Saturday, July 11, 2009


Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Dejeuner sur l'herbe, 1963 (Luncheon on
the Grass or "The Picnic")

When is a copy in the arts not a fake or sheer plagiarism?

The U.S.Congress allots funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and we call it an appropriation. The money is given with certain conditions for its use for the betterment of life in America. One might say that it's an investment of sorts.

If an artist were to consciously and clearly paint a photo-realistic image taken from Edward Weston's landmark silver gelatin print, Pepper No 30 (1930), it would be an appropriation, an aesthetic act of setting aside the old rules of originality and rarity in favor of the artist's voice or choice.

Edward Weston, Pepper no. 30, 1930

This aesthetic goes back to the revolutionary move by Marcel Duchamp and his decision to exhibit a ready-made porcelain mne's urinal (thus, an already existing object, purchased at a plumbing store) in the 1917 exhibition of The Society of Independent Artists, in New York. Again, as an act toward change in art, he eschewed the traditions of originality and singularity. Ironically for many, it is considered one of the most notable and influential creative acts in the history of art.
Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

The notion was carried forth by Picasso and Braque in their collages, which were made up of paint, newspaper clippings, wallpaper and other "ready-made" and easily obtained materials. At what point does the Paris newspaper, Figaro, become an artistic medium? Answer: When the artist decides.

Appropriation artists were further supported from an academic point of view by German art critic Walter Benjamin's 1934 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Here he broached the problems of photo reproduction and photography in art.

When artists openly borrow, copy, re-cycle, reinterpret or simply use images/objects that have been created by others and, through their own creative process, make it their own, we call it "appropriation art." The act of appropriation, in itself, is a theme, and as such, it is represented in every important contemporary art collection. Andy Warhol's soup cans come to mind.

Honestly pursued, appropriated art is not a fake, a sign of weakness, or a criminal act. It stands in contrast to everything in art which once honored the creativity that produced one-of-a-kind art.
When Manet painted Dejeuner sur l'herb in 1863 and Claude Monet painted it again (though more realistic, with fully and appropriately clothed figures and more abundant food) in 1865, it was not appropriation but aesthetic tribute. Manet had paid honor to Europe's artistic traditions and, despite its flaws (lack of shadows and disproportionate figures), Manet achieved fame for his breaks with tradition: He did not smooth out his brush strokes on a huge canvas (84 x 86 inches), he made no painterly gradations between light and dark, his figures are in a naturalistic setting and, shocking his viewers, a woman who sits unashamed and equal (if not dominant) with her male companions.

And contemporary minimalist painter and sculptor Frank Stella's 1958 in Plum Island (Luncheon on the Grass). Is not appropriaton but tribute, calling upon his contemporaries Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns as well as Manet. French cinema artist Jean Renoir directed a film version in 1959, which critics called

Stella, Plum Island (1958)

Literary appropriation abounds. William Faulkner appropriated the biblical crucifixion narrative for his dramatization of the trial and execution of a simple poilu for mutiny in World War I. Even the Last Supper is adapted appropriately and meaningfully. And John Steinbeck re-cycled the Cain and Abel story from Genesis in his East of Eden, 1952, considered by many as his best work.

In film, Rashoman is now a genre of story telling taken from the innovative structure of "Rashoman," (also called "In the Woods"), 1950, by Japanese director, Akira Kuwusawa. The tale is related by various characters, thus from various points of view, and its subtlety is thoroughly and gracefully Japanese and Buddhist.

One of the clearest examples of appropriation art lies in the photo art of Sharon Core. Selecting a painting of the same title by Wayne Thiebuad, she builds a three-dimensional replica of the image, an actual bakery counter, then photographs her construction. Her Bakery Counter, 2004, is the result.

She follows the same technique with Thiebaud's images of food, baking the pies and then photographing them.

Shron Core, Pies, Pies, Pies, 2004

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