The first artist to steal from is George Grosz. Born in 1893, he spent his childhood being told that Germany was a terrible place and his family was awful. He saw them as normal people living a normal life, or as he saw it, they were all monsters.
In the art of the time — art that tried to capture the essence of human nature — everyone was beautiful. Everyone had smooth skin and perfect features. Grosz’s characters looked like trees: twisted bodies, limbs growing out at odd angles. Or like animals: fat bodies with no neck and a head on top, like a dog. Or like ghosts: two hollow eyes floating in white space.
The German government decided that these drawings were dangerous, not because they showed violence or rejection of authority but because they showed ugliness and decay. The Nazis banned his books and destroyed the woodcuts he had made to illustrate them. They sent him to prison for nine months. Afterward he moved to America, where he died in 1959.
When I look at his pictures now, I see myself looking at them then: I can’t tell if they’re ugly or beautiful, scary or comforting. But that’s how you know you’ve found an artist worth stealing from: by seeing yourself
The act of appropriating pre-existing visual art is a powerful public statement, akin to the political act of speaking out against censorship. Appropriation artists are not afraid to question the authority of the art world as well as its aesthetic values. Artists can also appropriate images from popular culture in order to critique the dominant ideology.
The best artists are usually individuals who push their own work forward, and stay ahead of their contemporaries. In this sense, the best appropriation artists are the ones who have been most successful at stealing from other artists. And, like all great artists, they have stolen from their heroes, not just lesser-known peers. The following list includes some of history’s most successful and influential artists as well as some modern giants who inspire us today.
The best appropriation artists are good at copying other people’s work. The idea isn’t to slavishly reproduce what someone else has done, but to use that as a jumping-off point for further exploration of the same subject or theme. The best artists turn each reinterpretation into something new and interesting in its own right.
It’s easy to see how this kind of thing can get out of hand: if you steal from me, and I steal from you, and then you steal from me… But it rarely does. On some level, all artists know that the ultimate source of their inspiration is the same collective unconscious that everyone taps into. And so if one artist copies another too closely, the real victim is likely to be the originator of the work. If you don’t want your work copied, you shouldn’t be putting it out there in the first place.
Some artists become famous because they are great originals; others become famous because they are great copyists. Andy Warhol is a good example of the second type; his art was based on things he saw elsewhere and then reproduced at larger size. He wasn’t trying to hide this—he was proud of it, in fact—and even went so far as to put on an exhibition called ”
Stealing is a creative act. It is the opposite of plagiarizing, in which you take credit for an idea that isn’t yours. Appropriation art, on the other hand, lifts something someone else has made and transforms it by repurposing it; instead of claiming it as your own creation, you acknowledge the source and add to its meaning by putting it in a new context.
This is my favorite kind of art. When I set out to write this article, I went through the list of famous artists at Wikipedia. Looking for artists who fit this description, I noticed that most of them were dead. What happened to appropriation art?
I wasn’t the only one asking this question, apparently. In 2002 Umberto Eco wrote an essay called “On Ugliness,” in which he said that artists had lost their way because they no longer knew how to create beauty from ugliness: “The modern artist’s first duty is to restore beauty.” He was talking about ugly things like industrial landscapes and the human body; I read further and found that he was also talking about ugly things like croissants and James Joyce–or at least I think that’s what he meant when he said that Joyce had written “Finnegans Wake” because he thought
When I was in college, my father sent me a postcard with three words on it. It said:
“IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY.”
It was advice he had gotten from his father, who got it from his father; it was probably originally intended as a warning to artists not to be too derivative. But it has become a cautionary mantra for the rest of us.
Correction: the first artist to appropriate an appropriated artist is the true author of that artist’s work. For example, when Picasso made paintings that looked like Matisse, not only did he create new variations on the familiar themes (the blue period, cubism), but he also displayed that Matisse’s work was part of a larger body of work, which only then became visible. The appropriation was thus doubly creative.
This is what happened when Warhol made Campbell’s soup cans or Marilyn Monroe silk screens. He took something that was already culturally iconic and made it again but in his own style (which itself became iconic). He also displayed that Campbell’s soup and Marilyn Monroe were part of a larger whole, which we now see as pop culture.
The first artist to appropriate an appropriated artist is the true author of that
1. Appropriation art is the use of pre-existing objects, images, or data in a novel way.
2. Appropriation art is not about merging styles, but about putting things together that don’t belong together. It’s about taking things out of context and placing them in a new one.
3. Artists are like vampires – they want to steal others’ ideas and make them their own.
4. Art history is full of artists who wanted to destroy the world by making it look different: why not take this tradition of destruction and subversion further?
5. If you are an artist, you can do anything you want – as long as it has been done before, or looks like something that has been done before, or is based on something that someone else has made before.
6. Take a concept from one sphere of culture and apply it somewhere unexpected – like putting a landscape painting on a t-shirt, or painting a line drawing instead of a photograph, or overlaying multiple pictures to create a new picture that includes elements of all the originals.
7. You don’t have to be original if you’re willing to admit that everything comes from somewhere else.”
The appropriation art movement is still in its infancy, and it’s already been declared dead more times than anyone can count. It was supposed to have died with Duchamp’s last breath, or the last gasp of conceptual art. But somehow it keeps going, undead as a zombie.
Who is doing this stuff? Who are the artists behind the most interesting appropriation art? Don’t look for them on the walls of major museums. They don’t want to be in those galleries any more than you would. Which isn’t to say they don’t want to be in a museum. It’s just that they’re not trying to get into one by doing the kind of work that curators like.
In fact, these artists aren’t even trying to get into any gallery at all. And that’s what makes them so interesting. On some level, they know that their work is antithetical to what galleries do, and why they exist in the first place.
They might not put it exactly that way, of course; artists rarely do, even when talking among themselves. But they know better than anyone else how much more interesting an artist becomes when you take away everything except his ideas and his talent–especially when he has a lot of both.
Or maybe it isn