January 1, 2007

Appropriation, Collage and the Cultural Condition

Administrator's Note:
This is the first in a series of guest essays by current or former students of my Theory Now course at Corcoran College of Art + Design. In her insightful essay, Rebecca Jones unveils the rich history of appropriation, from collage to the Internet, citing from a variety of sources to engage in cogent connections that reveal the ongoing theoretical "substance" in the "style."

Appropriation in art has become so widely used today that the once radical and overt political tones of collage have come to be commonplace in the lexicon of American culture. Appropriated materials were first employed in Picasso and Braque’s collages using chair cane, oil cloths, objects of the real world, in their still-lives, challenging preconceived notions about representation in artwork. The Dada artists took collage and appropriated materials and made them (along with their violent juxtaposing of the images) the main focus in the work, as a reaction to the irrational and horrific nature of World War One. Duchamp’s “Readymades” was about art being the actual act of selecting a pre-made product and presenting it as an artwork. The surrealists, Rauschenberg, the fluxists, and Pop Artists all used appropriation and collage in different ways for different purposes. Surrealists, for example, created work that would use pieces from the real world in their compositions to create a play between the real and the unreal. Most of the post-modern and contemporary work that uses appropriation uses it in an act of recycling, arranging, and combining the endless fragments and bits that make up our culture. This artistic act is not unlike participating in the information/digital age.

The use of an appropriated material or image immediately brings up questions of representation in art. Plato’s assertion is that art is an imitation of an imitation, and so three times removed from real (the real being the “forms” themselves: perfect, permanent, ideas of objects).(1) Once the industrial revolution and “mechanical reproduction” began to rule the Western culture, Jean Baudrillard used the idea of simulacra as the extension of this idea, brought into a modern artistic context. Baudrillard discusses simulacra as the phenomenon where a copy of a copy of the original gets made so that the last copy stands alone as its own form. The reproduction and reinterpretation of earlier products and works is becoming more prominent in art, which coincides with the amount of reinterpretation and reproduction that is occurring commercially and culturally. Today, the internet makes the amount of times something can be copied infinite. The capitalist consumer culture of the western world is at a climax. Production of materials and ideas is growing and progressing faster than it has anywhere at anytime, which makes the tools for artists working today that much more plentiful.

The age of the internet is a fast paced conglomeration of sounds, images, thoughts, and communications presented in formats that are becoming increasingly more indistinguishable from reality. Participants in this culture are constantly being engulfed by the infinite amount of information that is being produced and therefore being completely overwhelmed by this fragmenting (or shattering) of reality. For a better understanding of how collaged works are symptomatic of a culture dealing with fragmentation and new types (and extreme amounts) of reproduction, works from this newly digitalized world can be compared with those of the newly industrialized, post World War One German Dada movement.

The Dada movement in Berlin made use of the new art form of photomontage. This was exciting to many artists active in the movement because the photograph provided a more precise image closer to reality that could be juxtaposed in the composition. The affinity towards a truer realism can be seen in works being done today, a time when digital and virtual reality is being experienced almost as much as the real one. The idea of fragmentation is integral in the preciseness of the digital image itself. As differentiated by Douglas Davis, the analog reproduction of an image comes out different every time by the nature of its process. The digital reproduction process works by way of uniformly breaking down the image into tiny, precise fragments so that, when put together, a more realistic copy or created image that’s the same every time (unless manipulated) results.(2)

Post-Modernism was once described in a virtual symposium as showing a “deep skepticism regarding structures of authority and authenticity.”(3) The way that many post-modern and contemporary works deal with both the formats of highly influential systems in our society (such as the internet and consumerism) and with appropriation support this comment. Furthermore, the Post-Modern condition is undeniably about the loss of hope for a single universality emerging through the many opposing viewpoints and the aggressively advancing possibilities of technology, which results in a fragmenting of reality (hence, Pluralism). The information age has taken these contrasting viewpoints and possibilities to a constantly increasing amount. The internet, which most prominently feeds this constant growth without restraint or structure, thus becomes an anarchic network, which only acts locally as series of networks, but acts on a macro level as an infinitesimal growth of unfitting puzzle pieces. Participants are confronted with an incomprehensibility for the number of pieces every time that they “google.” The hope, or even need for, a single universality is undoubtedly lost.

However, just because the potential for universality gets lost in this complex society, that is not to say that the potential for connection at any level gets lost. Obviously, globalization and communication has increased incredibly in the information age. But still, McLuhan’s “global village” will never be integrated in the type of harmony he predicted for several reasons. For one, the digital world produces separate pieces of information (and deconstructs previously existing information) as quickly as interconnections occur. As well, the “global village” that has been created is set in a world that’s in an extreme point of financial tension right now. The growing digital industry is connecting together the privileged but separating underprivileged from that “global village” more and more, and will only continue to be based on the economic trend. And so simultaneously the world connects and spreads apart.

Many contemporary artists have unsurprisingly chosen to use these many strains and bits, and issues being raised because of them, to compose new works. As Gregory L. Ulmer discusses in his essay, “The Object of Post-Criticism,” collage work “intervenes in a world, not to reflect but to change reality”. He quotes Bertolt Brecht’s remarks that the mechanics of collage contrast the “organic model of growth and its classic assumptions of harmony, unity, and closure.”(4) These statements very well explain that piecemeal works being done today act as part of the culture rather than a comment on it. Work that uses pre-existing images, forms, and ideas and leaves the new works open for interpretations and associations from the viewers, acts as an active experience rather than a static idea or form.

This sort of fragmentation that is a result of the information age has created the opportunity for artists of the time to investigate the many elements that they and their society are experiencing. This is undoubtedly what has lead to a common thread in many contemporary works, being the use of combinations of large varieties of pre-existing materials. Works such as these reflect this reality full of the appearance of randomness, chaotic juxtapositions and bombardments of images, usually for commercial use.

Oliver Herring constructed a series of life-sized figurative sculptures (Gloria and Patrick, both done in 2004) made from pieces of digital prints of the people. The models are positioned in a few poses for the photographs and then constructed in one particular position. They become three-dimensional photographic portraits, with a direct relationship to cubism. These sculptures demonstrate an interesting play with the precise qualities of digital photography and its freedom as well. The glossy photos and pieced together construction make reference to the look of a magazine or advertisement with its overwhelming number of images. In this sense, Herring brings the personal experience one has with a magazine, into a more confrontational and human space.

Jessica Stockholder’s installations create spaces that resemble American interiors, often using actual objects that might be found American homes. The arrangement of these objects and materials, however, are irrational and serve no function. In works such as Nit Picking Trumpets of Iced Blue Vagaries (1998) a huge variety of commercial products are composed together. Some of the materials used are 34 stacks of blue plastic buckets, various pieces of hardware, carpet and oranges. In color and spatially the work has the look of a shed or storage room. With its irrational organization of all of these consumer goods, the installation mocks the absurdity of the excessiveness present in America’s extreme consumer society. Stockholder’s work presents issues of relationships and inconsistencies. The unrestrained, grand arrangements refer to abstract expressionism. Due to the materials used the work does not, however, remain solely in the realm of internal emotion. The installations are dually about personal handwriting and the shared American experience.

In 1969, Joseph Kosuth stated in “Art After Philosophy” that ever since Duchamp’s “readymades” the focus of art changed from the form to what the art is saying. He went on to assert that a work of art is only art if it questions and redefines what art is or can be, due to the major challenge that Duchamp set up for art after “The Fountain.”(5) This new work that is being produced steps towards real everyday life experience, instead of continuously following a format of representation that only takes the art object farther away from reality. The work questions and redefines art in each piece because there is a cognitive experience the viewer has that resonates through the entire piece.

One of the main texts written on this subject is “Postproduction” by Nicolas Bourriaud. Bourriaud explains the prominence of work being created today based on reinterpretations, reproductions and re-exhibiting as a response to “proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age, characterized by the increase in the supply of work and the art world’s annexation of forms ignored or disdained until now.”(6) This is an interesting point that brings up the fact that many former works may be being looked at again today because of the added access to viewing them or criticisms of them online or even the added advertising of artworks and shows. Examples of this might be Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy’s or Marina Abramovic’s “covers” of Vito Acconci’s performances. Bourriaud uses other examples of contemporary artists who work in the manner being discussed such as Rirkrit Tiravanija’s use of appropriating cultural rituals, such as having people over for dinner, through performance pieces. Bourriaud discusses this type of work in the language of semiotics explaining that these new works “produce original pathways through signs.” He says that all contemporary work that deals with appropriation testifies “to a willingness to inscribe the work of art within a network on signs and significations, instead of considering it an autonomous or original form.” He compares working in this manner with searching the web and the masses of information that abound in our culture.(7)

It seems that this current art movement is the first ever to coincide in process so closely with the process of participating in the culture commercially. The Dada movement was fueled by the new mechanical reproduction and rising industrial age. The movement introduced new conversations about art through dramatically juxtaposed elements as had never been done before. In reference to collaborative virtual projects being done today, Eduardo Kac once commented that if the art object and the artist are eliminated (taking off from Duchamp’s questioning the art object) then the art comes to be about relationships and interactions within a network.(8) It’s very evident that it is these interactions between members of or pieces of a network that are the main focus of works being created today in response to the cultural condition of the western world. Certainly a strong tendency in contemporary work is the “thread of reinterpretation and interpretation.”(9) This is a thread that can go on as infinitely as the world expands. Both the digital and mechanical age confronts society with this overwhelming truth and incites people into a cathartic purging of these many elements, however they may do so.

Above image: Apertura del Vpoema 11 de Ladislao Pablo Gy├Âri (1995) by Eduardo Kac.


1. Plato. The Republic, excerpt from The Nature of Art: An Anthology
(Thomas A. Wartenburg, ed.), Harcourt, 2002, 4.

2. Davis, Douglas. “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis: 1991-1995)” in The Nature of Art: An Anthology (Thomas A. Wartenburg, ed.), Harcourt, 2002, 319.

3. Cameron, Dan. Online Posting: Post Modernism: A Virtual Discussion (Maurice Berger, ed.), Georgia O’Keefe Museum Research Center, 2003, 23.

4. Ulmer, Gregory L. “The Art Object of Post-Criticism” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, (Hal Foster, ed.), The New Press, 1998, 95.

5. Kosuth, Joseph. “Art After Philosophy” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, (Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds.), University of California, 1996, 843-844.

6. Bourriaud, Nicolas. “Post-Production,” in Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World,, Lukas and Sternberg, 2000, 13.

7. Ibid., 15-16.

8. Kac, Eduardo. Teleprescence and Body Art, University of Michigan, 2005, 4.

9. Op. cit., 325.


emily said...

"The age of the internet is a fast paced conglomeration of sounds, images, thoughts, and communications presented in formats that are becoming increasingly more indistinguishable from reality"

I like to hear questioning about the reality of digitally formatted reproductions, because I often forget that pieces of the original are missing in copies-

I trust that I can fully sense an original, that I could appreciate it more than a carelessly made reproduction...but no

for instance
when I talk on the phone, I never consider that it is only bits of the voice being sent
That means that nuances in the actual voice are lost to the me.

Thanks for leading me to conclude that to listen to chopped up messages I receive from the world seems inadequate if I wish to understand Plato's forms.

Also after reading this, I hope that by rejecting the reality of digital pieces, collage artists will give us a new appreciation for past paintings that represented unity and ideas that were removed from the world as we tend to see it. The mainstream way of thinking is bizarre, but it always changes strangely and sculptors and painters continue unmoved by breaks in logic.

gaa I just replaced the word 'from' with 'for' and I fear a bunch of other ridiculous mistakes. ha I am thrilled to be reading and writing my response anyway.

emily said...

if I repeated exactly what you said as if it is my words, I listened and forgot that I listened..

it is possible that I misunderstood, too. Please correct me, as always

Anonymous said...


Thanks for taking the time to read and think about my essay.

It's true, by Plato's standards these "chopped up messages" that we give and receive in today's society are definitely inadequate. But I think that we, as participants of the society, can consider reproduction and reinterpretation more neutrally. We have become accustomed to being skeptics of what we see and hear all the time. We see the benefits and disadvantages to this constant reinterpreting. For example, we know that by letting the internet be completely free and open that false information will be presented to us, but we also know that the internet allows true information to be spread faster and to more. I think that where the interesting collage and appropriation art of today comes from is this resulting neutrality or objectivity we take part in, in this process of evaluation. The art that utilizes current capabilities/technology in ways that show an objective understanding of how these new elements affect our cultural mental environment is the most relatable to viewers. Both the artists and participants in this culture are taking information given to them, and organizing it systematically to say something.

I don't think the contemporary multi-media work that I'm discussing is about "rejecting" any reality in it's use of appropriation, but quite oppositely is about discussing and looking at what our reality has become: "breaks in logic" itself.

I too am sorry if I'm repeating my own words...


emily said...

I am a fan of repetition, so do not be afraid to repeat words to me, at least.

that is a nice thought:
that our reality has become "breaks in logic" itself.

it made me consider how I responded too hastily to your essay (I love to consider when I am rash)...
I worry when many people believe something, so I looked to artists to counter any new dominant waves of thought.
But while I worried so much about believing anything, I was holding fast to beliefs without questioning them...in particular, I trusted strongly in the inherent 'reality' in original acts.

Thank you for the thought that artists simply watch how people think and that they do not avoid working within that mindset. I do not think, at second thought, that any original event is necessarily 'real', especially when reproductions are what we see.

CP Webb said...
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cpwebb25 said...
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cpwebb25 said...

I like your comment about how art that references pre-existing works "acts as an active experience rather than a static idea or form."

We certainly are creatures under constant visual bombardment. We build on these images whether they are recognizable to the collective or maybe just the 5 people that watched an episode of "Hello Larry."

I think though there is a gap in your essay between Plato and Dada. Artists historically built on other artistic images. In medieval Italy a Patron in Sienna would go up to a local artisan and say "go to Florence and look at that new alterpiece. I want you to make one just like that, but bigger, oh and put my face onto Saint so-and-so.

Maybe the concept of a solitary being with an easel was the actual fad. That art is mostly the building upon those that came before, and photoshop is the new (mechanical) apprentice.

I think it was Steven Wright who joked "the person who wrote the alphabet, wrote everything" We just rearrange the letters.

Freedom said...

I found this page by "googling" "collage, appropriation art theory" and am yet again amazed at how wonderful a system like the internet can work. I won't get into my art theory or analyze yours in this little comment box because it makes me feel cheap, but Ms. Rebbecca Jones, please know that you have formed some odd technological connection with a stranger. This was incredibly useful. One thought here: this free and entirely accessible internet seems to defy the authority of society's capitalistic hierarchical structures which generally place little or no value on unprofitable ventures, yet in the face of these conditions the internet continues to grow at an exponential pace, throwing a virtual wrench in the cogs of consumerism. (I know its a bit verbose, but it makes sense to me).

Anywho, just tell yourself it will be a good day.......and it will...Adios for now electronic world of friends and connections...