The Controversy of Copyright: is Appropriation Art?

Due to today’s rapid flow of creative expression and erosion of privacy, riding the tide of an infinite amount of instantly accessible material, it is nearly impossible to create originally and organically, making appropriation a ubiquitous and prevalent form of art. Is appropriation corrupt and invalid, or can it bring together and combine different and coexisting contexts? Can copyright law be a beneficial act that protects artists, or is it a stale, confining mandate that inhibits creative freedom?

Artists were appropriating the art of other artists long before the genre became historically defined and prevalent in the 1970’s and 80’s. Picasso and his studies of Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” come to mind as a well-known example. Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp have also appropriated work by altering existing imagery, redefining and reinventing the found material. So why is it becoming increasingly controversial in the contemporary art field?

The age of technology I believe is the underlying reason for such controversy. An act was passed in 2000 stating, “No person shall avoid a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title”. In other words, for the first time in history, it isn’t the copyright violation that is the crime, but the creation of the technological tools that violate copyright. Our society relies so heavily on technology, it is nearly impossible to avoid infracting copyright law – especially in the art field.

Art historian David Joselit believes we are in a period now called “After Art.” Art today circles around the structured frame of a network – not only does it expand across the world like a capitalizing corporation, but it originates from the dense and entangled World Wide Web. Joselit argues “our assumption is that what artists do is produce new content from their imagination, but more and more in a Google-age, searching for content is more important. Artists have begun to think about the aesthetics of search […] how search becomes a kind of knowledge”. Artists, rather embracing the traditional, deliberate process of creating individual, singular pieces, are now collecting, aggregating and reformatting existing images and objects.

Is art appropriation and copyright breech just a consequence of a society where everything and anything is immediate and accessible? In one of my favorite novels The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Plath visualizes her life choices branching out in a fig tree of possibilities. She says “I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” The fig tree of possibilities has grown and expanded along the years, producing more rotten, blackened figs, yet nevertheless encouraging enquiry and discovery. Our attention spans have shortened, our options have swelled and multiplied, yet we still scour and scavenge for information rather than follow one branch to completion and accomplishment. I believe this is an elemental notion of American culture – we are so overwhelmed by the infinite amount of material and possibility available to us, we possess the unrealistic desire to obtain, do or know everything. We live in overload, in excess. The Fig Tree concept also drives the controversy of copyright law in the art field. “The art world is no longer about the unique, precious, singular work of art, but instead about these institutions of production, gentrification, entertainment, etc.” Creating singular works of art, following one branch – it is now impossible, futile. Because there is an unbounded, immeasurable amount of content that is more accessible than ever, trying different modes and approaches, meshing and combining styles of art, appropriating pieces to create new meaning – these methods are the new way to craft art. So, does copyright law help preserve individualism, conserve uniqueness, and promote “the one branch policy”, or does it hinder freedom, exploration, and creativity, trimming all different branches and outlets to a simple, certain, path?

As an art major, I understand Joselit’s and Plath’s concepts. I possess the overwhelming desire to search for and collect articles of inspiration for future art endeavors, needing to begin with a concrete, full-bodied entity rather than a filmy intangible idea. The wish to amass and compile and archive material is also prevalent in my art-making process. Whether it purely be personal style or a genuine consequence of our society today, I concur with Joselit and Plath.

“Bad Facts, Really Bad Law: Court Orders Google to Censor Controversial Video Based on Spurious Copyright Claim.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. N.p., 26 Feb. 2014.

“Image Ethics in the Digital Age.” Google Books. N.p., n.d.

In: Proc. Of 1995 Ieee Workshop On Nonlinear Signal And Image Processing (Neos Marmaras, Greece, June 20-22, 1995). Towards Robust and Hidden Image Copyright Labeling (n.d.): n. pag.

Kennedy, Randy. “Apropos Appropriation.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 Dec. 2011..

Kennedy, Randy. “If the Copy Is an Artwork, Then What’s the Original?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 Dec. 2007.

“UK Copyright Amendment Provokes Controversy in the Art and Design World.” Center for Art Law. N.p., 16 July 2015.

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Walter Benjamin. N.p., n.d.