Appropriation art

All remix culture is technically “appropriation art,” especially techniques that essentially take things and use them virtually unchanged, like Duchamp’s readymades.

However, in the 1980s the term was used by and about a few influential artists who took material by other creators and exhibited it with little change as their own work. The general intention was to make the viewer think about the “politics” and implications of culture as it is consumed.

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 4 (1979)

Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 4 (1979)

Probably the most famous example of this was Sherrie Levine’s rephotographing of the world-renowned photographs of Walker Evans in her installation After Walker Evans (1979). In 1936, in the middle of The Great Depression, Evans had photographed a family of sharecroppers in Alabama. His exhibition “First and Last” was meant to show the power of his photography to capture the strength and dignity of these impoverished Americans.

In 1979 in Sherrie Levine rephotographed Evans’s photographs from the exhibition catalog and displayed them as her own works. Everyone in the art world would have recognized them immediately, so there was no attempt here at plagiarism.

Levine’s “prank” was controversial and opened up discussion on a number of levels: the appropriation of a male artist’s work by a feminist artist; the question of Evans’s original “appropriation” of the souls and suffering of the sharecroppers for his own lucrative high-art purposes, the now common of questions of “what is art?” and “what is originality?” and many other points.

In particular, Levine’s use of Evans’s shot of Allie Mae Burroughs looking you straight in the eye with her mouth enigmatically twisted a bit, led people to question, with hindsight, not just her predicament as a poor person in the depression, but also as a poor person, and a woman, being objectified by a privileged male observer who is essentially profiting – aesthetically and financially – from her position of inequality. So Levine would probably have argued she was reclaiming the voice of the depression-era woman that had been silenced and turned into art in the 1930s by turning it into politicized conceptual art in the 1980s.

Richard Prince is another well-known practitioner of this brand of “appropriation art,” famous for taking the photographs from magazine ads for Marlboro cigarettes that featured The Marlboro Man, and blowing them up to giant tableus on the wall of a gallery, presenting them as his own art. The “Marlboro Man” was a rugged cowboy and loner used in a long-running series of ads and commercials (you used to be able to advertise cigarettes on tv). The image of the self-contained man was meant to appeal to men in the audience and to encourage them to smoke the cigarettes to show their own toughness and freedom. Prince’s giant appropriations served to force people to look at the values being reinforced by commercial culture and the view of masculinity it was promoting.

Richard Prince, untitled (Cowboy) (1989)

Richard Prince, untitled (Cowboy) (1989)

Prince is still active today and recently exhibited a series of enlarged panels from posts by his Instagram friends as New Portraits (2014). Because they are by Richard Prince they sell for close to $100,000.