Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Meet the People, 1948, printed papers on card, 35 x 24 cm (Tate)
In terms of art, appropriation is the practice of using pre-existing objects and images in an artwork without really altering the originals. The cubist collages and constructions of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, which used real objects like newspapers not as representations of something else, but simply as themselves. From 1915, the French artist Marcel Duchamp developed this practice even further, most notoriously in a 1917 work called Fountain, which was just a men’s urinal that was signed, titled, and presented on a pedestal. Later movements such as surrealism and pop art continued to appropriate found objects within works of art, as in this collage by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi that incorporates images from pop culture, advertisement, and media.
In the 1980s, American artists like Sherrie Levine and Jeff Koons continued the trend. Levine often reproduced as her own work other works of art, including paintings by Claude Monet and Kazimir Malevich. By doing so, she aimed to create a new situation, and therefore a new meaning or set of meanings, for a familiar image.
Appropriation can be confusing, because the line between borrowing, appropriating, and copying it often quite blurry. Some artists like AK Dolven and Storm Thorgerson are clearly inspired by particular artists and images, whether recreating Edvard Munch's paintings in modern contexts or borrowing heavily from René Magritte's surealist style. But what do you do with an artist like Glenn Brown, who borrows familiar images from art history and transforms their colours and textures into something alien–but without losing resemblance to the original? Are these works of inspiration or is Brown just a colourful copyist?
Appropriation art raises questions of originality, authenticity and authorship, and because of this it is a useful tool for exploring these concepts. As such, it belongs to a long tradition of modern art that goes beyond using art as a tool for showing images and narratives and looks inward instead, questioning the nature of art itself.
Now that you have a grip on these concepts, see what you think of these artists who walk the line between inspiration and appropriation.