“This museum without walls owns nothing and everything”
“Ownership passes to all”
Although eloquent in writing, the essence of appropriation can be summarized by the aforementioned lines from Robert Nelson’s Appropriation. In its most basic level, no one owns anything, we are simply passing by and forced to leave things behind. These things are all fair game to the generations after us as, in a way, it is for us today. Appropriation has a number of “derivatives”. You could appropriate something from the past or the present, and it is generally in doing so from the present that creates a sense of tension: when you appropriate something of someone else’s, the person that was acted upon (depending on how you went about taking it) could feel robbed, this is considered the sinister connotation of appropriation. However, one could argue that it is impossible to not appropriate. Appropriation happens when one takes something and uses it to create new meaning, this meaning is dependent on societal and temporal situations. Robert Nelson uses “The Four Horses of San Marco” to illustrate the powerful yet powerless paradox of appropriation. Their history can be traced back to the second or third century A.D. when they are thought to have been made. They’re brought to Constantinople in the fifth century and from then on, their visual value has taken a whirlwind of meanings. Yet, Nelson comes full circle when he alludes to the fact that these horses, placed “in a Middle American city in Texas” acquire a completely new meaning because of their location: this is appropriation. Interesting, appropriation can seem even more powerful when it only creates a “semiotic distortion, not total negation of” what is being appropriated. He somewhat dreads the state of awareness that he resides in–after all, for appropriation to be considered so, the viewer must have knowledge of the original work. This begs the question, can appropriation exist if you are unaware that you are appropriating something?
Using myself as an immediate example, I was unaware of the historical significance of the Horses of San Marco. Had I been the individual to walk through the gated doors sustaining these horses in that Texas cemetery, I would have had no idea of the appropriation taking place.
We take from the past to create the future. An evolving society builds on the skeleton left behind by a different time but, in a sense, it does not recreate, per se. Cars are quite different now than they were when first invented but to get this far, someone “appropriated” certain aspects of the original to create something new. So one is left with something “new” that maintains a sort of relationship to the old.
In postmodern work, it is freely utilized. Recently dubbed “appropriation art”, Nelson makes a point to compare the act to Duchamp except he mentions, “not as Duchamp or the Dadaists with founds objects of modern industrial life, but with appropriated images.” Ironically, all of the “found objects” that the Dadaists used were technically owned by someone–which is really the point of tension. Ownership is what’s at the core of this. “Appropriated images” as he calls them, are owned by someone more important, or more popular, or more famous than the owner of the urinal that Duchamp used.
Appropriation is nothing more than the “hurt feelings” of the individual whose belonging was appropriated. And this isn’t to say that those feelings aren’t valid, because above making art we have a sort of duty, as humans, to be gentle to one another. Is it permission? Is it considered appropriation still if you ask to use it? It’s easy to appropriate something of someone who is dead, because they cannot approve or disapprove. What one creates today will either vanish or remain in 100 years and then, if someone decides to take it, there are no feelings to hurt. It is quite more difficult a task to appropriate something of someone who is alive and will possibly even see the finished product because their feelings can be hurt, and they might not react positively. But appropriation will remain in due time. After all, ownership passes to all, because ownership doesn’t exist.