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Appropriation in art – is it appropriate, or stealing?

It was once said “talent creates, genius steals”. But who said this, we aren’t 100 per cent sure. A quick Google search informs us that it could have been Oscar Wilde, T.S Elliot or even Picasso. To be honest though, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the question of whether using someone else’s imagery, logo or trademark is considered ‘theft’ – or is there just cause behind the appropriation of others’ work?

Throughout modern art you can find many examples of artists using appropriation. From Marcel Duchamp’s cheekily moustachioed Mona Lisa, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s Tomato Soup and Elvis Presley to the comic and cultural imagery used in Roy Lichenstein’s work and also Jeff Koon’s giant balloonesque sculptures.

Throughout modern art you can find many examples of artists using appropriation. From Marcel Duchamp’s cheekily moustachioed Mona Lisa, Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s Tomato Soup and Elvis Presley to the comic and cultural imagery used in Roy Lichenstein’s work and also Jeff Koon’s giant balloonesque sculptures.

Andy Warhol's iconic soup cans
Andy Warhol’s iconic soup cans.

More recently, artists such as Shephard Fairey (AKA Obey), Banksy and even our very own CreativeFolk artist Paul Kneen use appropriation to help get the point across.

Paul explains: “Obviously if we were blatantly just ripping off someone else’s work then of course that’s theft, plagiarism and forgery. But to use elements of existing things to help make a point in our work has not only been done for years, it’s part of adding cultural references to our work. It adds another level, and allows the viewer to understand the message without a long-written explanation next to it.”

Paul recently found himself in the cross hairs of Louis Vuitton for his piece ‘Reality Cheque’, having being accused of trademark violation. This was because the blanket in the painting features the Louis Vuitton pattern.

Signed giclee print created with spray paint, acrylics and marker pens depicting a woman holding her child wraped in a Louis Vuitton blanket
‘Reality Cheque – Louis Vuitton’ – Paul Kneen

“To be honest – when I saw the email and the claims made, I was completely shocked and a little concerned. I thought I was in the right, but doubt set in and so I began researching the situation,” says Paul.

After some thorough research, Paul came across a website that featured an article all about this legal issue. The website in question is www.medium.com. It has some very interesting information available regarding appropriation and the legalities under the term ‘fair use’.

Within the article it goes on to state the following:

As a general rule of thumb, you can use trademarks freely for commentary and criticism.

For example, an artist could use the Barbie logo in artwork critical of Barbie’s unrealistic beauty standards, and the owner of the trademark wouldn’t be able to silence him. However, this is only true as long as there is no risk of confusion between the artist and the trademark owner. In other words, it has to be clear that the Barbie trademark owner has not created or endorsed the artwork. The same artist would open himself up to infringement liability if he used the Barbie trademark again in an unrelated context — say, materials promoting the campaign of a blonde politician. A consumer might be confused by the reference to Barbie and conclude that the Barbie trademark owners were involved in promoting the candidate.


As you can see from this excerpt, as long as there would be no confusion that your work was created or endorsed by the company in question, there shouldn’t be an issue with any kind of violation.

As a result, Louis Vuitton apologised and allowed Paul to use their pattern within his work.

In 2015, artist Richard Prince also came under fire. This time not from a company – but from individuals who felt he had used their work without permission. Prince’s work featured large versions of Instagram posts he came across on his feed. This walked a fine line, with many divided on whether Prince had over-stepped the mark. The courts eventually ruled in favour of the artist, raising the question of ‘is everything in the public domain fair game’?

Richard Prince's controversial instagram post art
Richard Prince’s controversial instagram post art

For many artists, appropriation is extremely important to their work. In Prince’s case he was almost testing the idea of ‘fair use’ and seeing how far he could take the idea.

Appropriation allows artists to make a statement. Imagine trying to convey the message of capitalism without mentioning large corporations or politics without mentioning politicians? It gives their work a sense of place and meaning. Using recognisable imagery and logos helps the viewer relate to the piece, whilst strengthening the point being made.

Here at CreativeFolk, we love seeing the clever use of logos and familiar icons in art, and the legality of ‘fair use’ is incredibly important to allow talented artists, like the ones mentioned, the freedom to express their opinions without legal consequences.

If you’d like to read more about appropriation, the legal aspects and the artists listed above, here’s some links that might interest you:

https://www.theverge.com/2015/5/30/8691257/richard-prince-instagram-photos-copyright-law-fair-use

http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1661/appropriation-in-contemporary-art

https://medium.com/@cyberlawclinic/the-cyberlaw-guide-to-protest-art-trademark-91f673079d82

https://civic.mit.edu/2010/01/13/never-mind-the-bollocks-shepard-faireys-fight-for-appropriation-fair-use-and-free-culture/

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