The appropriation of images in art has a long history. From the Cubist collages of Picasso and Georges Braque, or Kurt Schwitters’ Merz works and Andy Warhol’s soup cans, using familiar or popular imagery and representing it in a new work has been around for a long time.

Kurt Schwitters, 'Magic' circa 1936-40
Kurt Schwitters
Magic circa 1936-40
Collage of printed paper
support: 131 x 106 mm
Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to Tate 2007© DACS, 2002

Some image appropriation is a necessity, such as orthodox iconography where artists work to strict codes about how various religious figures can be depicted. Some subverts and comments upon the original image, like Richard Prince’s re-photographing of an already-existing photograph. While sometimes just a change of context, from hoarding to gallery, or TV screen to artists film can change the intention enough to be new.

And while appropriation of popular imagery is familiar in art works, it often works the other way, from art to advertising, as artists such as Fischli & Weiss or Gillian Wearing have mentioned.

Gillian Wearing OBE, ''I'm desperate'' 1992-3
Gillian Wearing OBE
'I'm desperate' 1992-3
Colour photograph on paper
frame: 1325 x 925 x 45 mm
support: 1190 x 790 mm
Purchased 2000© Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley/ Interim Art, London


And what are the effects of technology on this ongoing appropriation? Now that boundaries of authenticity and originality are even more blurred, artists (indeed anyone) can recycle and re-upload images, text and audio material more quickly and easily than ever before. Sampling, remixing and mashups proliferate online, and allow people to even adopt a social media profile that appropriates or parodies a well-known persona. But what is the right of the originator in all this? Can you copyright an idea? Or do you lose rights to control it when you put it in the public domain?

So, tell us what you think. When is appropriation of found material homage and when is it plagiarism?

Tate Debate sponsored by Vodafone


John Stack's picture

There's a great series of short films by Kirby Ferguson in which he argues that all culture is based on a direct or indirect (but mostly direct) repurposing of exisiting cultural artefacts.

Watch the films here and watch the related TED talk here

In his artwork Can I Get An Amen? (2004) on the famous amen break, Nate Harrison argues that when the ability to repurpose cultural content is flexible that this results in an increase in creativity and therefore capital.

I am inclined to agree with both of them.

The idea of appropriation seems to come across as more acceptable in music than it seems to in art - great links John!

Over the years certain rifts such as 'the endless permutations of the Amen Break" and knock-offs find their way into the charts, it takes you a moment then you realise... 'I can't believe they did that to that song!' .

But it has been repurposed, remixed, legally and I would argue as a result whole a new set of ideas are allowed to happen, enabled out of the appropration. When talking about art, plagarism seems to come into play so readily - when is there really anything inherently new anymore and can it be said that one idea stands completely alone, ex nihilo from another? No man, muscian or artist is an island.

In another homage to homage, Beyonce & Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker:

Cartrain's feud with Damien Hirst over whether or not his diamond skull was plagiarised. And this week, Kate Moross launched a twitter attack on Top Man for ripping off one of her prints. And what about the defaced Rothko? Is re-purposing really creating new art or just jumping on the bandwagon?... I'm personally unsure where I stand on any of these issues, I think intelligent art does reference other art, but I can't draw a line between referencing and out-and-out copying, and what about renaissance art - can you plagiarise a centuries-dead painter?

The appropriation art was funded in France and one of it's objectives was taking a MONE ART object and integrating it in Art in a manner that is giving it a new contest. Starting from the 80ies and the POP ART Movement the US Artists "appropriated" objects at times that were inappropriate. Those artists were led by a very selective group of art dealers, demanded the US law will demand recognizing their right to use living artists copyright subject to the United States First Amendment, Fair Use. In order to do that, and due to their political and financial power, the term "transformative art" came into play and hence after, the United States Court entertained the term "Transformative Art".

In the case of Curio V. Prince the US court of appeal have termed that Appropriation Art does not need to make a comment of it's source, and waived the economical rights of Curio to earn from his work via licensing, subject to the First Amendment/ Fair Defense, although Prince who copied+paste from Curio, not only admitted to copy paste Curio, but also sells the derivative works in figures Curio can't compete and worded, publishes an unlimited series of such copies for commercial purposes via books etc. hence, the Fair Use limitations imposed under the Berne Convention were dismissed in the name of the US First Amendment, that as is, supposedly poses the same limitation.

In order to justify such act, the Court also declared that in the United States famous artists should not be treated equally as none famous artists. Because Prince sold for millions and among his collectors the court count De Niro etc. i.e. he has the right to use Curio art, and Curio can't claim for fair use, since Curio sold for few thousands. i.e. not only Curio was deprived of his defense to unfair competition, it was justified by means of discrimination between Famous and connected Artist, to Unknown and not connected Artist.

Like always, there are good sides and bad sides to any decision and things to ponder on: the good part is ANYONE can use American Living Artist are as the base for it's work to the extent that the main part of the work is copied without paying any licensing and the same applies to any US Museums items, and claim for appropriation. This is a blessing when is comes to digital art, the even better part is that you can "appropriate" without any need to make any comment the American Art / Artists works for commercial purposes.

Of course, it is unclear if Curio will file the case at the Supreme court and the verdict be reversed, however, for the time being, it is legal to snatch any US Artist copyrighted work and "Appropriate it" for free. It seems silly to pay photography agency isn't it ? The will serve very well many artist, more so at the digital art where you can copy paste appropriately in a matter of seconds.

So, now that we know that famous Artist have more and better rights then an unknoen Artists, the question we all must ask is : 1. Do I want to expose my art in the US, before I am famous ? The answer is probably you have a safer chance in Berlin.

2. Will the Berne Convention parties agree to the new definition of "Fair Use", i.e. creation of derivative works in a commercial scale and regardless the main part of the work was sampled: Note, this can be really really cool for a defense in remixing and sampling American Music: You can potentially sample a well known song, doing the same copy paste" and claim for "Appropriation" , you don't even need to make a comment, lets be honest, American Music is great for sampling.

3. Personally I debate if it's worthy striving being an Artist : practically, if you are not connected to the ADAA Dealers who sells the Appropriate Art starting from the 80ies to American celebrities, you are nothing regardless how genuine your work is, any American Artist is subject matter to the US law can sample you and will get by with it: conclusion, hide or make sure to who you show your art! If you decide it's still worthy creating, knowing that if you are not connected, you are not appropriate to equal treatment under the law.....

In the Curio v. Prince many Berne convention fundamentals been crossed. It's a matter of time for the rest of the Berne Convention to determine if such new interpretation of the law applies to the Berne Convention or stays in the US hood.

Question asked, if the king is naked, his son is a king or a bagger ?

Pri-Ya Philosopher, Yogi, Multi Skilled creative Human Being

Here is the Cario v. prince court of appeal opinion.

Note: the definition of appropriate art Prince used in his defense was taken from the TATE dictionary :

In my opinion this decision will transform the Art World and unless reversed, I personally am going to be an "appropriate artist" because it simply not economic to be innovative, if your Moral Rights are being stepped on

It was one thing to deprive Van Gogh of his economical rights due to stupidity of curators at his time, and another to violate moral rights due greed in the name of "fair use" improperly applied for commercial proposes.


In that context the Getty Museum declaration in Facebook "Museum is for Elite" seems very appropriate.