Appropriation in Art

“The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object. One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art”.

Walter Benjamin

Cowboy 1989

Richard Prince: “Untitled (Cowboy). 1989” – Chromogenic print [1]

In his remarkable and famous photograph Untitled (Cowboy).1989 Richard Prince, re-photographing a photograph made by Sam Abell for a 1980’s Marlboro Man advertising campaign, condenses the sense of appropriation in art, as a practice that directly takes up the analysis Walter Benjamin expressed in his essay The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction[2].

In his essay Benjamin focuses on photography and film to express the point that reproducibility, and in particular mechanical reproducibility, made possible by the extraordinary improvement of technology in contemporary age, lessens the artwork’s aura. If the artwork loses its uniqueness and authenticity, on the other side, Benjamin argues, it gains a more social and democratic value (becoming widely accessible) but requires a more robust analysis of the politics of art.

The purpose of Appropriationists, as Sherrie Levine, Barbara Krueger and Richard Prince itself, is to critique fine art as an institutional and political practice.

“Prince’s picture is a copy (the photograph) of a copy (the advertisement) of a myth (the cowboy)”[3]. This repetition is even more redundant if we consider that the photographic effect is composed of two acts and two temporalities, the first one when the image is taken, the second one when the image is seen. The infinite repetitions of the dualistic photographic effect, associated with the infinite repetitions of a mythological stereotype (that of the cowboy reiterated by cinema and literature), mirrors that sense of vacuity, of imageless that Sherrie Levine referred to ghosts. “The pictures…are really ghosts of ghosts” she claimed. How to reinforce, give significance, reanimate such pictures? The photographic effect can only be verified through its iterations by the viewer. The appropriation offers the viewers an occasion to see the photographic effect as perceived by the artist, and an occasion to revitalize photographs otherwise forgotten, already seen.

In another political order, Prince’s picture highlights an entire trading and commercial apparatus and its counterpart, a materialist society that is fascinated and attracted by the spectacle offered by media. It deconstruct an American archetype, widely repeated, amplified and consumed by cinema, television and literature, a myth so current in the 80’s since Ronald Reagan, an actor who previously has performed many Hollywood’s cliché, including that of the cowboy, assumed the position of President.

Appropriation in a wide sense is not new in art, all artists learn by copying, by borrowing and using styles and forms from what came before. Michelangelo’s fist remarkable sculpture (according to the biography of Vasari) was a Head of Faunus (unfortunately lost) literally copied by an original Greek sculpture in possession by Lorenzo De’ Medici. Years later his David earned him definitely the fame of “master” revealing his skills of reproducing and reinterpreting the classical Greek-Roman aura. Picasso said that “good artists copy, great artists steal”, a claim that clearly refers to appropriation. Many of his artworks, actually, as well as Braque’s artworks, were composed of objects appropriated by everyday life, like clothes, newspapers, etc. and inserted on the canvas. Marcel Duchamp was among the first artists using “readymade” objects in art, as they were produced. Famous is his piece “Fountain” where he just used an ordinary urinal.

What makes peculiar Appropriationists is their use of objects or images, like in Duchamp’s Fountain, as they are. This way appropriation acquires value as a performative gesture, consisting in choosing a particular image or object (and not others) and in rearranging or recontextualizing it. Also important is the new signature the artist apposes at the appropriated image since it expresses another layer of performative agency. Peggy Phelan’s claims that “signature verifies the authentic, singular subject, while the practice or performance of signing repeats and copies a previous version of the unique signature”[4].

Cowboy 1989

Sherrie Levine: “After Walker Evans. 1980” – Re-photographed pictures [5]

Sherrie Levine’s work is emblematic in this aspect. She rephotographed canonical photographs by Walker Evans, Alexander Rodchenko, and Edward Weston from art catalogues and textbooks signing the new discolored, recropped and retitled pictures she obtained with her own signature. In Untitled (Cowboy) we can see the same kind of operation. Formally it is evident the process of reproduction by the blurriness of the sky, incoherent colors, melted details, spread noise. It is evident also that the image is haunted by its ghosts, suspended and displaced as it is, in a controversial mediatic world that promises adventures, memories, myths and dreams. Like every promise we could expect it will be respected or more probably will not. That way it is evoked the eventuality of trauma and a sense of loss.

[1] Picture courtesy by ;

[2] Walter Benjamin “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

[4] Peggy Phelan: Haunted stages: performance and the photographic effect in Haunted.Contemporary photography/Video/Performance (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2010).

[5] Pictures courtesy by ;

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