It seems that appropriation is part of a spectrum of useful concepts, from inspiration and admiration on the plus side, to “othering” and stealing on the minus. In between, there is “paying your respects” by tracing, copying, parodying, recontextualizing, recycling. Somewhere in the spectrum are painting by numbers, photo-copying, mass production, commodification, monetization, regression, and plagiarism. From a hearty reach up to test boundaries, there’s a sweeping staircase way down to sub-ethics.
As art students, instructors took us to museums where we set up easels and learned first hand by “painting from the Masters,” with great lessons to learn, then and always. That kinesthesia of one’s own hand finding Rembrandt’s 400-year-old pen strokes scratching and hatching out the face of a bearded prophet or street person of the day—this can’t be beat for discovering Rembrandt’s actual hand and, with it, both the technique and emotion of his art. Suddenly, you might understand both yourself and Rembrandt much better.
When you make your own art, it will be richer, and you will be more aware because of that experience.
I’ve consciously appropriated imagery from The Body, An Encyclopedia of Archetypal Symbolism by George Elder. It’s an archive of archetypal images collected for research and art purposes from ancient times with typical chapters titled, “Bones,” “Skin,” “Head and Hair,” “Heart and Blood.” I feel okay about using the references in paintings because I radically change the color, the medium, the facture, the size, the framing, and I don’t pretend they are mine. They are quite obviously not. I believe it is clear that these are universally human images from other cultures long past, and I’m borrowing them for different expressive purposes than the originals, which are ancient, with authors whose names are lost in time.
I’m sure I don’t understand their full original ritual context or the mind of the maker, though Dr. Elder’s beautiful explanatory texts certainly help. Such images feed me some essential art food, though, which goes on to nurture and make me strong. Using an image that affected me profoundly was a way to honor that nurture by weaving it into a new context and tapping into something primordially human that we all share. I would never claim the image as my own.
I once gilded a pattern in gold around the capitals of several large support columns for a couple who lived on a 5th Avenue upper floor overlooking New York’s Central Park. The pattern was based on an Art Nouveau design that the owners acknowledged. All was well and good. As I worked and got to know the couple, though, the woman, an artist herself, showed me paintings she had done clearly taken directly from another relatively well-known artist. When I mentioned this remarkable resemblance, she insisted over and over that the imagery was her own invention. I let the subject drop, but my feet felt for the stairway out of the sub-ethic zone.
A Passamaquoddy artist taught a group of us the fundamentals of basket-making. He provided the black ash strips, the basic techniques, and he helped us make simple forms and containers. But, quite rightfully, he gave us just a taste and did not go further. This seemed correct, given how possible it would be, as a European-based person, to steal the techniques and start to make “Passamaquoddy” basketry. Down the staircase and into the soup!
If a work of art obviously refers to 18th and 19th-century African sculpture, as much of Picasso’s early work did, does the artist today need to add signage or a footnote that attributes the source of the image? Does the artist trust his or her own respectful intentions and ethics and the visual literacy of the viewer to work out what is happening? And can the artist visually communicate his or her respect for the original creator and the culture? Fusion or theft? Moral obligation or oppression? Mutual exchange or unconscious taking? You got to mind what you say. You got to mind what you do.
Image at top of page: Artist unknown, Kneeling Woman, carved wood with pigment, height 14.5 in., Yoruba, 18th century, Nigeria, Africa.