Here is a story you might have heard: a photographer called Richard Prince once sold a photo lazily titled Untitled (Cowboy) for the sum of 1.2 million dollars. While this kind of thing happens often in the art world, the interesting part is that that photograph was a photograph of a photograph – Prince took a picture of a Marlboro ad, with its iconic cowboy standing tall, staring in silent masculinity into the distance, riding a horse into an unseen sunset; he then cropped out the advertisement text and showed it as his own work, eventually selling it for a hefty sum – much higher than what the original photographer was paid for doing the actual work of setting out, staging and taking the original photo.
Welcome to the world of “Appropriation Art”. Appropriation art is the act of taking something, anything, and then de- and re-contextualizing it as something else – as art. Usually, this is an act in the service of discussion about what art is, what makes something art, and how does it work. For instance, Untitled (cowboy) is a copy of a copy of a picture of a myth, and all those things exist solely as ideas in the heads of the viewers – Prince’s work challenges us to ask ourselves what are we actually looking at.
While Prince’s work is the most egregious, it is not the only form of appropriation art. Most appropriation artists work to make some sort of change to the base item, which helps recontextualize the item, making it different enough to be seen as an actual work even by the most critical eye. One of the first pieces of appropriated art is Object (luncheon in fur) – a tea set of saucer, tea cup and spoon covered in fur; this piece alludes to the connection between female decorum and feminine norms and sexuality by bringing to the fore items that fetishize each one. The new context of the items, as art put together forces the viewer to review the way he grasps the originals and their meaning.
The dubious honor of being the most well know piece of appropriated art belongs to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain – a porcelain urinal tilted on one side and signed “R. Mutt”. For many, this piece has come to symbolize modern art and its frivolous, surreal and unintelligible nature. Ironically enough, those who decry it as “not art” are in fact making it art – since the discussion about the nature of art is what this kind of art usually seeks, taking a position against a single piece means the discussion is going on and that the item provoked it, making it a potent piece of art if ever there was one.