Blurred Lines of Definition inArt: Appropriation, Plagiarism, and AdaptationEvery year, fall in New York Citysignifies a blooming of art shows, openings, and open studios. Wanderingthrough the galleries and studios early in fall, I could not help but wonderabout appropriation.
With the overlapping mediums and platforms of art, most ofthe displayed works felt familiar, reminding me of someone else’s work. I oftenfound that the when browsing through the works were made by different artists,although the ideas and artworks were visually different from one another, theirapproaches reminded me of certain artists. This recent experience raised questionsfor me: What classifies a work of art as plagiarism or appropriation? Inmy 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? To answer these questions, I addressissues related to advocacy in adaptation, as plagiarism has always been anissue in the art world (especially in graphic design) and as the line between plagiarismand appropriation has always been a blurred one. Still, it is unclear if this conflictbetween appropriation and plagiarism is more of an issue today than in the past.
If so, I would argue that growing acknowledgement of authorship and copyrightwould be the cause. Proper adaptation, including the crediting of sources,could be the solution to the issue. Inherent in our understanding ofappropriation is the concept that new work re-contextualizes whatever itborrowed to create that work. However, in the art world, the word inspiration is haphazardly used as anexcuse for appropriating another person’s artwork. To clarify, I am not arguingthat shared methods and common techniques are acts of hijacking an idea.
Artists who work in visual media have always built on a tradition ofappropriation: painters can speak of the language of painting because of commontechniques or materials (Mullin, 2009, p. 105), and countless artists usevideos and sound platforms as art. In the past, when art was made under thetradition of the apprentice system, apprentices learned by copying (replicatingor remastering) techniques and following the steps of a master.
However, in anage when every artwork seems to be a variation of a work by someone else in theworld, it is not clear what makes an artist the author of an artwork? In theart world, some of today’s most famous and renowned artists, such as Jeff Koonsand Richard Prince, have based their artwork on remaking (appropriating)existing works, and as a result, they have gone through numerous lawsuits withthe authors of those pieces. Creativity and originality are among the key valuesof art and art education, but at the same time, some argue that imitation andreplication are also efficient, instinctive ways to learn. Is imitation anefficient, instinctive way to learn without thinking? When it comes to art,students are often taught that copying is unethical behavior, yet, in theeducational context, it is inarguable that better understanding can be achievedthrough imitation and replication of others’ work. This also raises importantissues related to ownership. In the documentary film Copyright Criminals, the directorBenjamin Franzen (2009) interviewed someone who stated that only lazy peoplewho have nothing to say let themselves be inspired by the past in this way.
Perhapsto state that all appropriation is no different from plagiarism is an overgeneralization,but it is inarguable that appropriation is essentially unethical unless an artistis following the appropriation art norm: practicing intentional appropriationas a form of art. Given that plagiarism (using someone’s work without givinghim or her credit) is the moral issue at hand, I wouldargue that adaptation—castinga specific genre into another genere’s mode—is an act of revision in itself.Proper appropriation should be considered adaptation, as this involves taking theoriginal idea and improves, internalizes, or materializes it—essentially makingthe work one’s own.Appropriation in ArtFirst, thequestions of what appropriation is and how it is defined must be resolved. Inlegal terms, appropriation refers tothe “direct taking over into a work of art of a real object or even an existingwork of art” (Weiss, 2013, p. 25). Similarly, according to the Tate ModernMuseum (2017) in the United Kingdom, “Appropriation in art and art historyrefers to the practice of artists using pre-existing objects or images in theirart with little transformation of the original.
” Similarly, according to theMuseum of Modern Art (2017):Appropriation is theintentional borrowing, copying, and alteration of preexisting images andobjects and is a strategy that has been used by artists for millennia, but tookon new significance in mid-20th-century America and Britain with the rise ofconsumerism and the proliferation of popular images through mass media outletsfrom magazines to television. The practice of appropriationcan actually be traced back to the cubist collages and constructions that PabloPicasso and Georges Braque made from 1912 on, in which real objects such asnewspapers were included to represent themselves. Furthermore, in acontroversial 1970s show, After WalkerEvans, Sherrie Levine re-photographed and re-represented a series of Evans’swork.
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’spart. Moreover, she created almost indistinguishable copies of others’ work; inher defense, however, she emphasized that authorship is defined by use ratherthan individual creation and addressed the act of appropriating itself as atheme in art (List, 2015, p. 20).
Appropriation in art raises questions oforiginality, authenticity, and authorship. It is an open question whether Levinewas ultimately successful in her attempt to create a new situation andconsequently create a new meaning or set of meanings for a familiar image. Levine’sapproach seems to represent an extreme and radical take on a general inherentunderstanding of appropriation, a concept in which the new work re-contextualizesthe referred resources in the older work. An act of appropriation withoutcredit becomes an act of plagiarism.
Even Levine, who used appropriation as aform of art, titled her original sources and gave credit. By definition, artplagiarism is generally an act of reproducing the work of another artist orartists and claiming it as one’s original work of art. It also means theunauthorized use or close imitation of existing artwork and the representationof it as one’s original work. It is not clear if an artist can really claimauthorship of a work that he or she has copied. Copying the physical form isunethical, and physical forms of artwork are easy to appropriate due to theirready reproducibility. The key factor is determining when the idea that is intrinsicallyconnected to that image has also been appropriated.
This raises the question ofwhether plagiarism of (nonphysical) ideas exists and whether this interfereswith the view that an artist can patent or own ideas. This raises a series ofquestions on authorship and the boundaries of what are accepted norms in theart world. There have been notable legalbattles in the past two decades because of artist appropriation in the artworld (including artists who have been accused of plagiarizing). The notableexamples involve Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, and Sherri Levine. Richard Princesettled a 3-year copyright case with the photographer Patrick Cariou after heused Cariou’s work on an image of a Rastafarian man (Figure 1; Gajanan, 2016).
Prince’sappropriating art treatment of Cariou’s photograph stirred up the art world andcaused artists, museums, and galleries to see the legal distinction in terms ofwhat was acceptable and not acceptable.Figure 1. Left: Photograph by PatrickCariou from his 2000 book Yes Rasta. Right:Painting from Richard Prince’s 2008 CanalZone series. In 2014, Prince’s appropriatingart became more controversial, as photography came to new social mediaplatforms such as Instagram.
Prince was again in a debate, this time because hewas appropriating a non-artist’s “moment” as his work. Prince is well-known forappropriating established works by other artists. Regarding the legal implicationsof his work, Prince stated in the 2011 legal complaint: Copyright has never interestedme. For most of my life I owned half a stereo, so there was no point in suingme, but that’s changed now and it’s interesting. . .
. So, sometimes it’sbetter 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 onecared, no one was paying any attention. (as cited in Kinsella, 2016) Attorney Donn Zaretsky stated that “nobody has any idea what’sfair use and what’s not in the fine art context” (as cited in Kinsella, 2016). Manyhoped the Prince–Cariou case could have helped clear the issue up; instead, itmade things worse. The conversation on borrowingand stealing ideas within the context of appropriation in art leads to theissues of authorship and artistic intellectual property. Appropriation belongs to the longmodernist tradition in which the artist questions the nature or definition ofart itself.
Mass reproduction and its dissemination through the media havechanged 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 inart 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. Verifyingthe current standard of appropriation and plagiarism in art, the College ArtAssociation (2015) published fair-use guidelines in 2015, including thefollowing advice for artists: Using the work of others ispart of the construction of new culture, which necessarily builds on existingculture. Artists’ use of copyrighted material is protected by fair use when thework generates new meaning.
Only changing media won’t accomplish this. Artistsshould be able to explain why they’ve repurposed work belonging to others andgive them credit unless they have a really good reason not to. (p. 5) However, this also raises the question of giving proper creditto artists. Regardless of the College Art Association’s code, in thecontemporary art world, the idea of giving credit seems nonexistent. Perhaps thenorm of the art world encourages artists to accept the rationale ofappropriation to be free of guilt (if the artist at least has a conscience) whenappropriating or repurposing someone’s work without giving credit to theoriginal source, artist, and/or idea. AuthorshipIn the contemporaryunderstanding and usage of the term author,it is inevitable that it be defined as an “individual who is solely responsible—anddeserving 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 whenthe concept of intellectual property was not yet developed (p. 433), and themodern concept of author was a recentinvention (from the 1980s; p. 426). By the end of the 20th century, the notionof authorship had come into question. In his book The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes (1977) stated, “the birthof the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author” (p. 148). In the1969 essay “What Is an Author?” Foucault developed the idea of the “authorfunction” and argued that the concept of the author is tyrannical in that itdoes 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 onlythe work remains. Foucault argued that the question of what a work is remains justas 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), eitherthere is an author, which prevents a focus on the reader’s role, or there is adead author, which frees a text to include its readers’ limitless varieties ofinterpretation. This interpretation raised the question of whether workperformed by the intentions of a competent interpreter should be attributed tothe artist or author. In an interview, Prince (as cited in Kinsella, 2016)stated that, although he engages in appropriation, he has a lack ofconsideration—or, rather, disregard—for the concept of copyright. However, itis inarguable that, in Levine’s case, she was ultimately the author of herworks, as she made them interpretable, as artists’ ultimate responsibility forevery aspect of their objective goals is precisely what makes interpretation oftheir works possible. Upon reading about theemergence of the concept of authorship, I wonder whether an idea, an abstractthought without physical form, can be patented or copyrighted. An abstractthought 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. Sincethe emergence of Dadaism and Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the ready-made, theselection and re-representation of premade objects has continued throughout thetwentieth century, and the idea survives and plays an active role in the artworld in 2017. PlagiarismIn art, plagiarism and forgeryare fundamentally different. According to Irvin (2005), the crucial differencebetween the author and the forger is that the former bears the ultimateresponsibility for whatever objectives he or she chooses to pursue through the work,whereas the latter’s central objectives are determined by the nature of theactivity of forgery. Plagiarism—using someone’s work without giving them credit—isthe moral issue at hand, not copyright infringement. As Albert Einstein famouslystated, “the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources”.
Certainly,it is possible to offer minimal interpretations of the representational contentof the forger’s products, but this is not interpretation in the sense thatinterests us here (Danto, 1981, p. 135). According to Thomas Jefferson, “He whoreceives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine;as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me” (ascited in Lethem, 2007). If we assume that the rationale for plagiarizing a workis claiming authorship of an idea or work as if it is one’s own, then this implies the plagiarizer hopes the public does not noticethe original work exists.However, questions on rationality in plagiarism arise when blatantly obvious plagiarismtakes places in the art world. In terms of public artwork, oneincident was especially notable: A city was accused of plagiarizing the work ofan artist.
Jim Sanborn, an American sculptor whose works incorporate light as acentral medium, accused Toronto of plagiarizing his work by claiming that a newpublic 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 TorontoThe only noticeable differencebetween Sanborn’s piece and the installation in Toronto was the content writtenon the cylinders (Nunes, 2015). Sanborn expressed that he would have charged $200,000for the installation if he were asked, but he stated that he “wouldn’t havedone it for something as intellectually un-stimulating as a sporting event” (ascited in Nunes, 2015).StealingVersus Borrowing an IdeaIn discussions to clarify thedistinction and define appropriationand plagiarism, these acts are commonlyreferred to by artists as stealingand borrowing. To further address andanalyze 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 borrowingis to use something and give it back. Thieves, on the other hand, steal, or illicitlytake ownership of a stolen object—they do not borrow. The word borrowing signifies that something willbe returned by a due date.
How is a borrowed idea returned? Perhaps the word borrowing is fitting if the propercredit is given to the source. However, the coreissue with copying, borrowing, or stealing an art form is that, in time, theprocess replicates answers, and it is essentially a shortcut that eliminatesquestions unless the act of borrowing creates an intentional form of content.In any case, the danger in the act of borrowing is that it teachesdependency—not creativity or the thought process behind how a result wasproduced: “Theimmature artist imitates. Mature artist steals” (Kleon, 2012). With thecorrection that the word in this context should be changed from steal to borrow, perhaps focusing on copying or borrowing the questions ratherthan the answers (i.e., the artwork) is the key, as questions can producemyriad ways of creative thinking that could ideally result in improving upon, internalizing,and materializing an idea until it essentially becomes an adaptation. AdaptationI define adaptation as an action of remodeling, redesigning, reworking, andreconstructing.
I am not discussing the mass-media culture in which Hollywoodmovies are said to be adaptations of original literary works. Julie Sanders(2006) stated that adaptation signals a relationship with an informing sourcetext either through its title or through more embedded references (p. 35). ToSanders, adaptation comprises many things: version, variation, interpretation,continuation, transformation, imitation, pastiche, parody, forgery, travesty,transposition, revaluation, revision, and rewriting (p. 22). The German philosopher WalterBenjamin viewed such acts of cloning, borrowing, and appropriating as part of anadaptive process to fit into a mass-produced world. In his 1934 essay, “TheWork of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin confrontedaesthetics in an attempt to identify the underlying changes in the productionof art.
Benjamin (1936) also suggested that adapted artloses its authenticity and is perceived in wholly new ways. Benjamin spoke primarilyabout visual art, and much has been written since about the ways that photographyand 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 thatadaptation is essentially evolutionthrough material culture, symbolic inheritance, and social learning.ConclusionPrince, Levine, and Kruger allbelieved that, by borrowing existing imagery or elements, they were recontextualizingor appropriating the original imagery, allowing the viewer to renegotiate themeaning of the original in a more relevant or more current context. Krugerstated, “I’m interested in coupling the ingratiation of wishful thinking withthe criticality of knowing better.” (Kruger, 1987, as cited in Rowe, 2011). ForKruger, art appropriation was a device to get audiences to look at the work andthen to displace the conventional meaning that an image usually carries with anumber of other readings. I argue that this art movement reached its pinnaclein the 1980s when Prince, Kruger, and Levine used art appropriation as amedium.
Art critics now consider this use of appropriation as a pure art form tobe almost irrelevant in today’s ever-changing art world. Moreover, although theforemost institutions of art have given appropriation their nod of approval,the legal system has not been as forgiving. The use of appropriated imagery inart 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 andknow how much social movements, technology, and ultra-liberalism havetransformed authorship during the past 60 years . . . then you must take actionand make wonderful, extraordinary, and frightening artworks that will changepeople’s perception of reality and will touch their world like no politicalspeech can.
(Fontaine, Stop Seeking Approval 2015)Perhaps this could be best termed adaptation, notappropriation. Proper appropriation (or simply, adaptation) should beencouraged, as this means taking the original idea and improving upon, internalizing,or materializing it—thus perhaps changing people’s perceptions without violatingthe original artist’s copyrights and authorship.