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The Case for Copying

The video explores the concept of appropriation art, where artists borrow, steal, or copy existing images to create new work. It discusses how this practice challenges traditional ideas of originality and authenticity, and how it reflects the influence of mass media and cultural context on art. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • leafers sapling style avatar for user ameliathomley
    The change from being a "window to the world" to being a "tabletop" is really fascinating. To me, this implies a loss of depth over time. Somewhere along the way, did art lose it's ability to get us to reflect on the big unanswered questions of human existence? Did art lose it's ability to help us explore the divine, or the unknown? It seems like art became increasingly self-referential to its detriment. It seems like the act of copying played a part in this devolution. It seems like the act of copying can be something that furthers the ongoing conversation of humanity, as well as something that becomes a mindless habit that takes us nowhere in particular.
    (16 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    Is there a "legal" component to this topic that has been left out of this discussion? If we are, as suggested in the video, constantly bombarded by imagery, than it should come as no surprise that an artist will "borrow" that imagery to create a new work or or let his-/herself be influenced in the creation of a new work based on that imagery. But what is the intent? To engage in outright deception seems to be in a different realm than taking a well known motif/idea and bringing forth a "new" work based on that idea/ prexisting imagery.
    (12 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user dina.heimann
    Why is the narattion so quick. Breath. Who can follow or digest such an explanation.
    (8 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Sergei Shneider
    Thats weird to group sampling and modification with outright plagiarism. If art has no value or merit detached from the name of its author then it is not art but a collectors item. Obama's pen for example is a valuable historic artifact, but it is not a work of art. And someone like Richard Prince doesnt just plagiarize art but outright corrupts it using the power of his personal connections to get the product of his theft into galleries. It is exactly the same kind of behavior you would see in politics where people bank on their own personal connections to get lucrative contracts and positions. And had it not been for dodgy understanding of how IP works in our court system it would be outright criminal as well.

    In a similar spirit of criminal behavior - although as far as i know not IP theft- Peter Lik. If your art only has value because you persuade people that it's a sound financial investment is it a photographic art or are you just a confidence artist?
    (4 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Rebekah Matta
    Does anyone know what that rattling noise in the background that plays for most of the video is? It was driving me crazy.
    (5 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Sylvia Chubbs
    Wouldn't copyists run up against copyright laws?
    (2 votes)
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  • winston default style avatar for user iChocoTiramisu
    should that be in there? the bottom right can/tin?
    (2 votes)
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  • scuttlebug purple style avatar for user Adri
    If I were an artist like Leonardo Da Vinci or Michelangelo I would be mad that my art is getting changed especially since a particular artwork was supposed to mean something.
    How is this not illegal in different countries Especially the US?
    how do we ensure that nobody copies our work but at the same time still be able to?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      How long can you own something, like a poem or an image?
      US Copyright law on images was extended several times for the sake of the Disney Corporation, to prevent misuse of Mickey Mouse. Finally, last year, the copyright ran out on Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. That image (not anything since 1924) is now in the public domain. In general, after 100 years, whatever is "out there" is free to be used by the public.

      That's how the law goes.
      I'm grateful for it, because the expiration of copyright, like the expiration of patents, having an expiration date means that materials can be manipulated and distributed freely. We have generic medicines because patents have expired. We have low-cost book publications because copyrights have expired.
      (1 vote)

Video transcript

[Music] this is a photograph by Walker Evans and this is a photograph by Sheree Levine Walker Evans photograph dates from 1936 when he was hired by the Farm Security Administration to document the American South in the wake of the Great Depression Sherri Levine's was taken in 1981 from a reproduction of the Evans photograph as part of a series titled yes after Walker Evans credit where credit is due but a forgery is not at issue here what is Evans photographs are iconic and indisputable documents of a depression they show us its face but what exactly do Levine's photographs show us recent art is full of copying of all kinds and degrees art that borrows Steele's pilfers or poaches existing images some of them iconic others not are these confessions of creative inadequacy bald opportunism masquerading as concept are these cries for help as we drown in an image saturated world or the death rattle of the great pictorial tradition how are we supposed to distinguish this kind of copying from a long history of art full of allusions influences and innumerable instances of visual sampling long before hip hop spread the sonic version of it coast to coast a sample after all is just one part of a whole song but what if the copy is the artwork this is the case for copying artists of course have been copying since time immemorial in fact the earliest Western traditions of aesthetic thought defined art as mimesis or imitation of the visible world but artists don't just imitate the world they imitate each other copying in order to train their hands or demonstrate stylistic innovation they copy to signal the influence of other artworks to claim the prestige of a particular heritage or to rework a stock artistic subject for their own time working from existing imagery and traditions can also suggest new ways to navigate history Raphael's intimate portrait of pope julius ii became a model for Velasquez's portrait of Pope Innocent the tenth which in turn inspired Francis Bacon to make over forty five versions of his own each portrait transgressive in its own time for how it exposed psychological depths of the man at the seat of the church's power Velasquez's Las Meninas was also metabolized by Pablo Picasso who additionally made numerous versions of the déjeuner sur la painted by Edouard in 1863 Monday's dejeuner in turn borrowed its composition from a Raimondi engraving of Raphael's judgment of Paris and its subject from the concession Petra but it's mayonnaise old musician that establishes him as the modernist Mixmaster though it might look like a genre painting the old musician is in fact a composite image with an extravagant number of citations a painted phrase as the art historian Carol Armstrong called it that reads after Watteau after myself and movie Oh after linen and Velazquez and so on mayonnaise painting is not a window onto another reality but a cluster of representations each one like a song that can be sampled again and again mayonnaise mashup moreover stares back at us the old musician personifies the way that all pictures so to speak regard us images aren't just neutral depictions of the world they're instruments influencing how we perceive ourselves and others DISA wareness inspired a number of artists in the late 1970s to make arts that foregrounded representation itself our historians refer to this work as appropriation art in 1977 art critic Donald crimp curated an exhibition titled pictures bringing together artists who shared an interest in understanding the picture itself artists of the pictures generation as they came to be called plundered existing images for their own work Jack Goldstein film metro-goldwyn-mayer loops the familiar MGM lion's roar suspending us between the pleasure of anticipation and the frustrating deferral of the feature film Darren Baum's technology transformation Wonderwoman fragments and repeats clips from the TV series to draw out the relationship between technology and sexual objectification by isolating and manipulating images these artists direct our attention toward their subtext and demonstrate how they get their meanings not through our actual experience with lions or superheroes but through our associations with other pictures like them in our series of film skills Cindy Sherman photographed herself in the poses and scenarios of generic feminine personas that evoked stalked narratives so that each version of Sherman's seems over determined from the start by our expectations for her as crimp wrote we are not in search of sources or origins but of structures of signification underneath each picture there is always another picture these artists certainly weren't the first to use images from pop culture the aptly named pop art movement built upon the work of artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg who made bronze casts of mass-produced objects or incorporated news prints and rubbish into their work art historian Leo Steinberg described this work as belonging to the flatbed picture plane borrowing the term from the flatbed printing press that had flooded the post-war world with mass media images a Steinberg sought paintings were no longer doorways to imaginary world Avoca our visual experience they were like tabletops strewn with papers and objects to simulated how we look at pictures in newspapers and magazines not incidentally Andy Warhol began his career in advertising war I'll explain that he chose the subjects of his paintings from commercial products to celebrities precisely because everyone already liked them the artists job so Warhol claimed was not to offer up new images of beauty but to reproduce what society had already approved this authorized him to appropriate images of mass-produced objects and to turn them out in the studio he called the factory blurring the distinctions between artist and factory worker and between commodity and art in more recent years Richard Prince who may sit atop the high throne of copied M described his interest in copying this way advertising images aren't associated with an author they look like they have no history to them like they showed up all at once they look like what art always wants to look like yet of course Prince Warhol and other pop artists certainly didn't fade into the woodwork on the contrary a Campbell Soup can is almost synonymous with the name Warhol a single blown up cartoon frame with Roy Lichtenstein pop art held up a mirror to ubiquity of mass media but a mirror is often the weakest form of critique after all that other thing that looks like it showed up all at once without history that's the mass-produced commodity perhaps it's no surprise then that the art market quickly embraced pop art is one more luxury object appropriation art on the other hand had a very different relationship to popular imagery more like certain strands of Dada and surrealism appropriation art sought to understand how images around us inform our psyche and provide a basis for collective life Martha rossler's House Beautiful bringing the war home used a technique similar to surrealist inserting photographs from the Vietnam War into scenes of American domestic life both sets of images were taken from copies of life Rossler just reassembled what was already bound together in the magazine and what only a serious threshold for cognitive dissonance holds apart appropriation aren't also hearkened back to the ready-made by highlighting how an artist gesture of selection could confirm value on the most mundane object like the ready-made appropriation drew attention to the institutions whose operations depend on ideas of exceptionality and originality even and especially in the face of total on originality appropriations by Sturdevant who made perfect copies of artist's work in the case of Warhol actually borrowing his silk streams to get the job done as well as those by Shari Levine compel viewers to question just what kind of value is added by a signature and more importantly what kinds of people have historically been authorized to sign works in the first place hint hint they be usually looked more like Walker Evans and Duchamp than Shari Levine our Sturdivant indeed countless creative achievements in our museums are considered anonymous many of them seized from regions and social groups that have been denied recognition and representation this is to say nothing of conventionally unethical chiral contributions from quilts to recipes to folk or blues songs in his essay the death of the author the theorist roland bart argued that writing contains many layers of association that can only be unified in the readers experience of a text this meant that the author had no particular authority over the meaning of a book because anything she wrote existed in a web of connotations and cultural significance to interpret a book or an artwork was therefore not to decode it or to identify its definitive meaning but to demonstrate how it functioned in this web of significance Michel Foucault followed with his essay what is an author which argued that an author is actually just an organizing principle that allows us to group together a certain number of cultural objects more importantly it clarifies who did not make the work impeding rather than helping along the free circulation and inventiveness of creative output no less of a paradigm for the artistic genius than Pablo Picasso once said good artists borrow great artists steal this is often taken to mean that great artists transform their influences into their own authentic and original inventions but appropriation art turns this meaning on a pad appropriation art asks us to recognize that so-called great artists managed to convince us that their works are authentic and original because society has already given them the power to be authentic and original for reasons that have little to do with genius and a lot to do with the structures of power that concerned Foucault yes there are people who have done amazing things and gotten credit for it and we're grateful for their work but copying shows that the idea of the original originating genius is a myth it shows that this myth is linked to the power of images themselves to determine what kinds of representation visual as well as political are made available in our societies appropriation art well sometimes confounding and often contested helps us see that the context of pictures is absolutely integral to their meaning it reminds us that pictures don't just have histories they exist in history a copy no matter how perfect is never really the same as the original since its context is always shifting and since we exist in history our perspective is always shifting to when artists copy we recognize that they're making fresh meanings through their interaction with signs and symbols and bits of information already out in the world and that this work is never done not for them and not for us the art assignment is funded in part by viewers like you through patreon com a subscription based platform that allows you to support creators you like in the form of a monthly donation special thanks to our grand master of the Arts Indianapolis Holmes Realty if you'd like to support the show check out our page at patreon.com slash art assignment [Music]