Appropriation in 20th century avant-garde art

On the whole, avant-garde appropriation is not about repurposing or exploiting the great works of past masters in one’s own work, but rather about responding to, incorporating, and mastering through artistic creation the works produced by mainstream mass culture that are competing for people’s attention.

The avant-garde: what was it?

The avant-garde refers, or used to refer, to artists “ahead of their time.” In the early twentieth century, the heyday of the avant-garde, some assumptions the general public might tend to make about avant-garde work would have been:

  • it is usually difficult to understand and in some cases hard to relate to; it is challenging
  • it is opposed both to many aspects of high culture (the privileged culture of the past) and to at least some aspects of mass culture (the commerically fabricated culture of the present)
  • it is politically oppositional to the powers that be
  • it is anti-capitalist
  • it is self-conscious, intellectual, and at times largely conceptual
  • it strives for authenticity or at least honesty (as opposed to the premeditated fabrication of mass culture)

Clement Greenberg, who was an influential theorist and historian of avant-garde art, tended to see mass culture as “phony” because it was commercial – designed primarily to make money or perpetuate media industries – and he showed how mass culture often rips off the new ideas of marginalized and countercultural avant-garde creators to produce more stylish commercial products which the public then takes to be innovative, though they are actually just part of the capitalist culture system with some avant-garde style or irony thrown in.

A lot of avant-garde art involves a reaction to technologies of (mass) reproduction and some ambivalence toward them. When photography was invented, visual artists suddenly had to ask themselves what they could express in their representations of reality better than a photograph could. They developed schools of art in which “photographic” realism were not the focus or in some cases even desirable: impressionism, for instance, tried to create the “feel” or a scene rather than an accurate depiction of it. The cubists were trying to convey three dimensional space and movement with the flat, static two-dimensional media at their disposal. Surrealists focused on the subconscious realm and conveying the insights of dreams and infantile perception, and so forth.

Avant-garde appropriation practices

When avant-garde artists appropriate other people’s creative work, it tends not to be great work of past masters, but the mechanically-reproduced products of the mass media. Their reasons for this are not always clear or simple, but some of the following could often be at play:

  • To include these aspects of “vulgar” reality, which are not traditional themes of high art
  • To make people feel the tension between between hand-made art and mass produced images
  • To critique the culture being promoted by mass culture
  • To turn the dead mechanically produced product back into a hand-made human work that is unique and has life

More radically, though, they are often trying to create greater perspectivism than their painting companions can do, putting into opposition and dialogue different perspectives, points of view, and interests, rather like some of the better mashups and culture jams today.

As you will see, most of the “remix culture” of 20th century art is not about ripping off great works you love or plagiarizing succcesful masters for profit, but about trying to get us to re-think and think about mass and commercial production and how they can relate to authentically artistic work. It’s about taking images that are often familiar or at least banal and drawing our attention to them in various ways, about practises like framing, selecting, creating dialogues and fights within a single image, blowing up elements so that we can really see them and think about what we feel about them, etc.

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