Appropriating and Being Appropriated: Art and Artists at the Margins

Screenshot compilation of Instagrams following the process of appropriation and exploitation. Taken from @audreywollen.

While the internet has created vast opportunity for marginalized artists as an alternate space, it has created particular difficulties for artists as well. With the movement of artists to online platforms such as YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, etc. in place of galleries and preexisting methods of cultural distribution, art is becoming less and less defined through artistic institutions. Art is distributed readily online; much of contemporary art is made exclusively in a digital format. Thus, with the loss of the Benjaminian aura, and of both cult value and gallery value, the classifications of art have evolved. Art must now be self-consciously deliberate to be art; perhaps even more importantly, an artist must be self-consciously deliberate to be an artist. Even further, an already existing mindset within the art world has become amplified: that if you’re not deliberate, then your aesthetic is up for grabs. The new question is how that deliberation must be conveyed if outside the institution of art, leading us to ask, what has become the changed—and still changing—role of the artist at the margins of the art world?

Facebook groups like coolfreaks.jpg and post aesthetics , both of which many Vassar students are a part, act as image sharing boards of this content for populations of overwhelmingly young liberal arts students. Many of the images are either memes mocking or direct screenshots of lowbrow, low-res aesthetics; imagine the images and messages shared by your oldest, most distant relative on Facebook and you’ll have a good mental image. The students of coolfreaks.jpg and post aesthetics seem to have taken a cue from artist Marshall Shenk, who directly borrowed aesthetics of conspiracy image macros for his project Theorist, many of which works were then redistributed among the right-wing networks that had inspired them. Shenk here goes one step further than the aforementioned Facebook groups one must request to join: he not only appropriates the work of the outsider to create his own, but he also turns their act of viewing his work into part of the project as well. There is a an immense amount of class anxiety in these appropriative acts, concerning the need to project signs of belonging to an “elite” high culture class; in the absence of conspicuous wealth, young students and artists must set themselves apart through the display of taste, something done most easily through the setting apart of oneself from the “masses.”

Screenshot taken from post aesthetics ridiculing the idea of a “middle class aesthetic”

Screenshot taken from post aesthetics ridiculing the idea of a “middle class aesthetic”


In a 2014 interview with i-D , artist Audrey Wollen very boldly condemns Richard Prince for his use of her art—shared on her Instagram—on his own art Instagram. As Prince’s last major project was paintings of Instagrams shared by others—often naked or sexualized female artists—her criticism was much needed. His art, she argues, crosses over from appropriative to exploitative because he holds a position of power. Her argument, however, becomes problematic when she says, “I really was just a photograph of a naked girl, up for grabs,” and that he had erased her “authorship.” She sets herself apart here from other naked girls online because of her deliberate authorship, implying that part of the problem of his appropriation arises from the fact that she is using her naked body to a theoretical and artistic end. Had he used a photo taken from porn, or shared simply for the sake of sharing, or even shared for the sake of gaining Instagram followers and popularity, would the complaint have been the same?

Artist Mary Bond shares a similar sentiment in her artist’s statement “Girlcore.” In it, she writes, “Objectifying oneself can be an empowering thing, but only if it is done with a certain level of self-awareness. It’s like comparing a stripper who strips for monetary compensation and need to a stripper who strips as performance art.” Though I do believe these artists are trying to set up an important distinction between willingly displaying one’s own body and doing so out of either exploitation or necessity—as these statements are not accompanied by a more nuanced explanation of this distinction—I worry they can be construed as condemning. This misconstruction is particularly harmful as the bodies of those who may be displaying out of necessity—sex workers, for example—are already exploited by artists. Ryder Ripp’s Art Whore, in which he paid Craigslist sex workers to create art for him, a process which he filmed, comes specifically to mind. That the project was created in the Ace Hotel as part of their Artist-in-Residence program, in which artists are given a room for the night and $50 for art supplies, makes the involvement of sex workers particularly perturbing. Adding to this is his utter unwillingness to even consider how his acts may have been exploitative and privileged ignorance of exploitation: on a now deleted Facebook status, he wrote, “How is it exploitative? I paid her to draw stuff. Ace Hotel not paying me to make shit is more of an exploitation.”

Artists continuously either appropriate the indeliberate “lowbrow,” or even actively exploit working bodies, gaining cultural capital on the backs of those without it, and ensuring they will not have access to it by labeling these bodies as “outsiders” through their indeliberate appearance in artwork. They become usable media, rather than people. Ripps’ more recent controversial project, Ho, utilizes the images of, not sex workers, but of Adrianne Ho, a model and Instagram star. Ho deliberately places her body and images on display, but it seems even this level of deliberation is not enough, as Ripps justifies his appropriation of her image by stating that she is creating a brand—in implied opposition to art—and already distorts her own image to fit around other brands. With sentiments like this, it’s no wonder artists like Wollen and Bond who distribute their work online have to create a distinction between their work and the exploited bodies of other women, but one also has to ask: is this in order to protect those exploited, or to distance themselves from them?

Though in many ways, the concepts of deliberation, agency, and appropriation in art are not new, something has changed. Writes art historian Meyer Schapiro in his 1937 essay “Nature of Abstract Art,” “If today an abstract painter seems to draw like a child or a madman, it is not because he is childish or mad…[T]he painter opens the field to suggestions of his repressed interior life. But the painter’s manipulation of his fantasy must differ from the child’s or psychopath’s in so far as the act of designing is his chief occupation and the conscious source of his human worth.” Though we’ve long had deliberation as a criterion for the category of art, what has changed is the weight with which the art world and its actors demand deliberation, and who is making these demands. Prior to Primitivism, indigenous art was not even considered art; it was kept out on an institutional level. Post Primitivism, it was given a category—“primitive art”—though it still stood apart from appropriative Primitivist art, and was afforded a certain amount of legitimacy at least in terms of cultural study. The same occurred with “outsider art.” Art, as a canon and institution, was closed enough that it was able to label actors outside of it as “artists,” as long as they included a qualifier denoting their outsider-ness, without threatening the institution. The difference is that today, the institution is less closed, and its boundaries are more blurred than ever. The onus of definition, then, is falling upon those artists already at the margins—young people, female artists, working class artists, etc.

Can we blame people in all cases of art redefinition and reappropriation, however? Or is it necessary for emerging artists to gain cultural capital by any means necessary? Bond and Wollen are both incredible artists and theorists, particularly in their advancement of female agency and visibility within the art world. Their statements are problematic because they are symptomatic; they are making patriarchal bargains, which still puts the patriarchy forcing them to bargain at the root of the problem. But when Ryder Ripps, in a work like Art Whore, gains capital on both the image and the artwork of sex workers, he is saying that both are for sale for a low price, making it even harder for female artists to assert that their work, particularly work focused on their bodies, is legitimate and not open for appropriation.

If young artists are denied access into artistic institutions, and young female artists are still seen as bodies rather than creators, it is unfair to blame them for the class anxiety they experience as a result. Online artists do not readily make money for their work, while artists like Richard Prince sell reappropriated prints for tens of thousands of dollars. It is important that we do not blame those already exploited by the system for trying to reach for any capital they can gain through patriarchal bargain; these examples are meant not to condemn the individual artists, but the system creating these conditions for them as a whole. As the ability to upload images and videos online has extended to (most) everyone, the image itself is no longer seen necessarily as art. It has thus become necessary for artists at the margins of the art institution to overly emphasize the artistic value of their work, setting it apart from other images in hopes to disallow their appropriation. While understandable, it is also lamentable the chasms this creates within marginalized communities, but it is important that the onus of responsibility to fix this not be put on those already marginalized whilst ignoring the complicity of the very nature of the art institution as a whole.

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