The originality within appropriation
From legal to intellectual and ethical property, this essay challenges the way we understand the notion of ownership in art.
The words "copy" and "plagiarism" are often associated with a negative connotation, but does stealing another artist's work really detract from the original artist's work? Perhaps, this can be due to how copies have been historically used to impersonate the originals; falsification only existed to make the audience believe that what they were witnessing was the original work. But what happens when the context of the artwork changes? What happens when an artist consciously copies another person’s work and makes it their own? Is there only one “original” version and the rest are just copies? What’s truly original?
The word “original” makes reference to the origin, something that has existed since the beginning, the earliest form of something. We also have many words to describe what isn’t original. Inspiration, homage, reinterpretation, recontextualization, tribute, are just some of the words we use to romanticize what is ultimately the appropriation of something that belongs to somebody else. However, even though we live in a world where we’ve been taught to fear being seen as thieves, there are artists who have proved that originality is not what we should be looking for in a work of art. For instance, let’s talk about how Barbara Kruger, uses old images from popular culture or advertisements to create a narrative that invites the viewer to reflect on consumerism, feminism, other topics relevant to her background and experience. Kruger makes us pay attention to images that in other contexts we probably wouldn’t have spent even two seconds looking at. She just places a short text on the image, and that’s enough to completely change the intention of the image and communicate a different idea.
Examples like Kruger’s there are many, but we don't even have to be conceptual to demonstrate that appropriation is an intrinsic part of art itself. From the beginning, artists have copied and imitated the work of other people with different intentions. Some artists do it to improve their technique because ultimately, we all learn by copying. We can see this in dance as Anthea Kraut explains how ‘stealin’ was used as an affectionate way to refer to the way people learned to dance. “If another person learned your step, they might improve on it, which happened all the time. Then when someone else did it, it could spread, and the dance could advance. Otherwise, you’d be the only one who knew that move.” (Kraut,“Stealing Steps” and Signature Moves: Embodied Theories of Dance as Intellectual Property.") Copying is the way we train ourselves and appropriating is a response to the artistic need of transformation. The second interpretation of an art piece isn’t necessarily worse or less valuable just because it isn’t the original. Appropriations are as old as their origin, and that makes them as original as any other piece that existed before them.
Artists who practice appropriationism don’t do so because of lack of inspiration or creativity, but because they have a purpose that surpasses the intentions of the original artist. They want to question and challenge the status quo to redefine what we consider art. Appropriating someone else's art can have negative repercussions, but there are times in which an artist must put their intention and purpose first in order to be able to prompt certain reactions on the audience. It is a risk that many artists are willing to take in order to see their vision come to reality. As Jonathan Lethem says, “Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.” (Lethem, The Ecstasy of Influence) In other words, inspiration comes from our surroundings and as artists, we are not capable of coming up with ideas that originate entirely from within ourselves, and if we did, the art that we would make wouldn’t resonate or be meaningful for anyone but ourselves. It is precisely the fact that we include elements that the audience already knows what allows us to connect with them. Appropriation allows us to tell compelling stories with our art for our audience.
When we want to define what we own and what we don’t, we try to classify everything into specific concepts. We want to have a very clear definition of what is new and what is original. There are times when a copy or appropriation is evident, but there are times where the answer is not as clear as we would like it to be. In those cases, I think the question we should be asking ourselves is not whether if a work of art is plagiarism or not, but rather to ask ourselves what the definition of originality is and why we idealize it so much. Perhaps that way we will finally realize that nothing really belongs to us, that by making art we are contributing to something even greater than any idea or concept. Because when we consume art, we are not really looking for something unique or original, we are looking for something that makes us feel and think differently. Art isn’t owned by artists, artists are owned by art.
Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence.” Harper's Magazine, harpers.org/archive/2007/02/the-ecstasy-of-influence/.
Kraut, Anthea. "“Stealing Steps” and Signature Moves: Embodied Theories of Dance as Intellectual Property." Theatre Journal, vol. 62 no. 2, 2010, p. 173-189. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tj.0.0357.