What Is Appropriation in Art?

Appropriation is a common trope in modern and contemporary art, in which artists reuse pre-existing imagery or objects.

Sep 22, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art


Appropriation is an art term that refers to the reworking of pre-existing objects and images to translate them into something new. The practice of lifting and altering pre-existing matter has been common within the art world since at least the early 20th century, with artists as varied as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Hoch, and Andy Warhol all carrying out various approaches that involved aspects of appropriation. In some cases, the original is only minimally altered, and this opens up debates around copyright and ownership. On other occasions the original is barely discernible, having been reworked to such an extent that it has become something completely new. Below, we look through a brief history of appropriation in art, and some of the issues artists have encountered. 


Appropriation Began During the 20th Century

guitar picasso collage
Guitar by Pablo Picasso, 1913, MoMA


Some of the earliest examples of appropriation emerged during the early 20th century. During Picasso and Braque’s Synthetic phase of Cubism, they introduced found objects and materials into art, producing layered collages featuring newspaper extracts, pieces of chair caning and other ephemera from daily life which they integrated into their multilayered and richly complex images, reflecting on the increasingly fragmented nature of the modern world.



marcel duchamp fountain dada
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917, replica 1964, via Tate, London


Dada artists also seized the opportunity to integrate found objects or images into art as a means of dissecting ordinary life and piecing it together again in new and strangely unsettling ways. The most profound of these was French pioneer Marcel Duchamp, whose famed ‘Readymade’ sculptures took seemingly banal objects ranging from a urinal to a bicycle wheel, and added sometimes relatively minor interventions that altered their original purpose, inviting us to see them anew.


Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919, collage of pasted papers.
Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919, collage of pasted papers.

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He proved that a work of art could be made from just about anything, as long as the intention and concept behind it was conceptually valid, which was to have profound repercussions in the modern art world. Other Dadaists including Hannah Hoch and Kurt Schwitters took collage in new directions, producing richly tactile and sometimes mesmerizingly complex imagery from found photographs, newspaper extracts or old bus and train tickets.



Hans Bellmer, The Doll, 1936, Tate
Hans Bellmer, The Doll, 1936, Tate


Various Surrealists also experimented with appropriation’s ability to produce uncanny and psychologically jarring effects, including Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer. In the following years, Walter Benjamin’s iconic essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1934, was widely influential on the next generation of appropriation artists.


Appropriation Was a Hallmark Feature of Pop Art

whaam roy lichtenstein
Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein, 1963, via Tate, London


We might think of Pop Art as a peak moment in the history of appropriation, for it was during this era that artists fully embraced the notion that art could be made entirely from imagery already out there in the mass media. Neo Dada artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg paved the way for pop, lifting motifs and emblems associated with quotidian life and reproduced them as art. Meanwhile Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi and many more integrated mass media advertisements, comic book excerpts, celebrity headshots and other gimmicky sources into their art as a commentary on the influx of visual information flooding the public eye in the postwar capitalist boom.


andy warhol marilyn monroe
Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol, 1967, via MoMA, New York


Some artists, including Warhol and Lichtenstein, have more recently been re-examined for their integration of pre-existing photography (in Warhol’s case) or comic book material (Lichtenstein) by other artists, which calls to question the fine line between appropriation and plagiarism.


The Method Came to Life During the 1980s

untitled film still 21 cindy sherman
Untitled Film Still #21 by Cindy Sherman, 1978, via MoMA, New York


The 1980s were another prolific decade for appropriation as an art form, as outlined in Rosalind Krauss’ widely influential book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 1985 and Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, 1967, which both questioned notions of authenticity and originality in the modern world. From the work of Neo Geo artists Sherrie Levine and Jeff Koons, to the Pictures Generation pioneers Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger, artists continued to provide commentary on, and conceptually dissect, the sheer glut of visual information being thrown in the public’s face at the dawn of the digital age. 


Appropriation Is a Popular Trope in Contemporary Art

shallow deaths glenn brown
Shallow Deaths by Glenn Brown, 2000, via The Gagosian Gallery, London


Today the practice of appropriation is more alive than ever, as artists continue to find inventive ways of integrating the mass of visual information at our fingertips into interrogatory works of art. Contemporary artist Glenn Brown reworks pre-existing artworks from the Renaissance to the present day, but he erases all trace of expression, re-imagining them as new emblems that are as slick and polished as a computer screen. Collagist John Stezaker is more subtle, creating eerie collages from chopped up old vintage photographs, which are reconfigured in bizarre and unsettling new ways.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.