Skip to main content

Appropriation and the Art of the Copy (May 2015): Copying as Activism

By Elizabeth Mix

Copying as Activism

Some artists conduct appropriations from earlier artists to create conditions of irony, parody, or satire, conditions themselves associated with postmodernism.  Appropriation can also be used as a critique of an artistic or social issue.  In the 1960s, groups participated in a series of movements designed to protest their placement on the margins of artistic practice.  They also gravitated toward media, like video, which in its newness seemed free of the white patriarchal structure attached to painting and sculpture.  Artists from these groups were also quick to operationalize appropriation as a means of criticizing the white Western canon, realizing how it could be destabilized by copying and recontextualizing.  Maud Lavin's Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch, focuses on how Höch used media images to reconfigure and reposition multiple feminine, gender, and ethnographic identities in collages and photomontages.  While most previous scholarship on Höch focused on her overtly political Dada work, Lavin instead focuses on the artist's later work, which deconstructed and recontextualized gender and ethnographic identities and provided an important bridge to the feminist project of the 1970s.  Höch is important not only for her collages, but also for her scrapbooks, which document the media-driven images of women she sought to reconceptualize.  Her more contemporary counterpart Barbara Kruger began as a graphic designer and then moved into fine art while retaining a strong design aesthetic—most of her works feature photographs borrowed from magazines and recontextualized with powerful text.  Barbara Kruger includes an interview with the artist, an essay by graphic designer Steven Heller, and several other essays that examine her deconstructive and recombinative practices.

Other contemporary artists who need to be mentioned specifically in this context are Judy Chicago and Joyce Kozloff.  In The Dinner Party, Judy Chicago documents the details of each of the women who have place settings at the table at the centerpiece of this famous installation, most of which contain appropriations.  Joyce Kozloff's Patterns of Desire, which includes a short essay by feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, illustrates a series of drawings by Kozloff that recombine and recontexualize works from earlier eras and cultures, including Greek vases, Japanese shunga prints, Indian erotic miniatures, French rococo, European religious paintings, and Picasso's cubism.  Kozloff, as a woman copying these works originally made by and for men, forces reconsideration of the meaning of nude women and sexual encounters, repositioning them from a place of passivity and objectification to a place of power.

The exhibition The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Artists Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973-1991, with a catalogue by Nancy Princenthal, focuses on works that deconstruct dominant paradigms using appropriation and reconfiguration of female stereotypes from housewife to sex kitten.  Princenthal explains how feminist theory adapted the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes.  Among the many artists included are Dara Birnbaum, who appropriated and recontextualized images of women from television, including Hollywood Squares and Wonder Woman, Barbara Kruger (discussed above), Sherrie Levine, who made direct photographic copies of art by men to problematize the fame and money acquired by male compared to female artists, and Cindy Sherman, whose self-reflexive work always includes her own appearance.  Her series of photographs titled Untitled Film Stills were a critique of the passive objectified fear of women in Alfred Hitchcock movies; she also appropriated famous works in a series on art history, similarly questioning the sexualization and objectification of women in that context.

Works Cited