Whitehot Magazine

Should We Retire the Concept of Appropriation in Art?

 Left: Jean-François Millet, “Shearing Sheep,” 1852–3 (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain) Right: Vincent van Gogh, “The Sheep-Shearer (after Millet),” 1889 (Photo: Van Gogh Museum via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)


By NOAH BECKER July, 2022


the action of taking something for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission.


Is appropriation a justified way to make art in 2022? Or is it the history of stealing? Van Gogh's obsessive appropriation of Millet in some ways strengthens Van Gogh by having this odd connection to the paintings of Millet. Also, Van Gogh is a better painter than Millet from my point of view, so things kind of work out in the end for both artists.

This Van Gogh interaction opens up more context in the work of Millet and the appreciation of Van Gogh. I found out about Millet in the first place through the work of Van Gogh - appropriation is an important part of the bloodstream of creativity in this case.

Has appropriation become a deeply American form of blatant opportunism hiding under the label "Pop Art"? From Jeff Koons to Richard Prince or even music sampling in Hip Hop, authorship in the arts is an ongoing controversy both legal and ethical.

Left: Jean-François Millet, “The Sower,” 1850 (Photo: Museum of Fine Arts via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain) Right: Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower (after Millet,” 1881 (Photo: Van Gogh Museum via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Picasso famously said, "Great artists steal" but is rethinking the validity of appropriation in art the right thing to do at this point in history? Many would say yes - it's long overdue.

Who took the source photo Warhol used to produce his Marilyn Monroe paintings? Is it important to know? I'm sure within 30 seconds of searching on Google I could find out who Warhol appropriated. Then you have Francis Bacon who used Diego Velasquez's Pope Innocent X - the basis for his screaming popes. In this sense, is public domain imagery fair game? I'm speaking intellectually here because we all know that public domain is public domain.

But appropriation runs rampant in all of art history and is a sophisticated aspect of contemporary art authorship. And there is seemingly no appropriation guidebook or “rule” for artists in 2022...

Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower I,” 1888 (Photo: Kröller-Müller Museum via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

Perhaps the basic rule is - don't piss people off.  Don't use their art in a way that relies on their inventiveness, adding nothing new to the work. If you’re using a projector, later on, they can exactly line it up with the painting or image they made originally. This gets complicated, especially if you're being sued for copyright infringement, which many have.

Get creative with it so you can claim it as your own work but it's not appropriation anymore if it's changed THAT drastically, is it? Jasper Johns’ paintings of Lucian Freud sitting on the edge of a bed obscures the original source photo in a mesmerizing way. I still have no idea who the photographer was who took the source photo...

Johns had a contoversy about using a drawing by an African student and integrating it into one of Johns' recent paintings. Whitehot covered that situation which was unintentionally toxic on the part of Jasper Johns, an issue now amicably settled between both parties. 

I'm all for proper ethics when tackling appropriation as a technique. Art about art is interesting but a lot of prominent artists are bungling it and ruining it for everyone else, stop it guys...

Historically, Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. - a reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a moustache drawn on it, is a great example of shameless appropriation. In this manner, the actual work of art is a found object or print. There is seemingly zero creative output from Duchamp - and that's the joke.

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.OQ., 1919, hand-altered print of the Mona Lisa.

It's a complicated topic when issues of racial power, gender and power dynamics come into play. When the artist doing the stealing is from a dominant race and the person claiming intellectual property theft is a member of a minority - appropriation functions as racism. 

All of these progressions and potenially hurtful situations in the use of other people's work is nothing to be taken lightly. These issues need to be seriously considered before using appropriation as a device in the production of a work of art.

Thankfully, things are changing in 2022. The work of Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Salvador Dali, Marlene Dumas, Francis Bacon, Elizabeth Peyton, Marcel Duchamp and a host of other artists who work with found photos or the existing creative inspirations of others do not always conform to current ideas about appropriation. But many late artist's foundations and galleries are working tirelessly to mediate issues of this nature. 

Meanwhile, enjoy these comparative images of Van Gogh and Millet while we ponder important aesthetic, social and moral questions. WM  


Noah Becker

Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023. 


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