My Thoughts About “Appropriation Art”

And, yes, I know that it's technically a print rather than a painting....

And, yes, I know that it’s technically a print rather than a painting….

Well, I was looking at random art-related stuff on the internet a while ago, when I happened to stumble across a Wikipedia page and an article about the whole subject of “Appropriation Art”.

(Before I should go any further, I should point out that I’m not a copyright lawyer and this is an opinion article rather than any kind of legal advice.)

Anyway, “Appropriation art” refers to art where artists have – how can I put this nicely? – “borrowed” very heavily from other things.

It seems to be most common in art made in the mid-20th century onwards and famous examples of it include Roy Lichtenstein’s “Whaam!” and Andy Warhol’s famous soup can print.

Other modern artists like Damien Hirst also seem to either engage in this practice (or something close to it) too.

It’s also different from ordinary artistic inspiration too. Whilst an artist who is inspired by something might produce a completely new and original work of art that reminds people of something else, an appropriation artist will just directly lift parts of something else and use them in their own work.

It’s also slightly different to copying things in order to learn how to create art – copying is part of the learning process and it’s rare that an artist’s early “practice” works will be entirely original too. No, appropriation art is when an accomplished artist deliberately takes something from somewhere else to add to a piece of art that they plan to sell or exhibit in a gallery.

To be honest, I have very mixed feelings about this whole type of art. At it’s best, it can make us see familiar things in new and interesting ways. And, at it’s worst, it’s just lazy, unoriginal plagiarism perpetrated by con-artists as a rather dodgy type of “get rich quick” scheme. And, the really depressing thing is that some of these “artists” do get very rich and famous from just ripping off lesser-known works of art.

Even so, we are surrounded by culture and art literally all the time (if you don’t believe me, look around you – I can pretty much guarantee that you will see something made by an artist and/or a graphic designer) and it makes sense that people would want to explore their own reactions to this in their art. Expecting artists to create in a vacuum is ridiculous and unrealistic.

But, at the same time, in order for someone to be an artist – then they have to make art. They have to have the skills to put their thoughts down on paper or canvas in a way that is visually appealing and which can be easily understood or appreciated by other people.

They have to use their imaginations to create something which involves actual creativity. So, just parroting things that other people have made without really putting much effort or imagination into it won’t really make you an artist in my opinion.

Personally, as an artist, there can be nothing more fun than putting my own spin on something that already exists or seeing what something by someone else will look like in my art style. I love making parodies and/or studies of old paintings, like this:

"Apologies To Waterhouse" By C. A. Brown

“Apologies To Waterhouse” By C. A. Brown

I also like making copies of interesting uncopyrighted or Creative Commons-licenced photos I find online and occasionally making fan art of the things I love too.

But, on the whole, the bulk of my art is original – whilst it is indeed fun to remix and reimagine parts of our shared culture, I don’t really want to be restricted by what other people make. Plus, I’m worried that if I stick entirely to copying other things then I’ll get used to this very easy form of creativity and my imagination will gradually start to atrophy and wither away

In addition to this, as much as I wish that copyright laws were reformed into something much more sensible, I still get extremely paranoid about copyright a lot of the time – which is probably why I stick to copying things with expired copyrights, with non-traditional copyrights or things which are within a well-accepted tradition of non-commercial fan art and/or parody.

But, when it comes to stuff by other artists, my views about the subject are a little more complex. Generally speaking, I judge a work of art by these three criteria:

1) How cool it looks.
2) How original it is.
3) How much effort the artist has put into it.

What this means is that if someone has painted or drawn a cool-looking piece of fan art in their own art style, then I’ll probably love it. But if, say, someone has just taken a photo of someone else’s famous painting and claims that it’s their own work, then I’m likely to be extremely cynical about it.

But, as I said earlier, some “appropriation artists” (like Andy Warhol) can become very rich and famous for making art that isn’t hugely original. So, I guess that the best way of thinking about appropriation art is that – if you’re more interested in money and fame than anything else (and you have a good lawyer, because you’ll probably need one), then appropriate away to your heart’s content.

But if you actually care about art and creativity and want to be able to call yourself an artist without feeling like you’re lying through your teeth, then give “appropriation art” a miss and stick to creating mostly original stuff.


Sorry for writing an opinion piece here, but I hope it was interesting 🙂

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