Jan Svenungsson

“Appropriating Appropriation Art”, in catalogue: RE:discover/create – the Art of Appropriation, Vienna 2023.

I remember when I first heard of something called Appropriation Art. There was Richard Prince, a trickster in New York, who carried his oeuvre around in a slide magazine. It consisted of reproduction photos of Marlboro Man advertisements. No additions, just taking over these commercial photos and claiming them as his own works of art.  There was also Sherrie Levine, who re-photographed Walker Evan's poignant photos of depression-era poor people in the American West and painted copies of Miro or Mondrian from books, in exactly the same size as the reproductions used. Together with many other artists of their generation – Levine was born 1947 and Prince 1949 – they professed to be involved in a critical practice. They questioned how the authenticity of an art work is constructed and why the originality of the work is (or rather: has been) fetishized by the art system and anyone who cares about art.

The act of looking at other artists' images and drawing inspiration from them, has a long history before Prince and Levine. Artists have always been into art. They have borrowed ideas and attitudes in order to develop their own. They have learnt from masters of the past. Copied their work in museums, aiming to become masters themselves. Then Modernity arrived. Instead of looking to the past for models and knowledge, artists began looking at the world surrounding them and even at the future. The range of subject matter was greatly expanded. Language became a tool for making visual art. Readymades happened.  All sorts of idealisms, not all of them benevolent, competed for attention. Eventually idealism had ran its course and the prefix "post-" began its triumphal campaign through all forms of culture. There was an idealist reprieve for a while, as the internet established itself as a cultural force. Once this was achieved with overwhelming success, we soon saw Post-Internet Art appearing as an all-encompassing label for whatever you want it to be.

Meanwhile, the once high-brow practice of appropriating other people's work and claiming it for your own, has become a core method of current practice, often with no thinking attached. The abundance of digitally distributed source material is simply too tempting. Today Prince is screenshotting celebrities' Instagram posts, when he's not making shameless paintings of nurses. Levine, on the other hand, remains high-brow in her art about art. But for what purpose? And all the others? Everything is possible. Nothing is looked down upon. Or should that be the other way around? The very idea of being an artist can be appropriated. Today an artist's mastery is defined much more by someone's ability to use various media to build a brand persona, rather than how exactly they apply their craft. When a project demands the appropriation of an act, image or idea, assistants may carry out the actual craftsmanship. In which case a double act of appropriation is taking place.

It's all very convoluted and I am curious to see where it will lead. The authenticity and originality of art works – or texts, for that matter – is more than ever a topic to interrogate today, when the name of the assistant, who performs the creative combining of shapes or words, may be Dall-E or ChatGPT. Perhaps one day we will realise that this moment was when the prefix post- was replaced by pre-.  

Jan Svenungsson