Ever since Marcel Duchamp signed a (thankfully, factory-fresh) urinal ‘R.Mutt’ and presented it at the 1917 Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in New York (illustrated at left), art has been as much about ideas as it has been about the objects that artists make. For many contemporary artists, the object itself is a by-product of the artistic process, and far less important, if not virtually irrelevant, to the action of making the artwork which for many artists is the principal artistic activity.
Artists like Sam Leach, whose Wynne prize-winning painting is attracting such controversy at the moment, appropriate other artists’ imagery under the very reasonable assumption that there is nothing new under the sun, and that the premise of ‘originality’ is something of a furphy in the world of art. For example, renowned American artist Sherrie Levine uses her own camera to take photos of famous works of art, and then signs and exhibits them as her own. Her best known series, one of which I reproduce below, is after the photographs of Depression-era photographer, Walker Evans. Levine took her photos from a book in which the Evans photos were reproduced. So, she printed a photo she had taken from a print of a photo in a book which was printed from a photo of a photo… see what she’s doing there with your idea of what is original?
The most exciting contemporary artists make works of art that are a whole lot more than simply technically proficient visual representations of something else. After all, we’ve got photography to do that these days. Appropriation challenges our preconceptions about originality – what does an artist’s ‘signature’ really mean? For example – when Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986 by a group calling itself the Australian Cultural Terrorists, Juan Davila painted a perfect replica of the painting and presented it to the NGV. He wrote a letter to the gallery to accompany the painting, saying that he was presenting it ‘to allow you to have the same masterpiece at no cost’ and so that the gallery could ‘direct your attention to contemporary art in Australia and the plight of young artists, ignored for so long by your gallery.’ Needless to say, the NGV declined Davila’s gracious offer and, much to the gallery’s relief, the painting was returned intact.
The question of arts funding aside, it cuts to the heart of one of the issues that artists who appropriate other artists’ imagery have been wrestling with for decades – if it were an exact replica of Picasso’s painting, how would it diminish an audience’s experience if they were viewing the replica rather than the original? What is it that differentiates one from the other? If art really is about visual experiences, why should it matter if you stand in front of a faithful copy of a famous painting? In a physical sense, the object you are looking at differs in no way from the original. One of the ideas that these artists are playing with is that the very idea of the ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ object is perpetuated simply because it serves the market’s best interests. For various reasons, I don’t totally agree with this – humankind’s propensity for worshipping genius as embodied in art objects goes back much further than that – but that’s for another day.
In short – the argument that Sam Leach should be stripped of his prize because he has ‘copied’ another artist’s work is, to be polite, painfully simplistic (although, see yesterday’s post for my ponderings on the question of copyright, which is another issue altogether). It does still leave open the question I raised about whether or not he was eligible to enter the competition under the terms of the prize, however. But that’s one for the AGNSW trustees to figure out.