What Does Appropriation Mean In Art?

Appropriation in art is a multifaceted and intricate subject that has ignited debates and controversies among artists, critics, and art enthusiasts.

This practice involves borrowing and reusing images, objects, or ideas to create new forms of art. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the depths of appropriation in art, its historical context, controversies, and the diverse perspectives surrounding it.

We will also provide examples and address frequently asked questions to offer a holistic understanding of this complex artistic concept.


What Does Appropriation Mean In Art

Definition of Appropriation in Art

Appropriation in art can be defined as the act of incorporating existing elements, such as images, objects, or ideas, from other artists' work into one's own creative process.

This practice involves repurposing existing material to generate new meaning or context. Appropriation is a potent means for artists to challenge conventional notions of originality and authorship, and it allows them to explore themes like culture, consumerism, and power dynamics.

Additionally, it provides a platform for artists to question established norms by reinterpreting familiar symbols.

One intriguing aspect of appropriation is the transformative nature of the process. When artists appropriate an image or object, they often alter it significantly to offer a fresh interpretation or infuse it with their unique style.

This transformation can range from subtle to extreme, depending on the artist's intent. Moreover, appropriation often involves amalgamating elements from diverse sources to create a wholly distinctive work of art that transcends its original context.

A notable example of appropriation is Richard Prince's "Untitled (Cowboy)" series. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Prince took photographs from Marlboro cigarette advertisements and re-photographed them without obtaining permission.

By eliminating the branding and placing the cowboy figures against plain backgrounds, he transformed these mass-produced images into iconic representations of American masculinity.

Historical Context of Appropriation in Art

To comprehend the significance of appropriation in art, it is crucial to consider its historical context. Appropriation extends beyond mere borrowing; it serves as a vehicle for reinterpretation and engagement with pre-existing works, thus adding new layers of meaning.

This practice challenges conventional notions of authorship and fosters a dialogue between artists across different eras.

In the 20th century, avant-garde movements like Dadaism and Surrealism harnessed appropriation to challenge traditional artistic norms. For instance, Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" appropriated everyday objects to provoke contemplation about the boundary between art and non-art.

Today, contemporary artists employ appropriation to address contemporary issues or comment on popular culture. By recontextualizing visual elements, they prompt viewers to reevaluate their assumptions and biases.

Appropriation, in this context, serves as an act of resistance against dominant narratives, providing a platform for marginalized perspectives to be heard.

Controversies and Criticisms Surrounding Appropriation in Art

To gain a deeper understanding of the controversies and criticisms surrounding appropriation in art, we must explore its impact on cultural appropriation and ethical considerations.

This exploration sheds light on how this complex issue influences the art world and society at large.

Effect on Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation in art is a contentious subject that raises ethical and representation concerns. The following table illustrates its impact:

Impact of Cultural Appropriation
- Devalues cultures
- Misrepresents cultures
- Perpetuates power imbalances
- Silences diverse voices
- Can harm the communities involved without acknowledging negative implications


A vivid example of this issue arose in 2017 during the Whitney Biennial exhibition when a painting of Emmett Till, an African American victim of racial violence, faced backlash.

Critics argued that the artwork was insensitive and exploitative of black suffering, highlighting the ethical challenges associated with appropriation.

Ethical Considerations

Exploring appropriation in art demands a critical examination of its ethical implications. Four key considerations are interlinked in this context: cultural ownership, power dynamics, creative integrity, and fair compensation. Navigating these considerations with care is essential.

To navigate these ethical considerations effectively, artists are advised to:

  1. Prioritize research to understand cultural practices and show respect for their origins.
  2. Seek collaboration with appropriated artists or communities, establishing relationships based on consent.
  3. Clearly attribute sources and origins to maintain creative integrity.
  4. Engage in open conversations about appropriation to promote mutual understanding.

These recommendations help foster an ethically conscious approach to appropriation, preserving creativity while respecting diverse voices.

Examples of Appropriation in Art

Appropriation in art encompasses the practice of incorporating existing images, ideas, or objects to create new art. This technique allows artists to contemplate originality, authorship, and cultural influence in their work. Below are some notable examples:

  1. Sherrie Levine's "Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)": This artwork questions notions of originality and gender politics by recreating Marcel Duchamp's urinal sculpture.

  2. Andy Warhol's "Campbell's Soup Cans": Warhol challenged traditional distinctions between high and low culture by transforming mass-produced soup cans into art.

  3. Barbara Kruger's "We Don't Need Another Hero": Kruger combines text and found images to critique media representation and question societal norms.

  4. Richard Prince's "Untitled (Cowboy)": As previously mentioned, Prince used Marlboro cigarette ads to explore masculinity, identity, and consumerism.

These artists exemplify the power and impact of appropriation in art. However, it is crucial for artists to be aware of ethical issues and to ensure they provide proper credit to the sources of their borrowed material.

This not only demonstrates respect for the original creators but also helps to foster innovation and avoid legal troubles related to copyright infringement.

Perspectives on Appropriation in Art

To gain a deeper understanding of the varied perspectives on appropriation in art, let's explore the contrasting viewpoints held by artists and critics. Artists' perspectives illuminate the intentions and creative possibilities of appropriation, while critics' perspectives provide insights into the ethical and cultural implications of this artistic practice.

Artists' Perspectives

Artists hold diverse outlooks on appropriation in art, as reflected in their attitudes and methods when engaging with this topic:

  • Some view appropriation as a means to pay homage to source material, acknowledging its influence and adding their unique creative twist.
  • Others perceive it as a potent tool for challenging societal norms and initiating discussions about cultural issues.
  • For many, appropriation represents an avenue to break free from traditional artistic forms and explore new possibilities.
  • Risk-takers view it as an opportunity to subvert established meanings and craft alternative interpretations.
  • Additionally, appropriation can democratize art by reshaping and recontextualizing it, making it more accessible to a broader audience.

However, there are also criticisms of appropriation, particularly regarding copyright infringement and cultural misappropriation. It is essential to consider these ethical concerns while engaging in appropriation.

Critics' Perspectives

Critics offer varying viewpoints on appropriation in art, emphasizing different aspects of this practice:

  • Cultural Critics: These critics stress the importance of cultural sensitivity when appropriating elements from different cultures. They advocate for avoiding stereotypes and respecting the traditions from which artists draw.

  • Formalist Critics: Formalist critics analyze the artistic merits of appropriated works. They examine how artists recontextualize borrowed images or ideas to create new meaning in their art.

  • Political Critics: Political critics delve into power dynamics, questioning whether appropriation reinforces existing systems or challenges dominant narratives. They highlight the potential for appropriation to perpetuate oppressive structures.

To ensure responsible appropriation practices, artists are encouraged to research and understand the cultures, history, and context of what they intend to appropriate.

Collaboration and consultation with members of the referenced culture can provide insights and lead to respectful artwork. Additionally, proper acknowledgment of sources and origins is crucial for maintaining creative integrity.


Artistic appropriation stands as a multifaceted and dynamic concept, involving the borrowing, reinterpretation, and transformation of existing artistic elements.

It serves as a platform for artists to engage with history, culture, and society, enabling them to build upon the foundations laid by previous generations.

Appropriation manifests in various forms across different art disciplines. Painters may incorporate iconic imagery while infusing it with their unique perspective. Sculptors repurpose found objects, and musicians sample snippets of existing songs.

Through appropriation, artists challenge traditional notions of originality and authorship, deconstruct established norms and narratives, and stimulate discussions about culture, identity, and art.

Consider the iconic artist Andy Warhol, who embraced commercial imagery and consumer culture to create his artworks. By elevating everyday objects to the status of art, he questioned the boundaries of artistic expression and transformed the contemporary art landscape.

In conclusion, appropriation in art offers a dynamic platform for artists to engage with history, culture, and society. By reusing existing elements, artists can challenge conventions, ignite debates, and propel artistic expression to new heights.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What does appropriation mean in art?

Appropriation in art refers to the practice of borrowing, copying, or using existing images, ideas, or styles from other artists, artworks, or cultural sources and incorporating them into a new artistic creation.

2. Is appropriation in art considered plagiarism?

While appropriation in art involves borrowing from other sources, it is not necessarily plagiarism. Plagiarism entails passing off someone else's work as one's own, whereas appropriation acknowledges the original source and transforms it into something new.

3. What is the purpose of appropriation in art?

Appropriation in art serves various purposes. It allows artists to comment on and critique existing works or cultural ideas, question notions of originality and authorship, challenge traditional artistic boundaries, and explore cultural, social, and political issues.

4. Are there ethical concerns associated with artistic appropriation?

Yes, ethical concerns can arise in the context of artistic appropriation. Artists should be mindful of cultural appropriation, which involves borrowing elements from marginalized cultures without proper understanding, respect, or permission. Sensitivity and cultural awareness are crucial when engaging in appropriation.

5. How does appropriation differ from homage or tribute?

Appropriation involves directly using or adapting existing artworks or cultural elements, whereas homage or tribute involves paying respect or homage to an artist or cultural icon without directly copying their work.

Appropriation often transforms the borrowed elements, while homage or tribute aims to honor or pay tribute to the original.

6. Can appropriation be protected by copyright?

Appropriation can often involve copyright infringement if the artist uses copyrighted material without permission.

However, in some cases, the use of copyrighted works can be considered fair use, especially if the artist significantly transforms the original or uses it for purposes such as commentary or parody.

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