Appropriation and Art Essay
Appropriation and Art
Appropriation in the visual arts is when an artist takes possession of another’s work and re-uses it in a different context, most commonly in order to reveal issues surrounding originality or a meaning not apparent in the original work1. The types of appropriation used by artists include re-visioning, re-evaluation, variation, imitation, parody, homage, mimicry and allusion2. The practice of appropriation is a tradition that has been adopted by artists throughout history, but in more recent times has become an art movement that questions the whole creative process, intending more to bring out a new meaning.
In order to determine whether copying images when developing artwork is a valid technique, or an ethical approach, two examples of historical appropriated images are considered; the ‘Third of May’ painted originally by Fancisco Goya in 1808, and ‘The Creation of Adam’ painted by Michelangelo in 1511. Francisco Goya’s original piece entitled “Third of May”, depicts Napoleon’s troops executing Spanish resisters.
The painting is divided in two sections, on the right of the painting are Napoleon’s troops armed and ready to shoot and on the left are the resisters, some dead while the others beg for their lives. The impending execution of civilians lies at the heart of the painting, highlighting the horror of war and the injustices it brings. “Third of May” by Francisco Goya (1808)4 This image was subsequently appropriated by Edouart Manet’s in his painting entitled “The execution of Emperor Maximilian” in 1867.
As with the original, the painting is also divided into two sections. On the right side are the troops ready to fire and execute. On the opposite side are the unarmed civilians awaiting their deaths, the onlookers watching in horror and dismay. “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” by Edouard Manet (1867)5 This image was subsequently appropriated by Pablo Picasso in his painting “Massacre in Korea”. Like the original and Manet’s version, the painting is divided into two sections, the organised troops to the right, the civilians to the left.
The painting by Picasso differs from the original in that a more modern form of art (abstract) is used to portray the characters and scene. It also contrasts the two groups more, the innocent victims being less well defined and more vulnerable and the soldiers more dominant5. Consequently, the image is more suggestive of the barbarism associated with war and the universal civilian suffering it brings, rather than the single events depicted in the two others. “Massacre in Korea” by Pablo Picasso (1951)6
Another example of appropriation in art is the classic painting by Michelangelo entitled “The Creation of Adam” that adorns the roof of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Painted in 1510, it portrays God reaching for Adam to give him the ‘spark of life’, and reinforces the Christian beliefs that dominated life at the time. It is such an iconic image that it’s use by other artists in their own works cannot be seen as forgery. And the image has been used by others. “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo (1510)7
Amongst the artists that have used this image, a painting by Samuel Bak entitled “Creation of Wartimes II” (1999) is a prime example of appropriating an image to tell a different story. In has painting, Bak borrows from Michelangelo to ask the question, “Where is God? ”, as ‘Adam’ lies amongst the rubble of a ruined world. “Creation of Wartimes II” by Samuel Bak (1999)8 The original Michelangelo image has also been parodied in mainstream entertainment like The Simpsons, as in the case of “The Homer of Seville” shown in 2007.
“The Homer of Seville” (2007)9 In a similar fashion, Andreas Krapf ‘s pop art painting entitled “Almighty” draws on Michelangelo’s work to convey a message about modern society. “Almighty” by Andreas Krapf (2009)10 As is evident from these examples of appropriation, there is no sense that the artist who uses previous works is trying to hide the fact that they copied the original. In fact, it appears that the artist wants the viewer to recognize the image, so that they can compare their original associations to the context that is now being portrayed.
To argue that copying is not a valid approach to developing artwork, instead comparing it to plagiarism, misses the point. By clearly referring to the original, the artist is in way acknowledging the former work, and only borrowing it to reinforce or add to the message that was originally intended. This can sometimes diminish the impact or meaning of the original work, as in the case of some parodies, but appropriation in the art world is as old as art itself and cannot be dismissed as being invalid.
In terms of the ethics of appropriation, artists should be free to comment on society, and use whatever means they see as necessary to convey their message. The act of using other people’s work might seem a bit like cheating, but it differs from forgery, in that Picasso was not copying a Goya painting and trying to pass it off as a Goya painting. He, like other artists who have appropriated the work of others before them, wanted the viewer to make the connection with the previous image and add to it so that the original message becomes even more powerful, or has a more modern context.