Every issue in the art world (especially in

Every year, fall in New York City
signifies a blooming of art shows, openings, and open studios. Wandering
through the galleries and studios early in fall, I could not help but wonder
about appropriation. With the overlapping mediums and platforms of art, most of
the displayed works felt familiar, reminding me of someone else’s work. I often
found that the when browsing through the works were made by different artists,
although the ideas and artworks were visually different from one another, their
approaches reminded me of certain artists. This recent experience raised questions
for me: What classifies a work of art as plagiarism or appropriation? In
my conversation with an established artist on the topic, he told me, “Steal it—don’t borrow it.
Make it your own”. How does one steal it, though? Moreover, how is borrowing classified?

To answer these questions, I address
issues related to advocacy in adaptation, as plagiarism has always been an
issue in the art world (especially in graphic design) and as the line between plagiarism
and appropriation has always been a blurred one. Still, it is unclear if this conflict
between appropriation and plagiarism is more of an issue today than in the past.
If so, I would argue that growing acknowledgement of authorship and copyright
would be the cause. Proper adaptation, including the crediting of sources,
could be the solution to the issue. Artlyst on December 2016 article defines
appropriation as the use of pre-existing objects or images with little or no
transformation applied to them and explains that inherent in our understanding of appropriation is the
concept that new work re-contextualizes whatever it borrowed to create that
work. However, in the art world, the word inspiration is haphazardly used as an excuse for appropriating another
person’s artwork. I wonder if appropriation
is  meant as another word for
inspiration.

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To clarify, I am not arguing
that shared methods and common techniques are acts of hijacking an idea.
Artists who work in visual media have always built on a tradition of
appropriation: painters can speak of the language of painting because of common
techniques or materials (Mullin, 2009, p. 105), and countless artists use
videos and sound platforms as art. In the past, when art was made under the
tradition of the apprentice system, apprentices learned by copying (replicating
or remastering) techniques and following the steps of a master. However, in an
age when every artwork seems to be a variation of a work by someone else in the
world, it is not clear what makes an artist the author of an artwork? In the
art world, some of today’s most famous and renowned artists, such as Jeff Koons
and Richard Prince, have based their artwork on remaking (appropriating)
existing works, and as a result, they have gone through numerous lawsuits with
the authors of those pieces. Creativity and originality are among the key
values of art and art education, but at the same time, some argue that
imitation and replication are also efficient, instinctive ways to learn. Is
imitation an efficient, instinctive way to learn without thinking? When it
comes to art, students are often taught that copying is unethical behavior,
yet, in the educational context, it is inarguable that better understanding can
be achieved through imitation and replication of others’ work.

In the documentary film Copyright Criminals, the director
Benjamin Franzen (2009) interviewed someone who stated that only lazy people
who have nothing to say let themselves be inspired by the past in this way. Perhaps
to state that all appropriation is no different from plagiarism is an overgeneralization,
but it is inarguable that appropriation is essentially unethical unless an artist
is following the appropriation art norm: practicing intentional appropriation
as a form of art. Given that plagiarism (using someone’s work without giving
him or her credit) is the moral issue at hand, I would
argue that adaptation
is the answer as adaptation, according to Julie Sanders (2006) is “casting a specific genre into another
genere’s mode—is an act of revision in itself” (p.18). Proper
appropriation should be considered adaptation, as this involves taking the
original idea and improves, internalizes, or materializes it—essentially making
the work one’s own.