November 9, 2007

(In)Appropriate Behavior

If the process of appropriation has its roots in history, its narrative here will begin with the readymade, which represents its first conceptualized manifestation, considered in relation to the history of art. When Duchamp exhibits a manufactured object (a bottle rack, a urinal, a snow shovel) as a work of the mind, he shifts the problematic of the “creative process,” emphasizing the artist’s gaze brought to bear on an object instead of manual skill. He asserts that the act of choosing is enough to establish the artistic process, just as the act of fabricating, painting, or sculpting does: to give a new idea to an object is already production. Duchamp thereby completes the definition of the term creation: to create is to insert an object into a new scenario, to consider it a character in a narrative.(1)

Thus, Nicolas Bourriaud joins the growing legions of critics who continue to solidify Duchamp’s impact on art, especially conceptual art, nearly 100 years after his first readymades appeared. Bourriaud also neatly unpacks a key theoretical component of appropriation: the insertion of an object into a new scenario “relocates” both the object and its context. It is this equivalence of “choosing” and “fabricating” that echoes an idea put forth by Walter Benjamin, that artistic skill was “incidental” to the “exhibition value” of art objects.(2) Benjamin becomes even more relevant when we consider photography in relation to appropriation but first let us look at the artistic practice of Richard Pettibone and Sturtevant (“those eternal copyists”).

The more obsessive of the two painters is Pettibone. His miniscule copies of iconic artworks by Brancusi, Duchamp, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Ed Ruscha, Frank Stella and Warhol are meticulous beyond belief, often painted at the “exact size of their reproductions in Artforum.”(3) If we were to critique the appropriationist as a throw-back to the older tradition of developing one’s skill as a painter through “copying” the iconic artworks of the masters, then we might judge Pettibone guilty as charged. Yet the scale of his copies ought to at least introduce the possibility that his real concern might be the original “site” of the reproductions within the pages of the art magazine. As an institution, the art magazine provides authentication through reproduction, as if to say, “This is art because we reproduced it and reviewed it.” We might also speculate upon possible connections between Pettibone’s magazine-scaled images with Dan Graham’s exploration of “site” in his photo-text piece, Homes for America, of 1965. Particularly with regard to Graham’s institutional critique of art magazines and their association to reproduction, as “the work shown in galleries depends on photographic reproduction for its value in the media.”(4)

The recalcitrant Sturtevant is a “tougher” nut to crack. Exasperatingly, she denies that she “appropriates” the work of others: “The brutal truth of the work is that it is not copying.”(5) This could clearly be read as defensive, perhaps even evasive. Truly, if Sturtevant’s work is “an apparent content being denied”(6) then its essence should be a disavowal of originality and authenticity. However, making or, more accurately, “taking” an existing artwork and calling it your own does not negate the original artist’s work. If she is evincing her work as a denial of authenticity in general, it is difficult to recognize in the face of her obsessive attention to details within the individual “copies.” We might suspend our disbelief in the face of clever theorizing, however, Sturtevant’s smoke-screen becomes even more cloying when she describes her own obsessive craftsmanship:

“Photographs are not taken and catalogues used only to check size and scale. The work is done predominantly from memory, using the same techniques [as the artists in question], making the same errors and thus coming out in the same place.”(7)

Hard to believe? It is intriguing that Sturtevant introduces the catalogue as a reference point “to check,” and yet she emphasizes her “memory” of the appropriated image as to how the work is “done.” Again, like Pettibone, this is misrecognition of the originary power of appropriation as proposed by Duchamp, and mistakenly revalues the “hand of the artist” as the qualifier of “what makes good art.”

Returning to photography and Benjamin’s thoughts on “mechanical reproduction,” we can see that the mechanics of reproduction virtually guarantee a loss of that mystical “aura” that inhabits an original artwork. Continued repetition of an image through the process of photography eventually “empties” an image of meaning and makes photography the ideal vehicle for appropriation, as Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and Louise Lawler have discovered. Photography’s establishment of a false “presence” through reproduction clearly reinforces photography’s preference as the “medium” of choice for artists who intend to investigate the “absence” of originality in either artworks or art itself.

Image: Four Jackies (After Warhol), © Copyright by Richard Pettibone.


1. Bourriaud, Nicolas. Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay, New York, 2000, 19

2. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, New York, 1969, 225.

3. Princenthal, Nancy. “Look Again: Surveying Richard Pettibone,” Art in America, March 2006, 135.

4. Graham, Dan. “My Works for Magazine Pages: A History of Conceptual Art,” Dan Graham, Perth, 1985, 13.

5. Princenthal, Nancy. “The Other Truth,” Art in America, December 2005, 103.

6. Blistene, Bernard. “Label Elaine,” The Brutal Truth, Frankfurt, 2004, 37.

7. Hainley, Bruce. “Erase and Rewind,” Frieze 53, June-August 2000, 85.

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