Art eludes all possible definitions and characterizations. Postmodern thought has come to characterize the very ways in and through which we view and think about the world, life and reality. Art, that is, the realm of the beautiful, faces the same predicament. It is in this line of thought that we shift our attention from the talk of universals in favor of particulars. Perhaps there is no sense to speak of beauty as something that is universal. This may be inferred from the observation that different cultures have different canons of what is beautiful.
Art is a product of human creativity. It is the expression of our primordial desire to transcend our individual finitude and go beyond the horizon of existence. It is, however, important to note that art is also a product of our representations of the world, our experiences as we go through life, and our interpretation of what is real. Suffice it to say that art enjoys the privilege of being an amalgamation of the mental and the experiential. We are not attempting to provide a universal characterization of art, we are merely trying to articulate the various ways in and through which we may characterize art.
Art appropriation, as an artistic movement, since its inception, is heavily influenced by postmodernism. Art appropriation, as a technique, involves duplication or incorporation of an image, say a picture of a parish priest from an identified source to another context, say in a casino, which of course, produces alteration in terms of meaning and at the same time challenges the very notion of authenticity and originality. As stated earlier, art appropriation is heavily influenced by postmodernism and at this point, it is possible to explain why such is the case. The idea is rather simple and yet liberating for most of its practitioners. The idea is by substituting certain elements of a picture or a painting by elements that belong to different contexts, we are able to produce possible interpretations and reinterpretations, which in turn, challenges what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls the ‘grand narratives’ or universal theories. Lyotard prefers ‘the little narratives’ of the individual human being (23). Postmodernism, as a form of philosophy, takes a skeptical attitude to foundationalist discourses, which make claims of truth and certainty. It is the view that (1) all truth is limited, approximate, and is constantly evolving and (2) absolute and certain truth that explains all things is unobtainable.
Let us briefly consider feminism and its critique of logic as a case in point in order to show how the aforementioned ‘grand narratives’ perpetuate the subjugation and oppression of women. In her work entitled Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic, Andréa Nye proclaims that logic in its final perfection is insane. Feminist writers such as Nye argue that male philosophers and logicians dominate the field of logic, propounding misconceptions of logic and rationality, which oppresses women, and the powerless sectors of society. Apparently, this criticism is directed to the founder of logic himself for Aristotle believed that the female is a ‘mutilated male’ (§737a 25-28), and that the ‘the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled’ (§ 5).
Clearly, such a foundationalist stance on logic is what Lyotard is against. Feminists thus, find an ally in postmodern theorists in their struggle against grand narratives and the status quo. Logic, as dominated by male philosophers and logicians further proliferate women’s oppression and this may be seen in the very structure of logic itself. This is to say that logic is essentially, patriarchal in nature in the sense that it considers the woman as the other; the negation of pas embodied in the Principle of Identity, one of the most fundamental principles of logic. Regarding this particular criticism, Val Plumwood argues:
It takes p as primary and treats its negation as having a secondary role, as delineating what is left over after the primary term ‘p’ has finished taking its slice of the universe. Classical not-p cannot be independently identified and homogenizes the Otheras an oppositional remainder. (62)
Feminist critiques of logic are rooted in history and traces the oppression and typification of women as emotional and thereby, incapable of logical reasoning to a grand narrative, that is, logic. Needless to say, such a narrative, from the feminist standpoint needs to be destroyed.
The aforementioned characterization of art appropriation enables us to consider the natural affinity of art with postmodernist thought. Marilyn Stokstad, in her work entitled Art History, states quite simply that ‘appropriation is the representation of a preexisting image as one’s own’ (1155). A more accurate characterization of appropriation art may be found in William Landes article wherein he states that ‘art borrows images from popular culture, advertising, the mass media, other artists and elsewhere, and incorporates them into new works of art’ (1).
At this point, we will discuss two very influential appropriation artists namely, Marcel Duchamp and Kent Monkman along with their works and views on art. Marcel Duchamp may be considered as the first appropriation artist with his concept of ‘ready-mades’. The ready-mades are ordinary, everyday objects that are transformed into a piece of art simply by claiming that it is a work of art. One may consider his piece entitled The Fountain, which is an ordinary urinal lying on its side atop a pedestal with the signature “R. Mutt”. In the aforementioned work, the urinal as it appears is neither original nor rare. Creativity in this sense lies in the selection of an ordinary urinal as a work of art and displaying it in an artistic context. His artworks were recognized and became influential to succeeding artists who pursued appropriation art or installation art. The Dada art movement, along with Duchamp, continued appropriating ready-mades and fused together elements of chance, randomness and lack of formal structure or theory in their creations. It is, however, important to note that Duchamp himself has no particular interest in discussing his works apparently because there is nothing in them that makes them works of art. This is to say that those objects do not share or possess within them an essential property for them to be categorized as ‘beautiful’ and be considered members of the extension of such a concept. This is a plausible construal of his silence and disinterestedness in aesthetic theory. After all, this is what a true blue postmodernist would do. This is consistent with what he said in an interview saying, “everyone does something, and people who do things on a canvas, with a frame, are called artists.” Apparently, Duchamp’s view of art is one that is expressive in the sense that an art work is an individual’s expression and this expression is not an end-in-itself but a means to something else: it must lead the individual to new thoughts, new perspectives, new ways of looking at the same world. Perhaps, this is what he meant by “art is an outlet towards regions that are not ruled by time and space”. This statement further affirms our initial statement about the concept of art as somewhat elusive. Even Duchamp’s statement may best be understood only metaphorically for what can be said about ‘regions that are not ruled by time and space’? If art is such an outlet, we may say, in the same vein, “what can be said about art?”
Duchamp and the Dadaists share the same view about the intellectual rigidity in art and artistic movements. In addition to this, they were also reacting to the constraining conservative arm of society. This is to say that their emphasis on everyday objects also has a political import (Mink 3). Two common themes may be said to characterize their artistic creations. First, the apparent irrationality, as an opposition to the conservative forms of art. Second, a refusal to adopt a standard of what would count as an artwork. It is thus clear that Duchamp and the Dadaists are against the ‘grand narratives’ of art. This further strengthens the point that was mentioned earlier. The importance of Duchamp’s work, as I reckon, lies on its capacity to widen our viewpoints and to help the individual transcend the usual ways in and through which we view the world, life, and reality.
In concord with the underlying idea behind appropriation art, the Canadian artist Kent Monkman, blurs the very distinction between history and myth; their originality, authenticity, significance, and what they mean. Via the lens of history and culture, Monkman challenges our very notions of history and the historical accounts that again, stems out from society’s grand narrative. Such a grand narrative, as Monkman contends is held fast by both systems of power and power relations in any given society in different periods in history.
What are historical facts? Very few of us have had the opportunity of asking questions of this kind. This is because since we entered school we were trained to think that there are facts about history but we were never really trained to think to question such facts. Monkman, through the employment of historical analysis, offers a view that there are various ways of interpreting history. His experimental attitude in terms of introducing a somewhat ‘out of place’ character in his paintings, the contexts of which are commonly held events in history. It is important to note that this technique, is able to produce alternative interpretations than the standard interpretations according to a society’s grand narrative.
In his work entitled Artist and Model (2003), he used a Native man dressed in headdress, pumps and loincloth as he paints a White man, tied to a tree and shot by arrows like that of Saint Sebastian. In this particular work, he plays not only with purportedly widely-held historical events, but also, and more importantly, with the idea that violence, hate, the struggle for power, are characterizations of society. It is important to note that in the preceding discussions, one may easily infer that culture and history are not the merely the approaches that he employs in his works. Monkman employs ‘deconstruction’ in his works and analyses.
Deconstruction is the unique contribution of the French thinker Jacques Derrida in the literature of philosophy. Deconstruction, as Derrida conceives of it, is a method of textual analysis, which is applicable to numerous kinds of discourses (5). Such a method, involves ‘defamiliarization’ with the text, as in our case, a documented historical event. Notice that the ingenuity behind such a method is that in the final analysis, it reveals that there is an inherent instability and indeterminacy of meaning. Monkman gets this very same result by applying deconstruction in art. Derrida, just like Lyotard, is a committed anti-foundationalist and a leading figure in postmodern thought. Just like Duchamp, Monkman’s works have a political import. Some common themes in his works are racism, marginalization and oppression, and chauvinism. The value of Monkman’s work lies on its capacity to flesh out new interpretations even to history; that history, is also, in Derrida’s sense, a text. It gives us valuable insights that there are many stories and many truths that should equally be taken into consideration in dialogues and discourses.
Appropriation in art, as discussed in the preceding discussions, is largely influenced by postmodern thought the value of which, lies not in the accumulation of absolute truths, or the hegemony of one culture over another, of one paradigm over another, of one view over another, or of one interpretation over another, but in its capacity to to widen our viewpoints and to help the individual transcend the usual ways in and through which we view the world, life, and reality.
Ackrill, J. L. Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione. Oxford. Clarendon Press, 1963.
Bennington, Geoffrey and Jacques Derrida. Jacques Derrida. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Lyotard, Jean Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Mink, Janis. Marcel Duchamp, 1887-1968: Art as Anti-Art. U.S.A.: Taschen, 2000.
Nye, Andrea. Words of Power: A Feminist Reading of the History of Logic. London: Routledge, 1990.
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. London: Prentice Hall, 2007.