Some notes on the appropriation of art

Art is a constant act of borrowing. To create new things, an artist has to get inspired by something or someone. Even if it is an involuntary act, in an artist’s work there is always a high chance that people can see influences from other artists. For instance, if a director watches a movie and there is a shot or a camera movement particularly intriguing, it is likely that he will use them in his films, even if his main intention is not to copy another person’s work. However, sometimes it happens that some people’s work is a copy of another.  This situation raises an ambiguous topic – where is the line drawn between acceptable and non-acceptable appropriation?

The article Culture Jamming, Activism and the Art Cultural Resistance, written by Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Frank (2017), states that “appropriation has become widely accepted as an artistic practice” (186). An example of this acceptance is the emergence of art movements that rely on appropriation, such as Pop Art. This movement used popular imagery to critique the mass culture society. Andy Warhol, one of the biggest representatives of this art movement, recreated excessive images – like Marilyn Monroe’s portrait or Campbell’s soup cans – to trivialize and tire people of these pop symbols.

This art movement was accepted by society even though it was appropriating images that did not belong to the artists. However, in 2008, artist Shepard Fairey used a photograph of Barack Obama taken by Mannie Garcia, which was very controversial through people. Just like in Pop Art, Fairey used Obama’s image and created a stylized portrait of him with blue, red and yellow colors with the word “Progress” written on it. This poster had a big role in the presidential elections of that year, where Obama was one of the front-runners. Nonetheless, it was an aim of harsh critiques due to its appropriation of Garcia’s photograph, even though it had its artistic intervention. Even the artist himself says, “I’m not trying to steal people’s images and exploit them… I feel like anything I make, I’m adding new value that doesn’t usurp the value of the original” (196). Fairey’s intentions may have been positive to cause an impact in the elections and show his support to Obama. Indeed, this negative feedback on his work could have been avoided. Later, after Fairey was sued for his appropriation without any copyrights, the photographer Garcia said, as it is mentioned in the article, “I’m so proud of the photograph and that Fairey did what he did artistically with it, and the effects it’s had.” (197). This results in the reflection of what could have been done to avoid appropriation.Obama

In this case, if Fairey had previously reached out to Garcia and explained his ideas and the positive impact he believed it would have, there would probably be a high chance of negotiation to give him the copyrights. Also, it would be an essential way to make Garcia feel involved in the project, considering his original work is being used. Instead, Fairey used the photograph and did not mention the original author. It is hard to understand whether his intentions were positive or if he thought no one would notice he was using another person’s work, even though all his previous works are also based on appropriation – such as the famous Obey poster. This example of appropriation can be debated in the sense that it can be interpreted as an original artistic practice or as an act of stealing or exploitation. Fairey certainly altered the original photograph and had his creative intervention, but at the same time, he used it for his benefit and did not give the right credits. If someone wants to use someone else’s work, the author should always be involved in the process. It is his voice that is being used and should not be distorted. If the author accompanies the process of the new art piece that it is being made based on its work, there is also a feeling of respect for the artists and their work. The article Culture Jamming also mentions that “even those who see copyright law as being intrusive may see it as also necessary, especially when it comes to their own works” (196). An artist invests a lot of his time and dedication in his work, so it is not fair when other people appropriate it without the artist’s consent in the first place. It is important to communicate and include the original voice.

This issue of inclusion also relates to cultural appropriation in art. Besides appropriating other people’s work, it is also common to see the appropriation of different cultures or the lack of representation of it. The article My Black Death written by Arthur Jafa (2015) talks about this problem. Other cultures have been inspiring notable artists for years, for instance, Pablo Picasso. The African sculptural artifacts inspired the artist, being that “Cubism is the direct transposition of these spacial implications one the practice of western painting” (3). Picasso is one of the biggest pioneers of this art movement, which consists in creating distorted images with geometric shapes and without the use of perspective, something that is new in painting and is one of the kickoffs of abstractionism. The piece Demoiselles d’Avignon is one of the biggest examples of this influence.


At first sight, the African aesthetics are obvious and with further research, this assumption is confirmed. Picasso used photographs taken by Edmond Fortier and deformed them in the process of the canvas. In this case, the biggest controversial issue is not his appropriation of the photograph, considering Picasso’s approach is completely different and purely artistic. When confronted with the source of his inspiration, Picasso answered, as the article points, “People are always talking about the influence the Negroes had on me. What about it? We all loved the fetishes”. The artist did not look at his inspiration has a culture and human beings exactly like him but with a different color. Instead, he talked about them as a fetish. He appropriated his costumes and traditions in his art not because he admired them but just because it was different. If an artist finds a culture particularly intriguing and that matter is reflected in his work, it is understandable. However, if the other culture is used due to a “fetish,” it is offensive. It is a romanticizing of different cultures, which leads to “the ongoing struggle against the acceptance of the ’other,’ and its full humanity”. The inclusion of black people in art has been vigorously debated for a long time. One of the most significant examples of this situation is the Hollywood movies.

2001The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey directed by Stanley Kubrick is an example of “the absence of both Black people and/or any apparent sign of Blackness” (Jafa: 14). The movie is a critique of the general anxiety played out in science fiction movies when it comes to the portrayal of big black spaces. For instance, the scene set in the black space that has the presence of white starships flying from one white star to another white star, to avoid the pure blackness. Even though the representation of the black community in the cinema industry is getting bigger, there are still occasions where roles of black actors are being played by Caucasian actors, such as Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart, where the real life character is an Afro-Chinese-Cuban descent.AngelinaJolie

This casting practice in which Caucasian actors are cast in other ethnicities roles is designated whitewashing. It does not only happen with black characters but also from other races. It is very common Latino or Asian characters to be played by Caucasian actors. In the article Why is Hollywood Still Casting White Actors in Asian Roles? written by Jennifer de Guzman (2016: 3), it claims “white filmmakers don’t think of Asian people as being “relatable.” If a movie pretends to be based on true events, it should try to be as accurate as possible to reality, especially when it comes to the representation of people. The movie is telling someone’s story, and that should not be taken away from them. For example, “in the novel The Martian, the NASA scientist Mindy Park is Korean American” (Guzman, 2016: 3). In the movie adaption, Mackenzie Davis, a Caucasian actress, plays this character. By doing this, even though the movie is not based on true events but a novel, it is an offense to the people of certain ethnicity. Guzman says, “it’s a mindset that diminishes Asian people’s humanity”. MartianThis sends the message that the life stories of people who are not Caucasian do not matter as much as the others and are not worth being represented in cinema, which is a wrong way of thinking.

This lack of representativeness of different ethnicities is not the only problem in Hollywood. It also happens with gender. It is common to see cisgender actors playing transgender roles. However, this is not the only concern. There is also a lack of representation of the community off-screen in roles such as writers, producers, directors and other film crew roles. The article Expanding Trans Media Representation: Why Transgender Actors Should be Cast in Cisgender Roles written by Julia Serano (2016) gives examples of movies where this happens. For example, in the movie Dallas Buyers Club directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the cisgender actor Jared Leto was cast in a transgender role and won an academy award.

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club”

The trans community found his performance to be “over the top, inauthentic, and/or contributing to transgender stereotypes”. This could have been avoided with the obvious solution: cast a transgender actor to play this role. However, if there were a representation of trans in off-screen roles, it would also be a solution. This way, the actor could have had the proper guidance for his performance and be more authentic and relatable. Although it is important to have this representation especially when the movie is about transgender characters, trans people should always be included and don’t have their gender define their job.

It is normal and acceptable to have similarities of someone else’s works or to approach it in a completely different way, like Picasso did with Demoiselles d’Avignon. However, the artist should always keep in mind that stealing someone else’s work and make it their own is not art. If an artist wants to use another person’s work should always try to find a way to get in contact with that person or the representative of the piece (for instance, when the author is not alive). This way, it is avoided problems with the copyright law – that sometimes is not even from the artist concern but from the company that owns the rights of the piece and makes a profit out of it. Art should be a way to unite people through its creative side and not tear them apart.

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