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Appropriation and the Art of the Copy (May 2015): Home

By Elizabeth Mix


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Choice (volume 52 | number 9).

Abstract and Introduction

This essay focuses on why and how copying occurs within the field of visual art and identifies shifts in the perception of the role of copying over time as indicated by changing terminology.  Copies are ubiquitous in our culture today.  They are especially prevalent on the Internet in the form of mash-ups and memes.  While appropriation (the quoting or borrowing of an earlier artist's work or style) is generally considered a postmodern strategy, the practice has, in fact, a long and complicated history that includes the tradition of academic copying (a method of artistic training whereby students copy the works of masters) as well as the history of art forgery.  The development of technology that made copying easier, notably photography, and more recently digital editing programs such as Photoshop, have altered the perception of the copy in relation to so-called "original" artwork.  A gradual acceptance of multiple originals—common in printmaking, photography, and digital media, but also in the history of sculpture—also contributed to the evolution of artistic and social views on copying.  Cultural appropriation (borrowing across cultures) and transcultural appropriation (back-and-forth or multiple levels of cultural exchange) are important parallel developments.  During the colonial period, works from China, Japan, and Africa influenced Western artists now considered to be the paragons of the avant-garde (e.g., Édouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso).  Colonialism also shaped museum collections around the world as functional and sometimes sacred objects were acquired and reclassified as art.  In the postcolonial period, artists from colonized and colonizing cultures wrestled with this history—at this writing, this latter development is ongoing.

Given the scope of the topic outlined above, this essay cannot claim to be a comprehensive examination of all aspects of copying; specifically, the legal aspects, which are extensive and deserve a separate study, have been omitted.  Also mostly absent are references to parallel phenomena in literature, music, film, and television.  Due to lengthy considerations for the essay and the prevalence of intentional quoting of past artists since the 1960s, only a small number of individual contemporary artists who made specific contributions to the changing perception of copying have been included.  Consultation of the sources included in this essay, however, will provide access to additional materials that are regrettably absent.  The essay is divided chronologically into two sections.  The first, "Copying prior to 1960," the decade when the perception of copying began to shift dramatically, includes these subsections: "Copies in the Academy," "Fakes and Forgeries," "Technology-Aided Copying and the Multiple Original," "Copying as Homage before 1960," "Cultural and Transcultural Appropriation in the Colonial Period," and "Marcel Duchamp and the Conceptual Shift of the Copy."  The Second, "Copying after 1960" includes "Copying as Activism," "Copying as Homage Post-1960," and "Cultural and Transcultural Appropriation in the Postcolonial Period."

Elizabeth Mix is an associate professor of art history at Butler University.