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Appropriation and the Art of the Copy (May 2015): Copying after 1960

By Elizabeth Mix

Copying after 1960

As indicated above, literary theory played an important role in the conceptual shift around the status of the copy.  Perhaps the earliest relevant literary work was Gustave Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idées recues—the "received ideas" he collected in the 1870s were published from 1911 to 1913 and provided a direct literary parallel for Duchamp's readymades.  Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" posited that an original work of art lost its "aura" (soul) when photographically copied and distributed.  Benjamin's theory was intriguing, but was eventually discounted because of an obvious flaw—the Mona Lisa, for instance, by far the most reproduced work of art, has not lost its value, and in fact is more valuable and famous as a result of the reproductions of it.  With the proliferation of images on the Internet, however, Benjamin's theory was revived by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Michael Marrinan in Mapping Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Digital Age.

The work of Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard also played an important role in postmodern understanding of the copy.  Barthes's 1967 essay "The Death of the Author" published in Image, Music, Text had a profound effect on artists and scholars and influenced the total conceptual shift initiated by the work of Duchamp to an entire generation of postmodernist artists.  Barthes shifted the primary responsibility for creating meaning from the original creator of the work to the audience; he also promoted the idea that meaning was contextually determined, thus capable of changing over time.  Barthes also allowed for multiple meanings to be held in tension.  While Barthes was specifically referring to readers' interpretation of lexical texts, his writings on art, notably fashion and still life paintings, allowed art historians to quickly replace the phrase "death of the author" with "death of the artist."  Baudrillard's concept of the simulacra (the condition of a copy without an original) is also relevant for contemporary art based on copies, as the audience may not be aware that the appropriation has taken place and begin to view the copy as an original.  For instance, viewers who have become accustomed to seeing endless reproductions of the Mona Lisa may decide there is no reason to see the original.

There are three important books that summarize, using different terms and techniques, appropriation in art after 1960.  The term "pastiche," which originates in the discipline of music and has been used in art since the seventeenth century, referred historically to a poor academic copy.  Richard Dyer, in Pastiche, uses the term to refer to imitation more generally, presenting multiple definitions to argue for its flexibility, and uses the related term "pasticcio" as a combination of elements.  While the bulk of this book is dedicated to specifically literary pastiche, Dyer blurs distinctions between fine art and popular culture.  Importantly, he acknowledges that the entire transaction of pastiche works only if the audience understands how and why the quoting of other authors is happening.  A useful diagram summarizes Dyer's division of types of copies into concealed/not concealed, not textually signaled/textually signaled, evaluatively open (to which he ascribes the terms plagiarism, fakes, hoaxes, copies, versions, and pastiche), and evaluatively closed (to which he ascribes the terms emulation, homage, travesty, burlesque, mock epic, and parody).  Ingeborg Hoesterey's Pastiche: Cultural Memory in Art, Film, Literature also prefers to use the term "pastiche."  While her book has chapters on the visual arts, cinema, literature, and popular culture, visual artists appear in all of the chapters—Cindy Sherman is discussed in a chapter on cinema, Ilya Kabakov appears in a chapter on literature, and Yasumasa Morimura is placed in a chapter on pop culture.  While it provides a readable general overview of the phenomenon across disciplines, Hoesterey's book is perhaps most useful for its first chapter, which provides a taxonomy of a wide range of historical terms for copying.  The decision to list them alphabetically is unfortunate, because it obscures the chronological development of the phenomenon and also glosses the difference between practical and theoretical terms.  The list includes appropriation (identified as a term used since the 1980s) bricolage, capriccio, cento, collage, contrefaçon, fake, farrago, faux, imitation, montage, palimpsest, parody, plagiarism, recycling, re-figuration, simulacrum, and travesty.  The terms are defined simply, with generally only one source for each.

An anthology approach is used by David Evans in Appropriation, a volume in the series Documents of Contemporary Art from London's Whitechapel Gallery.  This book provides pertinent excerpts from a wide variety of writings by Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, Nicolas Bourriaud, Douglas Crimp, Guy Debord, Marcel Duchamp, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Jeff Wall, and Andy Warhol.  The excerpts in each section are arranged chronologically.  Evans provides a very short introduction to explain their placement in particular categories; otherwise the texts are left to speak for themselves.  The section titled "Precursors" distinguishes between traditional and modern definitions of copying—Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas, Duchamp, and Warhol are included here.  The rest of the book is about contemporary practice.  It starts with agitprop—a term that combines agitation and propaganda associated with communist ideas—although not everyone in this section takes a communist stance.  Also included are simulation; feminist critique; postcolonialism; postcommunism; and postproduction, which includes Nicholas Bourriaud's "Deejaying and Contemporary Art" and an essay on Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho.  The book closes with "Appraisals," where excerpts from Benjamin Buchloh's "Parody and Appropriation" and Douglas Crimp's "Appropriating Appropriation" are placed.

Two prominent cultural historians write about aspects of copying by operationalizing the theoretical approaches of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and semiotics.  Mieke Bal, in Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History links appropriation (although she only rarely uses that term) to the revival of theatrical works termed neo-baroque.  Caravaggio, as a prime example of the seventeenth-century Catholic version of the baroque style, not only provides an example of specific visual characteristics, but also provides fertile ground for interventions addressing religion and homosexuality.  Bal's broad approach considers both appropriations of stylistic elements of Carvaggio's baroque (theatrical lighting, gestures, rich surfaces, three-dimensional spaces, and the presence of drapery) and the self-reflexivity that existed in his many works that utilized self-portraiture, which easily lends itself to an exploration of both mirrors and the myth of Narcissus.  Bal admits that not all the artists she has included would even say that Caravaggio was an influence (e.g., Ana Mendieta, Andres Serrano, Jeannette Christensen, Mona Hatoum, and Carrie Mae Weems), but several address or copy his work directly (e.g., Dottie Attie, George Deem, Ken Aptekar, and Jeannette Christensen).  In The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses Unreasonable Facsimiles, Hillel Schwartz declares the death of the concept of originality.  Using ethnographic sources, including data on twins, Schwartz assigns value to reproductive technologies, copies, replicas, and simulations in photography, painting, and xerographic printmaking.

Works Cited