Blurred were visually different from one another, their

Blurred Lines of Definition in
Art: Appropriation, Plagiarism, and Adaptation

Every year, fall in New York City
signifies a blooming of art shows, openings, and open studios. Wandering
through the galleries and studios early in fall, I could not help but wonder
about appropriation. With the overlapping mediums and platforms of art, most of
the displayed works felt familiar, reminding me of someone else’s work. I often
found that the when browsing through the works were made by different artists,
although the ideas and artworks were visually different from one another, their
approaches reminded me of certain artists. This recent experience raised questions
for me: What classifies a work of art as plagiarism or appropriation? In
my conversation with an established artist on the topic, he told me, “Steal it—don’t borrow it.
Make it your own”. How does one steal it, though? Moreover, how is borrowing classified?

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To answer these questions, I address
issues related to advocacy in adaptation, as plagiarism has always been an
issue in the art world (especially in graphic design) and as the line between plagiarism
and appropriation has always been a blurred one. Still, it is unclear if this conflict
between appropriation and plagiarism is more of an issue today than in the past.
If so, I would argue that growing acknowledgement of authorship and copyright
would be the cause. Proper adaptation, including the crediting of sources,
could be the solution to the issue. Inherent in our understanding of
appropriation is the concept that new work re-contextualizes whatever it
borrowed to create that work. However, in the art world, the word inspiration is haphazardly used as an
excuse for appropriating another person’s artwork.

To clarify, I am not arguing
that shared methods and common techniques are acts of hijacking an idea.
Artists who work in visual media have always built on a tradition of
appropriation: painters can speak of the language of painting because of common
techniques or materials (Mullin, 2009, p. 105), and countless artists use
videos and sound platforms as art. In the past, when art was made under the
tradition of the apprentice system, apprentices learned by copying (replicating
or remastering) techniques and following the steps of a master. However, in an
age when every artwork seems to be a variation of a work by someone else in the
world, it is not clear what makes an artist the author of an artwork? In the
art world, some of today’s most famous and renowned artists, such as Jeff Koons
and Richard Prince, have based their artwork on remaking (appropriating)
existing works, and as a result, they have gone through numerous lawsuits with
the authors of those pieces. Creativity and originality are among the key values
of art and art education, but at the same time, some argue that imitation and
replication are also efficient, instinctive ways to learn. Is imitation an
efficient, instinctive way to learn without thinking? When it comes to art,
students are often taught that copying is unethical behavior, yet, in the
educational context, it is inarguable that better understanding can be achieved
through imitation and replication of others’ work. This also raises important
issues related to ownership.

In the documentary film Copyright Criminals, the director
Benjamin Franzen (2009) interviewed someone who stated that only lazy people
who have nothing to say let themselves be inspired by the past in this way. Perhaps
to state that all appropriation is no different from plagiarism is an overgeneralization,
but it is inarguable that appropriation is essentially unethical unless an artist
is following the appropriation art norm: practicing intentional appropriation
as a form of art. Given that plagiarism (using someone’s work without giving
him or her credit) is the moral issue at hand, I would
argue that adaptation—casting
a specific genre into another genere’s mode—is an act of revision in itself.
Proper appropriation should be considered adaptation, as this involves taking the
original idea and improves, internalizes, or materializes it—essentially making
the work one’s own.

Appropriation in Art

First, the
questions of what appropriation is and how it is defined must be resolved. In
legal terms, appropriation refers to
the “direct taking over into a work of art of a real object or even an existing
work of art” (Weiss, 2013, p. 25). Similarly, according to the Tate Modern
Museum (2017) in the United Kingdom, “Appropriation in art and art history
refers to the practice of artists using pre-existing objects or images in their
art with little transformation of the original.” Similarly, according to the
Museum of Modern Art (2017):

Appropriation is the
intentional borrowing, copying, and alteration of preexisting images and
objects and is a strategy that has been used by artists for millennia, but took
on new significance in mid-20th-century America and Britain with the rise of
consumerism and the proliferation of popular images through mass media outlets
from magazines to television.

The practice of appropriation
can actually be traced back to the cubist collages and constructions that Pablo
Picasso and Georges Braque made from 1912 on, in which real objects such as
newspapers were included to represent themselves. Furthermore, in a
controversial 1970s show, After Walker
Evans, Sherrie Levine re-photographed and re-represented a series of Evans’s
work. Later on, she also recreated Marchel Duchamp’s famous Fountain in a bronze cast. Apparently,
these works showed almost no creative activity or direct innovation on Levine’s
part. Moreover, she created almost indistinguishable copies of others’ work; in
her defense, however, she emphasized that authorship is defined by use rather
than individual creation and addressed the act of appropriating itself as a
theme in art (List, 2015, p. 20). Appropriation in art raises questions of
originality, authenticity, and authorship. It is an open question whether Levine
was ultimately successful in her attempt to create a new situation and
consequently create a new meaning or set of meanings for a familiar image. Levine’s
approach seems to represent an extreme and radical take on a general inherent
understanding of appropriation, a concept in which the new work re-contextualizes
the referred resources in the older work.

An act of appropriation without
credit becomes an act of plagiarism. Even Levine, who used appropriation as a
form of art, titled her original sources and gave credit. By definition, art
plagiarism is generally an act of reproducing the work of another artist or
artists and claiming it as one’s original work of art. It also means the
unauthorized use or close imitation of existing artwork and the representation
of it as one’s original work. It is not clear if an artist can really claim
authorship of a work that he or she has copied. Copying the physical form is
unethical, and physical forms of artwork are easy to appropriate due to their
ready reproducibility. The key factor is determining when the idea that is intrinsically
connected to that image has also been appropriated. This raises the question of
whether plagiarism of (nonphysical) ideas exists and whether this interferes
with the view that an artist can patent or own ideas. This raises a series of
questions on authorship and the boundaries of what are accepted norms in the
art world.  

There have been notable legal
battles in the past two decades because of artist appropriation in the art
world (including artists who have been accused of plagiarizing). The notable
examples involve Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, and Sherri Levine. Richard Prince
settled a 3-year copyright case with the photographer Patrick Cariou after he
used Cariou’s work on an image of a Rastafarian man (Figure 1; Gajanan, 2016). Prince’s
appropriating art treatment of Cariou’s photograph stirred up the art world and
caused artists, museums, and galleries to see the legal distinction in terms of
what was acceptable and not acceptable.

Figure 1. Left: Photograph by Patrick
Cariou from his 2000 book Yes Rasta. Right:
Painting from Richard Prince’s 2008 Canal
Zone series.

In 2014, Prince’s appropriating
art became more controversial, as photography came to new social media
platforms such as Instagram. Prince was again in a debate, this time because he
was appropriating a non-artist’s “moment” as his work. Prince is well-known for
appropriating established works by other artists. Regarding the legal implications
of his work, Prince stated in the 2011 legal complaint:

Copyright has never interested
me. For most of my life I owned half a stereo, so there was no point in suing
me, but that’s changed now and it’s interesting. . . . So, sometimes it’s
better not to be successful and well known and you can get away with much more.
I knew what I was stealing 30 years ago, but it didn’t matter because no one
cared, no one was paying any attention. (as cited in Kinsella, 2016)

Attorney Donn Zaretsky stated that “nobody has any idea what’s
fair use and what’s not in the fine art context” (as cited in Kinsella, 2016). Many
hoped the Prince–Cariou case could have helped clear the issue up; instead, it
made things worse.

The conversation on borrowing
and stealing ideas within the context of appropriation in art leads to the
issues of authorship and artistic intellectual property. Appropriation belongs to the long
modernist tradition in which the artist questions the nature or definition of
art itself. Mass reproduction and its dissemination through the media have
changed the nature of art. Perhaps the art is to steal creatively—not directly,
but from the subconscious.

In line with Levine’s ideas,
some appropriation has been considered to support the view that authorship in
art is an outmoded or misguided notion (Irvin, 2005, p. 1). Within this definition,
it is unclear when appropriation is homage and when it is plagiarism. Verifying
the current standard of appropriation and plagiarism in art, the College Art
Association (2015) published fair-use guidelines in 2015, including the
following advice for artists:

Using the work of others is
part of the construction of new culture, which necessarily builds on existing
culture. Artists’ use of copyrighted material is protected by fair use when the
work generates new meaning. Only changing media won’t accomplish this. Artists
should be able to explain why they’ve repurposed work belonging to others and
give them credit unless they have a really good reason not to. (p. 5)

However, this also raises the question of giving proper credit
to artists. Regardless of the College Art Association’s code, in the
contemporary art world, the idea of giving credit seems nonexistent. Perhaps the
norm of the art world encourages artists to accept the rationale of
appropriation to be free of guilt (if the artist at least has a conscience) when
appropriating or repurposing someone’s work without giving credit to the
original source, artist, and/or idea.


In the contemporary
understanding and usage of the term author,
it is inevitable that it be defined as an “individual who is solely responsible—and
deserving to receive credit for the production of a unique work” (Woodmansee,
1984, p. 426). Woodmansee (1984) stated that the late 18th century was a time when
the concept of intellectual property was not yet developed (p. 433), and the
modern concept of author was a recent
invention (from the 1980s; p. 426). By the end of the 20th century, the notion
of authorship had come into question. In his book The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes (1977) stated, “the birth
of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (p. 148). In the
1969 essay “What Is an Author?” Foucault developed the idea of the “author
function” and argued that the concept of the author is tyrannical in that it
does little more than restrict readers’ free thinking (Foucault, 1984, p. 120).
For example, Barthes would “kill” the concept of the author and tell us that only
the work remains. Foucault argued that the question of what a work is remains just
as problematic as the question about sustaining the author of a work.

The term author seems to be closely linked with the term authority. According to Barthes (1977), either
there is an author, which prevents a focus on the reader’s role, or there is a
dead author, which frees a text to include its readers’ limitless varieties of
interpretation. This interpretation raised the question of whether work
performed by the intentions of a competent interpreter should be attributed to
the artist or author. In an interview, Prince (as cited in Kinsella, 2016)
stated that, although he engages in appropriation, he has a lack of
consideration—or, rather, disregard—for the concept of copyright. However, it
is inarguable that, in Levine’s case, she was ultimately the author of her
works, as she made them interpretable, as artists’ ultimate responsibility for
every aspect of their objective goals is precisely what makes interpretation of
their works possible.

Upon reading about the
emergence of the concept of authorship, I wonder whether an idea, an abstract
thought without physical form, can be patented or copyrighted. An abstract
thought is by its nature abstractly defined. According to Steinweg (2009,
p. 1), an artist brings forth a concept of art that did not exist before. Since
the emergence of Dadaism and Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the ready-made, the
selection and re-representation of premade objects has continued throughout the
twentieth century, and the idea survives and plays an active role in the art
world in 2017.


In art, plagiarism and forgery
are fundamentally different. According to Irvin (2005), the crucial difference
between the author and the forger is that the former bears the ultimate
responsibility for whatever objectives he or she chooses to pursue through the work,
whereas the latter’s central objectives are determined by the nature of the
activity of forgery. Plagiarism—using someone’s work without giving them credit—is
the moral issue at hand, not copyright infringement. As Albert Einstein famously
stated, “the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources”. Certainly,
it is possible to offer minimal interpretations of the representational content
of the forger’s products, but this is not interpretation in the sense that
interests us here (Danto, 1981, p. 135). According to Thomas Jefferson, “He who
receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine;
as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me” (as
cited in Lethem, 2007). If we assume that the rationale for plagiarizing a work
is claiming authorship of an idea or work as if it is one’s own, then this implies the plagiarizer hopes the public does not notice
the original work exists.
However, questions on rationality in plagiarism arise when blatantly obvious plagiarism
takes places in the art world.

In terms of public artwork, one
incident was especially notable: A city was accused of plagiarizing the work of
an artist. Jim Sanborn, an American sculptor whose works incorporate light as a
central medium, accused Toronto of plagiarizing his work by claiming that a new
public artwork shown at the Pan-American Games (an event held in Toronto) was a
“blatant rip-off” (Nunes, 2015) of a work he made in 1993, Covert Obsolescence: The Code Room (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Left: Jim Sanborn’s Covert Obsolescence: The Code Room
(1993). Right: Installation at the Pan-American Games held in Toronto

The only noticeable difference
between Sanborn’s piece and the installation in Toronto was the content written
on the cylinders (Nunes, 2015). Sanborn expressed that he would have charged $200,000
for the installation if he were asked, but he stated that he “wouldn’t have
done it for something as intellectually un-stimulating as a sporting event” (as
cited in Nunes, 2015).

Versus Borrowing an Idea

In discussions to clarify the
distinction and define appropriation
and plagiarism, these acts are commonly
referred to by artists as stealing
and borrowing. To further address and
analyze the advice “Steal it—Don’t borrow it. Make it your own,” stated above,
I ask whether one can genuinely borrow an idea. The underlying definition of borrowing
is to use something and give it back. Thieves, on the other hand, steal, or illicitly
take ownership of a stolen object—they do not borrow. The word borrowing signifies that something will
be returned by a due date. How is a borrowed idea returned? Perhaps the word borrowing is fitting if the proper
credit is given to the source. However, the core
issue with copying, borrowing, or stealing an art form is that, in time, the
process replicates answers, and it is essentially a shortcut that eliminates
questions unless the act of borrowing creates an intentional form of content.
In any case, the danger in the act of borrowing is that it teaches
dependency—not creativity or the thought process behind how a result was
produced: “The
immature artist imitates. Mature artist steals” (Kleon, 2012). With the
correction that the word in this context should be changed from steal to borrow, perhaps focusing on copying or borrowing the questions rather
than the answers (i.e., the artwork) is the key, as questions can produce
myriad ways of creative thinking that could ideally result in improving upon, internalizing,
and materializing an idea until it essentially becomes an adaptation.


I define adaptation as an action of remodeling, redesigning, reworking, and
reconstructing. I am not discussing the mass-media culture in which Hollywood
movies are said to be adaptations of original literary works. Julie Sanders
(2006) stated that adaptation signals a relationship with an informing source
text either through its title or through more embedded references (p. 35). To
Sanders, adaptation comprises many things: version, variation, interpretation,
continuation, transformation, imitation, pastiche, parody, forgery, travesty,
transposition, revaluation, revision, and rewriting (p. 22). The German philosopher Walter
Benjamin viewed such acts of cloning, borrowing, and appropriating as part of an
adaptive process to fit into a mass-produced world. In his 1934 essay, “The
Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin confronted
aesthetics in an attempt to identify the underlying changes in the production
of art. Benjamin (1936) also suggested that adapted art
loses its authenticity and is perceived in wholly new ways. Benjamin spoke primarily
about visual art, and much has been written since about the ways that photography
and film alter the audience’s perception, deprive the work of its static being,
and transform it into a series of moving images. In sum, I argue that
adaptation is essentially evolution
through material culture, symbolic inheritance, and social learning.


Prince, Levine, and Kruger all
believed that, by borrowing existing imagery or elements, they were recontextualizing
or appropriating the original imagery, allowing the viewer to renegotiate the
meaning of the original in a more relevant or more current context. Kruger
stated, “I’m interested in coupling the ingratiation of wishful thinking with
the criticality of knowing better.” (Kruger, 1987, as cited in Rowe, 2011). For
Kruger, art appropriation was a device to get audiences to look at the work and
then to displace the conventional meaning that an image usually carries with a
number of other readings. I argue that this art movement reached its pinnacle
in the 1980s when Prince, Kruger, and Levine used art appropriation as a
medium. Art critics now consider this use of appropriation as a pure art form to
be almost irrelevant in today’s ever-changing art world. Moreover, although the
foremost institutions of art have given appropriation their nod of approval,
the legal system has not been as forgiving. The use of appropriated imagery in
art has been the subject of numerous high-profile lawsuits. In Claire Fontaine’s
(2015) exhibition, Stop Seeking Approval,
a text below her work reads

if you are not an ignorant and
know how much social movements, technology, and ultra-liberalism have
transformed authorship during the past 60 years . . . then you must take action
and make wonderful, extraordinary, and frightening artworks that will change
people’s perception of reality and will touch their world like no political
speech can. (Fontaine, Stop Seeking Approval 

Perhaps this could be best termed adaptation, not
appropriation. Proper appropriation (or simply, adaptation) should be
encouraged, as this means taking the original idea and improving upon, internalizing,
or materializing it—thus perhaps changing people’s perceptions without violating
the original artist’s copyrights and authorship. 


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