Appropriation: A Threat to Originality or A Test to Authorship?

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Appropriation in art, by definition, is the use of already existing paintings, images and artworks with a little transformation or no transformation at all. While studying the conceptual elements of appropriation, one can almost instantly see why it fills a very respectful position within the art world. Even so, many argue that appropriated artworks lack originality and test the limits of what makes an artist an artist.  To observe these allegations against this unique form of art, it is best to observe the many artworks of modernism that were represented again in post modernism by artists such as Bidlo, Sherri Levine, Robert Collesscott and many others (Barthes).

In an interview with Francis Naumann Bidlo describes his work as an onion with multiple layers that needs to be peeled in order to be understood (Naumann). To understand these layers, we need to look at the appropriated object’s original presentation to get a simpler understanding of each layer and see how the layers add to each piece.

When Duchamp’s fountain was introduced, it presented an ordinary object by introducing it in a new light to a new environment – a museum. Additionally it was displayed in an upright position and signed by Duchamp himself unlike what is usually seen of a urinal. This clearly appropriates a urinal into a new form, and positions such an object in the thoughts of a viewer in a new manner. The previous perception of a urinal was always demeaning and degrading, as it is a place where urine is released. Reintroducing the idea of a urinal in an artistic sense showcasing it to the viewer and the world in the right atmosphere and manner proves that anything can be looked at from a different perspective. One might perceive this concept of appropriation as a form of appropriating certain objects of elite or artistic status but a urinal is a proof that even a degraded everyday objects can be appropriated (Steinberg).

Another example of an appropriated object that lies in the modernism period is “Merda D’artiste” or the “The Artist’s Shit” by Manzoni. This piece conveys several appropriated meanings, beside the obvious human feces that are now appropriated from being an expulsion of human waste an actual work or art. The concept decided to appropriate the feces into art by preserving them into a tinned can. That same object was then re-appropriated by simply making newer versions of it and changing the numbering on the cans from 001 to 090 leading to a total of 90 cans. To further elaborate the reason behind this creation, Manzoni wrote a letter to artist Ben Vautier and said in it: ‘I should like all artists to sell their fingerprints, or else stage competitions to see who can draw the longest line or sell their shit in tins. The fingerprint is the only sign of the personality that can be accepted: if collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit that is really his.’  By this, Manzoni explains the delicate connection a viewer feels when viewing an object made by not only the artist himself but also with parts of him in it (Howarth). Moreover, Manzoni narrates the removal of the aesthetic limitations that are usually associated with art, which also touches upon the guidelines of modernism. Modernism, in accordance to Greenberg, relates more to the way an object of art is made rather than the meaning of the artwork itself. Feces here is the excretion made by a person which is a new way of making art in opposition to the art that is usually handmade by a human.

Touching again on Bidlo’s appropriated art and artists with similar intent that shaped post-modernism, it is important to first explain and define the post-modernism period. Post-modernism, according to Danto, was seen as “faceless” or “style-less” with no recognizable style prevailing. Anything could be used as a part of post-modernism art. It is renowned for moving away from modernism and into the post-historical period. It is sufficient to define the period as a period with “perfect freedom” (Danto). Danto in his essay, which best illustrate post-modernism, describes the best invention of that period as the “appropriated image”. This aligns with the before mentioned fact that it was a faceless era, because the appropriated images had no similar styles and therefore no uniformity (Danto).

Bidlo’s interview with Francis Newman is the best example to explain his work and how it has shaped post-modernism. It also has its own message to show. Many people regard his work the “Not Duchamp’s Fountain” or “Not Manzoni’s Merda D’artiste” as unoriginal or as a copy of something already artistic. Therefore, it tests the boundaries of what being an artist really means. It is true that Duchamps’ introduction to such an idea was original and inventive when put on display. But, Bidlo’s recreation of the masterpiece creates a layer that in a sense adds to the original art piece rather than ruins it. In fact, appropriating a piece into an “identical” one and still presenting it as new is a new novelty Bildo adds. Appropriation as a concept adds to art and doesn’t test the limit of what being an artist is. It also helps us reach outside of the box of authorship and allows us to indulge more and probably redefine a certain object of art in ways that could not have been seen if we were still by the same artist (Barthes). Bidlo describes the process of seeing what is appropriated and re-appropriating as an onion being peeled (Bidlo interview). Every time you peel part of the onion or remove a layer, a new meaning of the object is seen. The new art piece is seen as a playful way to represent re-appropriation as the mirroring of a mirror that is already a reflection of a mirror . Each of those mirrors is not a substitution of the other. Consequently, it is important to remember that they are two separate entities that add to each other. (Naumann).

When it comes to the Merda D’artist a similar story is told. It was already a great creation when it was first created, because a new intimate sentiment was added to the art of post-modernism. Only this time “Not Merda D’artist” gave us a chance to think independently of authorship and disregard the sentiment of connection Merda D’artist presented (Rowe). This is an extra layer Bidlo added to label and own this piece of work. This particular type of appropriation is the most controversial because nothing changes aesthetically from the original art piece. Instead, it just introduces it in a new period as a fulfillment of an already existing concept that moves along the lines of the movement at hand.

Also from Post-Modernism, Sheryl Levine has put her fingerprints on direct appropriation by taking photos of already existing photos. An example is the 1981 photo of the already existing photo Walker Evans’s Alabama Tenant Farmer’s which was taken originally in 1936. By doing so, she allows the viewers to reexamine the preexisting condition regardless of the authorship, and therefore allows us to reexamine the concept of the photo independently from the authorship. Because of the modernism movement that was prior to Post-Modernism, people associated originality with aesthetic novelty. In reply to that and the “copy cat” allegations, Sheryl Levine stated that “it was never a matter of morality, it was always an issue of utility” (Rowe).

Appropriation can be put in different categories. The examples of Bidlo’s and Levine’s work that was mentioned above can be called as direct appropriation of previously existing pieces. The only thing that changes of the art piece is the context and time that it is introduced in. Other types of appropriation that don’t question the originality of a painting as much are paintings such as Les Demoiselles d’Alabama, which was a painting by Robert Colesscott that took a similar idea from Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.  Hayley A. Rowe the writer of Appropriation in contemporary art talked about how Colesscott’s painting used the concept of Picasso’s abstraction along with the concept of Africanism in the same lines of Picasso’s painting that has the European influence feel. We can obviously see the resemblance between the paintings, but the differences of color, the attire of the people drawn in the painting moving along with the fact that they were influenced by different cultures.

Even though the article Copycat, Copycat: Exploring Originality as the Core of Artistic Creation argues that originality doesn’t have anything to do with aesthetic novelties, a part of the essay does have an argument by R.G Collingwood that relates aesthetic values to the originality of art, which is in turn related to the ingenuity of expression. Frank Sibley, a very known scholar accepted a very similar view that “differs from anything already existing” (Sumanjit). These arguments are all weak because directly appropriating an art object is a novelty as a concept as we have seen in the examples above.

In conclusion, appropriation has actually presented new concepts regardless of whether they were presented in modernism or in post-modernism. In post-modernism the allegations of art being copied or plagiarized are pushed away by the face of the period, which was “the end of art”. The only thing done was representing already existing art objects to be introduced as art of that period. That is why the appropriated image was the leading aesthetic of that era. As we look at the evolution of art and the true concepts behind appropriated art pieces in the post modernism period, we conclude that appropriation is not a threat to originality and it does not test the limit of authorship.


  • Barthes, R. (1967). ‘The Death of the Author’ in Stygall, G (2002). Academic Discourse: Readings for Argument and Analysis, Taylor and Francis: London.
  • rvin, S. (2005). ‘Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art’. British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 45, No. 2.
  • Mehmi, Sumanjit. “Copycat, Copycat: Exploring Originality as the Core of Artistic Creation.” Copycat, Copycat: Exploring Originality as the Core of Artistic Creation. 19 Nov. 2013. Web. 4 May 2015. < copycat-exploring-originality-core-artistic-creation-0>.
  • rvin, S. (2005). ‘Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art’. British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 45, No. 2.
  • “Mike Bidlo. Interview with Francis Naumann.” Mike Bidlo. Interview with Francis
  • Naumann. PAOLO CURTI. Web. 4 May 2015. <>
  • Danto, Arthur C. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997
  • Steinberg, Leo. From Reflections of the state of critiscism. Artforum, March 1972
  • Howarth, Sophie. “Piero Manzoni, ‘Artist’s Shit’ 1961.” Tate. Web. 10 May 2015.

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