Is Appropriation Art Finished? Read My Marilyn Monroe Red Lips

An iconic 1964 silk-screen portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol

The discourse surrounding Appropriation Art has emerged as a nuanced exploration of cultural, societal, and artistic paradigms. The practice is entrenched in the art world’s fabric and entails seizing possession, typically leveraging recognisable imagery to engage the audience’s attention. In this domain, verbosity takes a back seat, giving way to the unadorned act of borrowing, recycling, or reusing pre-existing objects or images with minimal transformation. Far from a mere copy-and-paste endeavour, this technique is a potent tool for artists like Andy Warhol, Richard Prince and Jeff Koons. They inject context and perspective into their work, fundamentally reshaping the audience’s perception of the subject.

Consider Andy Warhol’s emblematic “Campbell’s Soup Can” or “Coca-Cola bottles” from 1962— quintessential examples of appropriation art. Here, Warhol meticulously reproduced the tins of his lunchtime favourite, Campbell’s Soup. The immediate recognition of this ordinary object as a work of Art exemplifies the core of appropriation art—eschewing pure originality by employing familiar subjects to captivate attention and provoke contemplation. Warhol also derived many of his iconic portraits, including Marlyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Elvis from photos taken by professional studio photographers as well as news photographers.

In the Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art, appropriation refers to using pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation. It spans actions like borrowing, recycling, reusing, adapting, or sampling parts of or entire forms. This seemingly straightforward definition carries the weight of controversy inherent in appropriation art—a form that challenges viewers to reconsider familiar imagery, compelling them to question the nature and purpose of Art in the contemporary world.

A historical exploration of appropriation in Art reveals a practice that may have existed as long as Art itself. In 1856, Ingres painted his famed portrait of Madame Moitessier, appropriating the posture from an ancient Roman artwork known as ‘Herakles Finding His Son Telephas,’ dating back to the early 2nd century BC. This act of referencing influences is not uncommon, with well-known artists like Degas, Picasso, and Braque engaging in appropriation to create conscious or unconscious associations with other art movements.

The pivotal moment for appropriation arrived in 1913 when Marcel Duchamp showcased his “Fountain” at the Society of Independent Artists’ Salon in New York. Duchamp’s provocative act involved repurposing and exhibiting a bottle drying rack and declaring the mass-produced object as a work of Art. This was challenging traditional notions and paving the way for such works’ acceptance as culturally significant. Duchamp termed these appropriative pieces his “readymades,” referring to works that present prefabricated objects as Art.

While Duchamp’s readymade faced outrage in its time, it has become integral to the art historical canon. The acceptance and growth of this art form speak volumes about its application and cultural significance. In the late 1930s, Salvador Dalí created his Lobster Telephone. In the 1950s, artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg extensively appropriated imagery and objects, contributing to the evolution of pop art.

In the early 1980s Richard Prince began to exhibit examples from his Cowboys in which he rephotographed Marlboro cigarette ads
In the early 1980s, Richard Prince began to exhibit examples from his Cowboys (series) in which he rephotographed Marlboro cigarette ads photo: Courtesy The Guggenheim Museum

When one contemplates “Appropriation Art” today, thoughts often gravitate towards a group of American artists from the 1980s. Jeff Koons and Richard Prince are among the prominent figures. Sherry Levine gained recognition for reproducing classic works of art and injecting new meanings or sets of meanings into familiar, existing imagery, with artists like Claude Monet and Kasimir Malevich among her appropriations. Since the 1980s, appropriation has permeated various artistic domains, from modern street art to contemporary and avant-garde expressions, echoing Picasso’s famous quote, “Good artists copy, Great artists steal.”

Integrating ordinary objects into artworks challenges the audiences, artists, galleries, and institutions, compelling a reevaluation of concepts like imitation, originality, “high art,” authorship, and uniqueness. Appropriation aligns itself with the “modernist” movement if one defines Modernism as the relentless pursuit of new means of expression. Modernism rejects traditional representation, particularly in fine Art, urging viewers to contemplate what they witness and asserting that anything can be seen as Art.

Andy Warhol continues to influence the art world in 2023. His anti-art challenged established norms, reimagining what Art could be, prompting a question synonymous with modern and contemporary Art—Is it Art? and it is Art because I say so.

Pop Art emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s, drawing inspiration from modern popular culture. Coined by British/American art critic Lawrence Alloway in 1956 as ‘Mass Popular Art’, Pop Art took recognisable images and introduced them into fine Art. Andy Warhol’s works, with iconic American pop culture images like Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup cans, exemplify the transparent appropriation of mass media imagery into fine Art. The British artist Richard Hamilton is often credited with executing the first Pop Artwork in 1956, but many others worked along these lines in Europe before WWII.

Characteristics of Pop Art include appropriating images from mass media, elevating everyday objects to the status of Art, and employing repetition to celebrate and critique the modernisation of mass production and marketing. The aftermath of the Pop Art movement witnessed a surge in the prevalence of appropriation in Art. The 1980s, in particular, saw a significant shift in the practice, with artists like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince popularising the concept of “quoting.” This period also witnessed the rise of the Neo-Geo movement, critiquing society’s growing consumerism and commercialisation by drawing on early modernist artistic practices.

Lynn Goldsmith and the Andy Warhol Foundation
Lynn Goldsmith vs The Andy Warhol Foundation

In the contemporary landscape, appropriation remains prevalent, with a recent legal dispute bringing the practice into sharp focus. The United States Supreme Court ruled on a dispute between photographer Lynn Goldsmith and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts (AWFVA) on May 18 2023. The case centred around the Foundation’s use of Goldsmith’s photograph of musician Prince, concluding that it did not qualify for the defence of fair use.

This legal battle raised critical questions about borrowing or appropriating elements of visual Art, attracting friends of the court briefs from various corners of the art world. Some urged the Court to narrow its focus to the specific purpose of using the photograph in Vanity Fair in 2016, while others expressed concerns about potential consequences for appropriation artists if a broad definition of fair use were not recognised. At the heart of the matter was “transformative use,” a term not explicitly found in copyright law but established in the 1994 Supreme Court case Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. This case introduced the idea that a work might be used if it were “sufficiently transformative,” adding a new meaning or message to the original work.

The crux of the issue lies in the inconsistent application of the transformative standard by U.S. courts since the Campbell case. The recent Supreme Court ruling emphasised the need to evaluate the purpose of the secondary work rather than relying on a blanket acceptance of transformative claims.

While the Court did not declare that Warhol’s ‘Prince series’ infringed Goldsmith’s copyright, it highlighted that the Warhol Foundation had exceeded its rights by co-opting Goldsmith’s work. The Foundation’s argument favouring transformative use failed to address fundamental questions. In this case, the original photographer, Lynn Goldsmith, is as much an artist as Warhol was, underlining the importance of considering the original creator’s rights.

While crucial, the case also underscored that transformation is just one of four considerations in fair use cases. The other three factors involve the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of what was copied, and the effect of the secondary work on the potential value and market of the original work. A secondary work could still be considered fair use even if it fails the first factor, provided the balance of the other three factors is met.

Despite the dissenting opinion by Justice Kagan, the Court’s ruling emphasised the need for a nuanced approach. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Sotomayor, and the dissent addressed critical aspects of fair use, the nature of transformation, and the potential consequences for both original and appropriation artists.

The legal battle between Goldsmith and the Warhol Foundation shed light on the broader implications of appropriation in Art. While well-intentioned, the Foundation’s attempt to establish a broad definition of fair use based on transformative claims carried the risk of undermining original artists’ rights. The ruling served as a reminder that appropriation should not be assumed as an entitlement without consideration for the rights and intentions of the creators involved.

So is Appropriation Art, a practice with deep historical roots and contemporary relevance finished? The path from Duchamp’s readymade to the recent legal dispute between Goldsmith and the Warhol Foundation reflects the evolving Art zeitgeist. Stripped of embellishments, the essence of appropriation lies in its power to challenge perceptions, question established norms, and prompt a thoughtful exploration of the purpose and meaning of Art in our modern era. It is not up to litigation in the courts to decide what Art is. It certainly isn’t up to commercial photographers like Lynn Goldsmith to claim that snapping an image of a Rock Star is the end of the image’s journey. It’s all about money, isn’t it? God help us if this is the future.

Top Photo: A 1964 silk-screen portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol

Words: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2023

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