critiques, analyzes, and reframes existing works in order to communicate new ideas. The role of a student to amass and adapt existing ideas is uncannily similar to that of the appropriation artist. While they may seem contradictory in their notions of authorship, the academic world and postmodernist art world are in fact remarkably similar. At heart, both institutions value creative dialogue over originality. They attempt to investigate and reconcile important questions about the world through the process of appropriation and critical thinking.

Works Cited

Fordham University. “Standards of Academic Integrity.” Fordham University. Web.

Grunberg, Andy. “Photography View; In Today’s Photography Imitation Isn’t Always Flattery.” The New York Times. Jan 31 1982. Web.

Kantor, Jordan, and Museum of Modern Art (New York N.Y.). Drawing from the Modern: 1975-2005. The Museum of Modern Art, 2005. Web.

Letham, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Harpers Magazine. February 2007. Web.

Levine, Sherrie. “Seminar presentation, Getty Research Institute.” Typescript provided by the artist, May 18, 2001. Web.

Owens, Craig. Beyond Recognition: Representation Power and Cul ture. Berkley: University of California Press, 1994. Print.

Singerman, Howard. “Sherrie Levine’s Art History.” October. Summer 2002. Web.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. Print.