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Thoughts on Originality and Appropriation: Sherrie Levine’s Early Photographic Endeavors.

Javier Ortega-Alvarez

ARH3800 Art, Law and Controversy Dr. Preston McLane

2 “The constant is unequivocal…meaning is dependant upon the predetermined willingness of other players to play.” Robert C. Morgan “The pictures I make are really ghosts of ghosts, their relation to the original image is tertiary.” Sherrie Levine Order arrived in the form of appropriation; not necessarily perceived as corrupt or as a bringer of corruption, but as a practice that allowed for the development of art and its emergence from the dark during the Italian Renaissance. That period of time, highly regarded as a new beginning, was, contrary to common knowledge, not without its antecedents. To believe in the idea of creation out of nothing is erroneous, for even the classics had nature. The Italian rebirth from what was previously considered an age of darkness, which would be emulated in the late nineteenth century by the early modernists, created its own language and its own ideology that maintained as its banner imitation (appropriation). Consequently, this paper seeks to shed light on the issue of appropriation in the postmodern techniques of Sherrie Levine; specifically in her work after Edward Weston. In doing so, it will explore both the idea of appropriation as a traceable linear trajectory inherent to artistic discourse as well as the notion that Levine is an appropriator of appropriation itself and not necessarily of specific works of art. Also, it will shed light on the idea that mass culture has blurred the boundaries of originality because it has allowed a certain degree of readiness and accessibility for artistic conduits that had slowly made their way into the general consciousness have propagated widely. I. The word 'appropriation' arrived to the English language in the late fourteenth century to mean, etymologically, the taking of something as private property; to set aside for some purpose, be it either physical property or money, and to make such “thing” one’s own. The result is an exchange of ownership; the “having” of the object acting as transferable. But how do we appropriate ideas? How do we appropriate abstraction? Images are easy to appropriate due to their ready reproducibility. But what do we do when the idea intrinsically connected to that image is also appropriated? The beginnings of such questions can be traced to Renaissance Venice. The Venetian authorities gave ownership to the techniques, or rather the process, employed in the creation of certain objects. Such enterprise ameliorated the risk of having one's method's 'stolen', which fomented development and evolution of old techniques. An example of such an enterprise is Jacopo de Barbari’s Map of Venice (1500). The rights of production and distribution were granted to the patron of the work, an entrepreneur by the name of Anton Kolb. Such an edict only protected the process by which the map was created, as it required seven massive woodblocks for printing, and not yet the image itself. To analyze the protection of the image we must turn to Dürer, who appalled by the rampant copying of his engravings sought protection against such indiscriminate forgery of his art. However, not even then did the image as an intrinsic object gained full protection since appropriators of Dürer’s work were only required to erase Dürer’s signature and replace it with their own. Hence, for the time being, the image, the cornerstone of modern discourse, remained free for the taking. Appropriation during early Renaissance was seen thusly as a directional force that guided

3 art forward. The major exponents of the time copied and imitated (appropriated) the art of their fellow artists. The open trade routes between the north and the south of Europe created a dissemination of artistic ideas that had been mostly local prior to the beginning of the Renaissance. The emergence of the artist as a figure of importance, a figure to be coveted for its genius, began as a Renaissance idea. However, the artists of the time, or at least some, engaged in rampant appropriation that was not frowned upon because social norms had not yet been formed around the issue. Raphael, the genius revered by Anton Raphael Mengs in his canonical writings of 1762 that were to become Thoughts on Beauty and Taste in Painting, the greatest of all painters and possessor of the greatest part in artistic discourse, that of significance, was first and foremost an appropriator.1 Though his appropriations were not considered as such and were seen as mere copying, Raphael attained originality through ‘imitation’. 2 That type of imitation was seen as a form of interpretation that required a differentiation between the copy and the original.3 An example of such actions can be seen in Raphael’s Deposition (1507) (Fig. 2). Such painting is original because it has copied its predecessor, Perugino’s Lamentation (1495) (Fig. 1), and has added to it a more detailed modeling of the bodies and compositional scheme that evokes emotions. It goes without saying that Perugino’s image of the Lamentation was the first to ever exist and that consequently Raphael’s image is an appropriation of that Lamentation, but what is implied that such exact copying of images was not discouraged and was commonplace during the time. Sherrie Levine, on the other hand, acting on the same principle but rather more directly, was criticized for her straight appropriation of canons of photography, such as Edward Weston’s images. II. In subsequent years, the arts remained unchanged in that respect. A constant borrowing and imitation (appropriation), resulting in inherent originality continued for centuries until it exhausted itself. The birth of Modernism was ushered not by the death of imitation (appropriation), but rather by the death of imitation of the past. The demise of the styles of genius championed during the Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-classical era came not from the Moderns’ critical stance toward their predecessors; on the contrary, it came from the critical void created by incessant imitation. Thus the motto for the nascent Modernism was the destruction of everything old. The first to go was idea of the image as transferable. Representational imitation had no place in modern discourse and the Modernist elite shunned upon academicism as the fomenter of such idea. Modernists conceived themselves as lacking true precedent; “classics repeat, moderns should not.”4 Thus the idea of the artist as creator or giver of life was born. The “originality frenzy” that ensued would determine the direction and rhythm of the avant-garde, which sought, above all, its own glorification. Modernism, was truly a departure from earlier artistic ideas. Though I beg to differ that it grew ex nihilo, the Moderns reshaped the idea of imitation and what it meant in the artistic 1

Anton Raphael Mengs, “Thoughts on Beauty and Taste in Painting,” in Neoclassicism and Romanticism, 17501850: an Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. Lorenz Eitner (New Jersey: Harper and Row Publishers, 1989), 32. 2 Richard Shiff, “Originality,” in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Richard Shiff and Robert S. Nelson (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003), 149. 3 Ibid., 148. 4 Ibid.,150.

4 discourse. What “a picture is of” became a more substantial interpretation since “likeness” was “seen as a distracting vagary.”5 The agenda turned from simple imitation to critique and, consequently, to inquiry. The Moderns engaged the image as well as the viewer and the latter became as important as what it was being represented. No longer was the viewer left as a simple bystander, he became a byproduct of the enterprise. He was left with two distinct levels of identification; one operating under the idea of simply looking and the other of recognizing what was being depicted.6 Walter Benjamin, the champion of allegory and artistic aura, noted during Modernity’s old age, that in order for a work of art to be critical, it had to exert some change in the traditional structure and not merely produce a thematic critique of the structure. 7 That was the major difference between the Moderns and their preceding establishment. Critique took the forefront in art and became so intrinsically ingrained in discourse that an artist, once thought to have lost his/her critical edge, was deemed inconsequential. However, the sort of critique that rattles the art world and threw it down on its knees was not well accepted and always results in incessant criticism. Levine’s images are, according to Benjamin’s idea, a true example of such change in the traditional structure. However, the art history was no ready to accept such straightforwardness for it had become accustomed at seen art under a veil; a veil that was the product of the modern idea of originality. In its contemporary interpretation, originality has come to mean a sense of coming first, which was a major departure from the originality of the classics. 8 However, the Moderns did not do away with imitation (appropriation). They thwarted and reshaped, but imitation (appropriation) remained to cast its shadow on subsequent discourse. To take Monet as an example, his imitation (appropriation) of nature, though formally and stylistically different from that of the classics, remained linked to their process; and even though his art is analytical of the art structure, it casts a shadow of Monet’s self-awareness on the linear trajectory of art and his own involvement in it. The avant-garde worked under this same assumption and went as far as to consider itself as a birth from zero.9 It did not do away with the old, since it did not recognize it, it created itself from nothing, much in the same manner a god creates something. Douglas Crimp sets forward the argument of two different modes of appropriation. Michael Graves and Frank Gehry, contemporaneous to each other, worked under different notions of appropriation but nonetheless appropriated. The first appropriated an eclectic Art Deco style with flourishes of Beaux-Arts in the construction of the Portland Public Services Building (1977) (fig. 3). The latter appropriated laterally. Building from a pre-existing house (fig. 4), Gehry appropriates materials.10 The illusion created by such seeming appropriation was driven by a notion of originality that allowed each architect to resolve existing problems. Marcel Duchamp first explored the notion that originality becomes engorged by mass culture in his appropriations of mass culture objects that would become ready-mades. Duchamp who, true to the notion of the artist as a bearer of critical discourse, dismantled the previous notion of what it meant to own something, thus putting authorship to the test. 11 He should not be 5

Michael Baldwin et al., “Art History, Art Criticism and Explanation,” in Art History and its Methods: a Critical Anthology, ed. Eric Fernie (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995), 263. 6 Johanna Drucker, Theorizing Modernism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 144. 7 Ibid., 125. 8 Shiff, 145. 9 Rosalind Kraus, “Originality of the Avant-Garde: A Postmodern Repetition,” October, Vol. 18 (Autumn, 1981), 53, 10 Douglas Crimp, “Appropriating Appropriation,” in Theories of Contemporary Art, ed. Richard Hertz (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1985), 158. 11 Drucker, 119-120.

5 considered the first appropriator of images, or for that matter, ready-mades. On the contrary, Duchamp was successful because his attack aimed at the core of what constitutes originality. He “critiqued the process of artistic production and the mythic status of the artist”. 12 III. Along the path from the Renaissance to the present, the idea of image ownership slowly slipped into the general consciousness. The rise of the artist as creator of new things as true reflections of the surrounding world elevated him to the status of genius. However, I should point out that this type of genius differs from the scientific genius since the latter results in common gain and the first in personal glorification. The art that came to fruition during the second half of the twentieth Century was indelibly tainted by Duchamp’s actions. His actions are as much a result of mass culture as the artists that gained recognition during that second half of the century thought about their art. After Duchamp, no artist thought to meddle with the kind of action that had equal quantities of visual and idealistic appropriation. The arts were safe until the late 1970s, when a new school of artists gained recognition for its blatant appropriation. They came to be know as ‘Appropriation artists’, because their art, or rather the art they stole, was not cemented on the idea of artist as creator of new things; or at least so on the surface. They questioned the idea of what it means to own an image in a society trapped in the middle of mass culture wars. As part of this group, Sherrie Levine received the most critical response. She was criticized in her earlier career for appropriating (stealing) not only other’s images, but the images that were the pillars of the photographic medium. The images of Edward Weston and Walker Evans became Sherrie Levine’s; not in the sense of owning a book with such images, but in the sense that those images were now Sherrie Levine’s implying that she had taken those images. In explaining this, the photographs Levine exposed as her own were the product of her photographic enterprise. What the image depicted was not. However, before explaining the ideas behind such appropriations, I must raise a few points of awareness. Levine, first and foremost, did not consider herself as being part of the Appropriation school.13 She had grown up in a time that had accepted mass media and mass culture as the shaper of truth and as intrinsically interwoven in the general consciousness. Because she completed her studies in the Midwest, she was far removed from the artistic centers of the world and, together with most of the world, saw art only in magazines and books. Consequently, she became as far removed from the original as its reproduction. For her, the reproduction took the place of the original and became the original. 14 The interpolarity created is thusly a mass culture creation. The Moderns not having the problems brought about by mass media, imitated (appropriated) in the same manner as the classics. They had little construct of mass image as it would develop during the middle of the twentieth century, ushered in by the ability of photography to serve as a disseminator. To them, the image was still unique and the original remained untouched by the blatant reproduction that ensued in later times. Levine said then that one must recognize the influence of mass media as a shaper of mass 12

Ibid., 138. Jeanne Siegel, “After Sherrie Levine,” in Art Theory and Criticism: an Anthology of Formalist Avant-Garde, Contextualist and Post-Modernist Thought, ed. Sally Everett (Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc. Publishers, 1991), 271. 14 Robert C. Morgan, Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 131. 13

6 culture.15 The art of her time concerned itself with ideas previously allegorized by modernism; a modernism obscured by its formal preoccupations. 16 Also, working under the postmodern umbrella, Levine sought to uproot the modern idea of pluralism. Meaning that the postmodern artist worked outside the modern fantasy that “art is free, free of other discourses, institutions, free, above all, of history.”17 While this notion of detachment became engrained in art, the assumption of the viewer as an intact, autonomous and self-sufficient entity gained prevalence. 18 Of course the Moderns gave the viewer a higher degree of interaction and assigned them as byproducts of the artistic process. However, they cheated them of the truth since they made the viewer believe that the art, of which they were participants, was original. The mechanical process, or convergence of art and industry, that fomented the dissemination of art was a modern construct. While the earlier twentieth century avant-garde concerned itself with its role in the direction of art, it tried to conquer, unknowingly, mass culture. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Bauhaus teacher and instigator, did more to destroy originality than Levine ever did. His telephone paintings are removed from the original because there was never an original. Moholy-Nagy telephoned in a set of instructions to a printer that would serve as a temple to create paintings with no involvement from the artist (Fig. 5). Here, the artist takes a secondary role in the production of art, which consequently results in the loss of control. A loss that by itself, in Moholy-Nagy’s actions, is inconsequential, but that added to other losses results in the destruction of originality. The distance created between the original and the print is what becomes the proof of existence for that original; the notion that in someplace of the world, the print that is being depicted in the book has its original. That is what Levine explores and knowingly adds the camera as another element of distancing. Another mechanical reproduction comes into the forefront and the hand of the artist is relegated to another secondary role. Though the hand strikes the button that results in the photographic image, the hand does not create the image itself. That is Levine’s greatest achievement and at the same time greatest critique. She deploys the camera as a distancing apparatus. 19 The camera then acts as intermediary between the original, or the reproduction of the original, and Levine’s print (Fig. 7). Just as Moholy-Nagy did decades prior when instructing a printer to create an image based on numbers and layouts accessed through manufacturer catalogues, Levine creates a photograph that is original but that comes with presets and pre-existing layouts and colors, which in the pictures after Edward Weston, are themselves preset and pre-existing. Levine’s prints of Weston’s son Neil must be considered unoriginal if we were to operate under the rubric that Levine’s prints are unoriginal and appropriated. Weston is as big as an appropriator as Levine since he does not create anything new in the Modern sense of the word. Neil (1922) (Fig. 6) is simply an appropriation of the Greek torso and consequently is as linked to classicism as any Renaissance painting was for that matter. The symmetry and disposition of the body attains perfect harmony because the laws governing such symmetry were already in existence. There is nothing new about Weston’s image of his son, but one should consider that an appropriation of 15

Sherrie Levine and Howard Halle, “Fountain (After Duchamp: 1-6) La Fortune (After Man Ray: 1-6),” Grand Street, No. 42 (1992), 94, 16 Christopher Lyon, “The Handless Eye: Bernice Rose on Allegories of Modernism,” MoMA, No. 10 (Winter, 1992), 8, 17 Douglas Crimp, “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism,” October, Vol. 15 (Winter, 1980), 91, 18 Drucker, 143. 19 Morgan, 130.

7 an appropriation is itself negated. However, such is not the case. That negation is too constructed to pass as true. From the prior example, one can say that Monet’s authorship in creating his compositions doesn’t attain, or has ever been thought to, reach the same level of critique on originality as Levine’s because his paintings lacked the “transparent process”; his painting were always about him working under the greater linearity of art and served as a mode of self-perception. 20 The assumption that the work of art is inherently tied to its author is something that could be said about Monet’s works but that in Levine’s case does not hold since the work becomes more about the artist relation to society than the artist as intrinsically separated from society. It would be unfair that say that Levine’s photographs work outside of the same linearity that Monet worked under, but what is safe to say is that her pictures remain critical because they attack the concept of authentication. In better words, Levine “expropriates the appropriators.” 21 Also, the critical attack found in her earlier photographs was as much directed towards the notion of appropriation and originality as it was towards the hegemony of the white male artist. More so, the degradation of her images, in which one can see the mechanical process afore mentioned in the grain of the photographs, could serve to explain the recycled stage of the print from where her photographs were created; the scars of an endless reproduction geared towards mass culture that has removed the print from the original in context and visual grasp. Levine’s photographs are valuable in part due to their critical stance on appropriation, but are also valuable because “explanatory-type discourse has itself to be considered valueimpregnating.”22 Writing about Levine’s photographs is the proof that her actions exerted a change in the traditional structure championed by Benjamin. That is her single greatest achievement. The notion of originality has come a long way since the Renaissance and its in great need of a new meaning. It is true that the Moderns were right in shaping originality to mean the creation of something new. However, with a mass culture directed towards the democratization of images, the Modern construct of originality does not fit. The idea of originality and property was in need of a new meaning at the time Levine produced her photographic work. What it means to own an image now is not the same as it meant a 150 ago. Reproductions and the accessibility of images brought about by mass culture have made image ownership democratic. That is, it has made images part of the public domain. Sherrie Levine, as well as any other artist is a product of its time and produces works that are a true depiction of the society that surrounds them. Merit should be distributed based on critical stance and ingenuity rather than on the modern idea of creation.

20 21 22

Drucker, 138. Ibid., 139. Michael Baldwin, 263.

8 Works Cited Baldwin, Michael, Charles Harrison, and Mel Ramsden. “Art History, Art Criticism and Explanation.” In Art History and its Methods: a Critical Anthology , edited by Eric Fernie, 259-280. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995. Crimp, Douglas. “Appropriating Appropriation.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 157-166. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1985. Crimp, Douglas. “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism.” October, Vol. 15 (Winter, 1980), Drucker, Johanna. Theorizing Modernism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Kraus, Rosalind. “Originality of the Avant-Garde: A Postmodern Repetition.” October, Vol. 18 (Autumn, 1981), Levine, Sherrie, and Howard Halle. “Fountain (After Duchamp: 1-6) La Fortune (After Man Ray: 1-6).” Grand Street, No. 42 (1992), Lyon, Christopher. “The Handless Eye: Bernice Rose on Allegories of Modernism.” MoMA, No. 10 (Winter, 1992), Mengs, Anton R. “Thoughts on Beauty and Taste in Painting.” In Neoclassicism and Romanticism, 1750-1850: an Anthology of Sources and Documents , edited by Lorenz Eitner, 28-35. New Jersey: Harper and Row Publishers, 1989. Morgan, Robert C. Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Shiff, Richard. “Originality.” In Critical Terms for Art History, edited by Richard Shiff and Robert S. Nelson. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003. Siegel, Jeanne, “After Sherrie Levine.” In Art Theory and Criticism: an Anthology of Formalist Avant-Garde, Contextualist and Post-Modernist Thought, edited by Sally Everett, 264-272. Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc. Publishers, 1991.



Figure 1 Pietro Perugino Lamentation (1495)

Figure 2 Raphael Deposition (1507)


Figure 3 Michael Graves Portland Public Services Building (1977)

Figure 4 Frank Gehry Private Residence (1978)


Figure 5 Laszlo Moholy-Nagy Telefonbid Em 2 (1922)


Figure 6 Edward Weston Neil (1924)

Figure 7 Sherrie Levine Untitled (After Edward Weston) (1981)

Thoughts on Originality and Appropriation  

A survey of how originality changed throughout the ages and the modern idea of originality.

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