Arts·Art 101

This week, Professor Lise (not really a professor) explains appropriation (not the cultural kind)

Is appropriation bad? Good? Somewhere in the middle? And what does it actually mean?

Is appropriation bad? Good? Somewhere in the middle? And what does it actually mean?

Jeff Koons's sculpture Fait d'Hiver. (Ralph Orlowski / Stringer / Getty Images)

Recently, an artist named Jeff Koons got in some trouble. He got charged with using an idea from an ad campaign from the 1980s to create a sculpture called Fait d'Hiver. Whether you care about Jeff Koons or not, it brings up a contentious term we hear a lot about: appropriation.

I'm Professor Lise (not really a professor) and this is Art 101 (not really a class). We're here to go on a deep dive on an idea, an artwork or a story from the art world that's controversial, inexplicable or just plain weird.

Watch the video:

Art 101: Appropriation

4 years ago
Duration 3:07
In this week's Art 101, Professor Lise (not really a professor) takes us through appropriation (not the cultural kind) in art.

Appropriation is a word that's been part of the conversation for a while, often in the context of cultural appropriation. But we're going to concentrate on the word appropriation itself. Is appropriation bad? Good? Somewhere in the middle? And what does it actually mean?

To "appropriate" something means "to make or make use of without authority or right" and it's also a confusing topic, because it's about stealing, and ownership and originality.

In music, you might think of appropriation as an act of respect. Sampling, remixes, old songs used to play a role in new ones — and that doesn't always go over well, either. In visual art, it's been a tool — sometimes for good, sometimes for very critical reasons.

Remember the picture of Barack Obama that filled hearts with optimism (back in the days when we had optimism)? That image of Obama came from a photograph by Mannie Garcia. A street artist named Shepard Fairey took it, made it into a pop art-looking pencil sketch and put the word "hope" under it — and, according to some, created an image that helped Obama win the election. Was it borrowing, theft or paying respect?

Appropriation has been a powerful tool for artists to shock our system. Canadian artist collective General Idea looked at the famous sculpture Love by Robert Indiana, from the 1960s, and turned it into their painting AIDS in 1987 — an artwork that makes a visceral statement about love, fear and the AIDS epidemic.

Banksy has appropriated images from the news and popular culture to talk about poverty, injustice and the art world itself. That Banksy piece that shredded itself at an auction a little while ago? That was an image he's appropriated from himself. It used to be called Balloon Girl. Now, it's called Love is in the Bin.

And here's maybe the most powerful example from recent memory: remember Childish Gambino's "This is America" video? Donald Glover's poses go straight back to racist images of Jim Crow. He took on a despicable vision of a minstrel to enact this scathing critique of America in 2018.

So is appropriation a critical tool or a power move to steal somebody else's idea, culture or artwork?

Maybe it's both.

It's a confusing issue. It's about theft and ownership and originality. It's also been a powerful way for artists to make us think twice about things, provoke a critical point of view, maybe make us see things a new way, for a new future.

Here's the Mona Lisa with a moustache, because appropriation.

See you next time for more Art 101.