Draft. For definitive version, see British Journal of Aesthetics 45 (2005), 123-137. Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art Sherri Irvin
Abstract Appropriation art has often been thought to support the view that authorship in art is an outmoded or misguided notion. Through a thought experiment comparing appropriation art to a unique case of artistic forgery, I examine and reject a number of candidates for the distinction that makes artists the authors of their work while forgers are not. The crucial difference is seen to lie in the fact that artists bear ultimate responsibility for whatever objectives they choose to pursue through their work, whereas the forger’s central objectives are determined by the nature of the activity of forgery. Appropriation artists, by revealing that no aspect of the objectives an artist pursues are in fact built in to the concept of art, demonstrated artists’ responsibility for all aspects of their objectives and, hence, of their products. This responsibility is constitutive of authorship and accounts for the interpretability of artworks. Far from undermining the concept of authorship in art, then, the appropriation artists in fact reaffirmed and strengthened it.
I. Introduction What it is that makes an artist the author of an artwork? What does the special relation of authorship, such that the work should be interpreted in
terms of the artist’s meanings (or at least in terms of meanings the artist could have had) consist in? Famously, the notion of the author came into question in the 20th century with thinkers like Roland Barthes, who closes his obituary of the author with the suggestion that ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.’1 Michel Foucault agrees, arguing that the concept of the author is a tyrannical one that does little more than restrict the free thinking of readers.2 The 1960s saw the genesis of an artistic trend that seemed to give substance to the theories of Foucault and Barthes. The appropriation artists, beginning with Elaine Sturtevant, simply created copies of works by other artists, with little or no manipulation or alteration, and presented these copies as their own works. The work of the appropriation artists, which continues into the present, might well be thought to support the idea that the author is dead: in taking freely from the works of other artists, they seem to ask, with Foucault, ‘What difference does it make who is speaking?’3 But if we think more carefully about their works, it becomes clear that this impression is misleading: even, and sometimes especially, in the case of the appropriation artists, it does matter who is speaking. I will begin by providing a brief overview of practices in appropriation art to provide some historical grounding. I will then construct a thought experiment comparing appropriation art to a highly unusual case of artistic forgery. Consideration of several possible candidates for the relevant difference between appropriation artist and forger, the difference that makes artists authors of their work while forgers are not, will shed light on the
nature of authorship in contemporary art, and in art more generally. We will find that, contrary to what has often been thought, the work of the appropriation artists affirms and exposes, rather than undermining, the artist’s ultimate authorial status.
II. Appropriation Art In art of the last several decades, practices of radical appropriation from other artworks are common. Elaine Sturtevant, often considered the earliest practitioner, began in the 1960s to reproduce, ‘as exactly as possible’,4 the works of her contemporaries, including Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol.5 She aimed to use the same techniques they used, and in some cases enlisted their aid: on at least one occasion, Warhol lent his screens for her copies of his silkscreen works.6 Sturtevant has said that in the...
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