Whitehot Magazine

Appropriate and Inappropriate Appropriation Art: Inspiration, Confluence or Rip-off

Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Lewis, Kenneth Noland, Oil on Raw Canvas


Is there / what is / where might a fine line be / between Appropriation Art and Intellectual Theft? Does all art / most art / some art / comprise some degree of appropriation? If so, is all / some / none of it appropriate for an authentic artist, the word “authentic” being so overused these days, nearing the praise inflation of words like “great” and “brilliant,” (even “curated”), that I hesitate to use it, and thus might instead say “ethical.”

What’s the difference between valid appropriation and blatant rip-off, between confluence and plagiarism?

ITEM: 2007. I have a bathroom installation in the Pool Art Fair at the Chelsea Hotel, in suite arranged by the inimitable duo Liz-N-Val, when C—, another artist, rushes in yelling, “Just running through, stealing ideas!” I close the bathroom door.

Barbara Rosenthal, Bathroom Installation, Pool Art Fair, Chelsea Hotel, 2007

ITEM: 2014. I host an open studio with the Chelsea Open Studios project run by Scotto Mycklebust. Two FIT fashion students bring sketch pads, start copying. I ask why, they say, “For clothing designs!” I throw them out.

ITEM: 2016. I see something at the Fountain Art Fair, and ask D—, the artist, if I may make a studio visit to see more like it. She begins pitching Appropriation things. I say I’m interested in original work, though Appropriation is sometimes valid. She has a tantrum, “Appropriation is always valid!” I say never mind. 

ITEM: 2015. I hire M—, an artist new to New York, for general studio work. His own output is spiritual and nature-based. My Dirty Book Project, various book- and wallworks collaging thousands of studio sweepings over many years, is consigned by Maddy Rosenberg of Central Booking. On Facebook, M— posts a single, sterile iteration he calls “Sweepings,” and its “likes” include one from Roger Denson, a critic following my own work, but as yet unaware of Dirty Book. I ban M— from further access.

Barbara Rosenthal, Poly-tek Resin Uniques, 2014, from“Dirty Book Project,” 1982-ongoing 

ITEM: 2007. I review John Baldessari’s Windows and Columns show at Marian Goodman, for “NY Arts.” http://nyartsmagazine.net/baldessari-equally-cool-and-visceral/ His series incorporates appropriated film stills. I write, “The element of personality comes through Baldessari’s work, nonetheless.”

John Baldessari, in “Windows and Columns” series at Marian Goodman Gallery, 2007

ITEM: 2017. I notice a writer making notations during another’s reading. I ask why. They say “I’m channeling.” I am still thinking about this.

ITEM: 2007. Robert C. Morgan gives Ryan Cadrette an interview about my work. https://vimeo.com/129218813 He says nice things, and refers to me as an early Appropriation Artist. He is referring to my mid-career retrospective at the 450 Broadway Gallery, which he’d reviewed in “Cover Magazine” https://www.emedialoft.org/artistspages/imagesbrreviews/BR_ReviewsofBR-ARTpdfs/1994_CoverMagREVIEWofBRat450BroadwayGalleryByRobertCMorgan.pdf and included Drowning / Saving, photographed from the Red Cross Lifesaving Manual, Double Portraits of Newsworthies, and Homo Futurus Wall Work, assembled with xeroxed newspaper clippings, previously shown at the Carlo Lamagna Gallery, and later at the Center for Book Arts.

Barbara Rosenthal, with “Homo Futurus Wall Work” at Carlo Lamagna Gallery, 1988

Nevertheless, I’m surprised to hear it. And although the almost opposite take on my work was apprised by Philippa Hawker in her “Sydney Morning Herald” article In the Moment, with Originality https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/in-the-momentwith-orginality-20130917-2tx2q.html, Robert Morgan did speak truth — maybe not that I’m an “Appropriation Artist,” per se, but that I do sometimes combine appropriated elements with newly inspired. Those pieces in the retrospective were an exploration through my unstable identity to plumb that of our whole species.

These contrasting testimonies and the above incidents have been on my mind lately as I’m selecting pieces for the September 24 - October 10 Fifteen Artists show Denise Bibro Fine Art; the Fall issue of “LiveMag!,” edited by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, one of which, Conceptual Compositization Indiana, curated previously by Katie Peyton at Undercurrent Projects; and four new Surreal-to-Conceptual Photo pieces being added to my Saatchi Art consignment https://www.saatchiart.com/barbararosenthal. These all comprise collages of distorted 35mm Surreal Photos I shot in locations I didn’t create.

Barbara Rosenthal, “Conceptual Compositization” Denise Bibro Fine Art, Sept 24-Oct 10, 2020

For Saatchi Art, two contain images of other pictures, three of display cases in museums, one of a church figure, two of European staircases. For Bibro and “LiveMag!,” they collage my photos with my brain scans and video stills. As original as my works are, by way of paralleling my Schitzoaffective psychosis, as Bob Dombrowski points out in “The Chatanoogan” by his title The Artist Who Works with Instability, https://www.chattanoogan.com/2016/1/27/316811/Dade-County-And-The-Arts---The-Artist.aspx, the original scenes were there before I chose a lens, settings and framings to hunt and capture them.

Barbara Rosenthal, “Surreal-to-Conceptual Photoworks with Figures” 26x40” each, 2020 

What is the degree of appropriation? Photo-based art always incorporates iconography that pre-exists the artist’s capture. Even among practitioners like Duane Michals, Arthur Tress, Michael Martone or me, whose works reveal underlying subconscious searches, pre-existing constructions are reimagined through a viewfinder, and often distorted by our choice of equipment, technology and technique. Obviously, I maintain that there is a difference between creating art appropriately through truly adopting and subsuming what’s extant, and inappropriately, usurping ideas, points of view, iconography, technique or style.

Art is a manifested link between an artist’s psyche and the outer world. The corporeal, living artist is a spiritual medium who exists to call forth and make visible the otherwise indescribable. And even as thusly described, it is symbolic. A tree is different for an artist and a forester. Authentic art-production is a drive, perhaps to drive out the demons or chariot in the angels, but nonetheless a relentless, obsessive, all-consuming impulse to give substance to these otherwise inexpressible links between a complex psyche and a complex universe, “to turn experience into art,” as Anais Nin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Otto Rank, wrote in his book Art and Artist, which so influenced my thinking that I collaged xeroxed pages from onto my triptych Art and Artist / Put it in Writing, shown at the Dooley LeCappellaine Gallery in 1992.

Barbara Rosenthal, “Art and Artist / Put it in Writing” 97w”x62h”, c.1990

There are some true Appropriation Artists, such as Sherrie Levine, a midwesterner who arrived in New York in 1975, related personally to the contents of works by others, and is best-known for her exact reproductions of the Great Depression photographs of Edward Weston. There are some who incorporate appropriated elements, such as the Los Angelean, John Baldessari, using identifiable black and white Hollywood stills on which to position his own shapes, obscuring their identifiers, and Allan McCollum, in even more personal ways, intrigued by subtle conceptual ideas. In his series Perpetual Photos? he obscures television images of pictures hanging on background walls, by greatly enlarging them.

In my review of his 2004 show at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery, for “NY Arts,” Allan McCollum is Not Locked In, http://allanmccollum.net/allanmcnyc/nyarts/nyarts.html, I quoted him: the enlargements "invite a futile impulse to use logic in an attempt to discover an emotional truth." But then there are some who actually steal their style or technique from an artist who developed it themselves, such as Morris Louis and Ken Noland after Clement Greenberg let them into Helen Frankenthaler’s studio while she was away, saw her innovative work staining raw canvas, and guess who became more famous? 

Allan McCollum from“Perpetual Photos?” series at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, 2004

What it is to conceive and develop an authentic iconography, technique and style, and what part does the Media Landscape play? We live in a Media Landscape, a term so pervasive, its origin isn’t ever cited. Monet lived among water lilies, everyone now among media and multi-caliber imagery from every era and culture. It is inevitable that some of it will catch an artist’s attention. Why, how or if it is transformed it, utilized it to express their viscerally, ideologically singular world view, answers whether the appropriation is an honest, ethical element. Besides iconography, I will cautiously include basic technique, though never, ever style. 

Style results from myriad personal factors — dreams, tools, education, stressors, pleasures. Shapes, colors, strokes, proportions, intersections, tempos, wordings, are amalgamated into visionary products. And most authentic artists have sacrificed life, responsibilities, time and money in service to them, not for the sake of a hokey, mannered, “style,” but because something unforeseen rings true. 

In the brain, the neocortex and thalamus control creativity and imagination. The cerebrum controls reading, thinking, learning, speech, emotions, overt physical activity, as well as vision and other senses. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/neurology_neurosurgery/centers_clinics/brain_tumor/about-brain-tumors/how-the-brain-works.html. In the brain, Imagination and Reality even flow in opposite directions. https://www.livescience.com/49244-imagination-reality-brain-flow-direction.html Therefore, in the brain of an authentic artist, Reality flows in, and Creativity, not convenience or ambition, flows out. 

What’s the harm?

To usurp another artist’s style or ideas is to cheapen them for anyone who sees the originator’s work after the usurper’s, and thus assigns first place to the second. To usurp is always to miss things, to take an obvious element and ignore the subtleties that make it deep.

To usurp is often to add unnecessary elements, to overdesign straightforward work, to bastardize the colors, to coarsen the line, to unbalance an intricate composition. Or the opposite, to expunge subtle elements that give the original soul. Both addition and subtraction being the pretender’s bid to personalize the new composition.

To usurp is to undervalue ones own self, ones own abilities, to not give yourself a chance, to not train yourself to open wide for Reality to enter, mix around in your brain, and for your own true imagination to direct you how to serve it.

To usurp obstructs, even aborts, true possibilities within a developing artist.

To usurp deprives the artist and the viewer of a true bridge into an inner life.

To usurp does not guide culture to new heights, it leads the gullible into stagnant gullies.

The roots of inappropriate appropriation are convenient short-cuts, ambition (and misguided art education that emphasizes anything over fabricating discovered peculiarities, which I’ll write about some other time.) The artist exists in service to the art, not the other way around. Authentic artists don’t front a surrogate artifact to pay their bid for social validation — such validation can come only from weak minds already comfortably plump with with what’s familiar. The artist struggles to translate the world through a plastic medium, not cheat by seeking something better than they think they can make, to copy for ego-boosting recognition. Recognition can even be a

counterproductive distraction for an artist, can lead to ruts and the stifling suppression of otherwise exhilarating, risky experiments. All artists could make authentic art, with just some confidence, awe, humility and wide-eyed pondering, an accounting of their own iconography, tools, materials, psychic concerns and balances. WM

Barbara Rosenthal

Barbara Rosenthal is an idiosyncratic New York artist/writer/performer/philosopher whose latest book, the novel,  Wish for Amnesia (Deadly Chaps Press, 2017) explores themes of idealism, innocence, esthetics, dimensionality, thought and corruption. She is particularly interested in the intersection of art and life.

WIKIPEDIA: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Rosenthal

WEBSITE: http://www.barbararosenthal.org

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