Help Desk

Help Desk: Appropriation and Appropriateness

Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is cosponsored by

If you were intrigued by last week’s Q&A regarding negative reviews, check out this well-argued example on Art Practical.

I’ve been noticing recently that there is a lot of portrait photography based off of or inspired by paintings, often times without anything changed or altered. What is accomplished by this? What new ideas can copying an existing piece of art bring to the table? I was thinking of Hendrick Kerstens’ series of his daughter based off of Flemish Dutch paintings, or perhaps Cindy Sherman’s history portraits.

Kerstens’ work is an interesting example. He uses his daughter as a model to restage 17thcentury Flemish paintings, but I would argue that even though there is an obvious reference, quite a lot is changed. Despite the similarities in the model, costumes, light, poses, and backgrounds to traditional Flemish painting, Kersten wraps his daughter’s hair in contemporary items such as bath towels, dinner napkins, toilet paper, and plastic shopping bags. Although these are arranged to reference the head coverings worn by Vermeer’s models, it’s clear that the works are photographs and a product of our age. The same goes for Nina Katchadourian’s recent series of photographs taken in airplane lavatories during long-haul flights. Her photographs appropriate or interpret the style of Old Master paintings without actually copying them verbatim—that’s a blow-up neck pillow she’s got on her head.

Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portrait in the Flemish Style #18-19, 2011. C-print, edition of 8, diptych: 7.157 x 6 inches each

But even ignoring the props that place these photographs in modern times, can we really say that little has been changed or altered in the making of these works? I don’t believe so. First, there is the change of medium from painting to photography. Photography, of course, has an implied “truth value” that painting lacks. It’s also flat and reproducible, which means that an editioned photo is quite removed from the implicit singularity and “the mark of the hand” of a painting. Each medium has its own message and charge, so to substitute one for the other alters the work substantially.

Second, there is the change in authorship. A simple change in the name associated with the creation of an object means a lot these days. Like it or not, the way an artwork is considered and evaluated depends a lot on the background information available. Knowing the name of the creator, the medium, and the date helps us situate the work within the trajectory of art history, popular culture, the artist’s oeuvre, and so on.

There is a continuum of copying and appropriation, a spectrum along which most art arguably falls. Though there is a long-standing myth that artwork is something inherently original, one could contend that there are no new forms—but there are new ideas. To take an extreme example, consider the somewhat controversial decision by Sherrie Levine in 1980 to re-photograph pictures from an exhibition catalogue of Walker Evans’ work and present them, unaltered, as her own work. In this case, not even the medium was changed because the originals were photographs. However, in (re)photographing these pictures, Levine’s action spoke volumes about how images operate in our culture, and it is her decision and action that is the central content of the work, not necessarily the images themselves. In short, when the artist copies something, she interferes with the power held by the original.

Installation view of Nina Katchadourian’s solo exhibition “Seat Assignment” at Catharine Clark Gallery, 2012

The same can be said for Cindy Sherman, though the conceptual basis for her work is quite different from Levine’s. Some of Sherman’s photographs resemble Old Master paintings but it is difficult to imagine anyone being deceived. The resemblance is not a case of plagiarism, but an art historical quotation that invokes the authoritative aura of canonical works that she incorporates as part of the content of her work. What does it bring to the table? Only the very fundamental question of how we make, adopt, receive, and value images, both historical and contemporary.

This is by no means a complete answer to your question because reference, quotation, excerptation, and reframing—appropriation’s main actions—are intrinsically complex. I refer you, instead, to the essays in the exhibition catalog The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984 and an additional essay by Jan Verwoert, “Apropos Appropriation: Why Stealing Images Today Feels Different,” both of which should serve to further enlighten you if you chose to pursue this inquiry. For a last thought, I leave you with this quote by artist Ben Kinmont, recently posted on SFMOMA’s Open Space blog by Joseph del Pesco:

“From musical compositions to recipes to instruction pieces, people have been sharing their making, meaning, and authorship with others. When a pianist follows a score, a chef cooks a dish, or a person follows an instruction piece, variations and interpretations are made and shared. In this way a sound, a taste, or an idea is passed on, appreciated, and yet also changed by this new maker, perhaps with new instruments and ingredients and within a new context. Whether the others involved are an audience, those around the table, or visitors to a museum, this experience takes on a broader meaning due to its place in a progression, an atemporal community of makers connected through their consideration of a given idea. But by acknowledging these other composers, chefs, and artists who have worked with the idea before, we can see authorship as residing in a multitude of makers and participants, and perhaps from this loosening of the idea of the single author, we can better get to the content of the work at hand. Perhaps this will make it is easier to say, sit back and enjoy the show, enjoy the meal, enjoy the idea we are passing on.”

Hendrik Kerstens, Red Rabbit IV, (n.d.). Limited edition C-type print, 80 x 100 cm.

I work at a museum space and am always unsure of the best way to advise parents that there may be potentially inappropriate work on view. I certainly don’t want to impose my opinions about what is appropriate on others, but I also am not keen to field angry comments. Any thoughts on the best way to broach this difficult subject?

My friend Melisa, who homeschooled her three children and took them to countless museum exhibits, said, “What a great question! I think most parents would appreciate knowing beforehand about potentially challenging works. Ideally the information would be available well before the family shows up at the door (something included in the exhibit’s web page?) so parents can make an informed decision about the appropriateness of the material and museum employees aren’t put in an awkward situation.”

Like Melisa, I don’t understand why your employer is making this your problem. Isn’t it the job of the institution to gently remind people that culture is a rowdy, sometimes unseemly arena? While I absolutely loathe the idea of censorship, I can understand why parents would want to be informed about potential issues that might arise from, say, taking a seven-year-old to see a Paul McCarthy exhibit.

Paul McCarthy, installation view of ‘Pig Island’, Fondazione Nicola Trussardi, Milan, Italy, 2010

Please bring this up with your superiors, using any prior interactions you’ve had with parents as concrete examples. If they still prefer to leave this dilemma in your lap instead of crafting institution-wide guidelines, ask them exactly what they would like you to say to parents, either in advance of their viewing or when you are being shouted at later. If they still shrug and leave it entirely up to your discretion, and you feel you must say something in advance, you can avoid the pitfalls of imposing your opinions by sticking to the facts. There’s no need for you to indulge in the verbal tics that often accompany discomfort (“So, like, I think you might want to know that this show has some S-E-X stuff in it that you might not want the kids to see, like there’s a video with some, um, nuns and stuff, and this thing with a giraffe…”). Instead, “There is nudity (sexual content, profanity, etc.) in this exhibition,” said mildly with a neutral expression as you’re taking someone’s ticket, can convey all that’s necessary. Yikes. Good luck.

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