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To Steal or Not to Steal: Has Appropriation Ruined Creativity?

May 20, 2015

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.”  This quote is often attributed to Pablo Picasso, but being a “great artist,” he may very well have stolen it from someone else and used it to his own benefit.

Appropriation, or the use of pre-existing objects, images, and ideas is nothing new to artists.  We’ve been stealing for years.  Andy Warhol (or any of the Pop artists, for that matter) revolutionized art-making by shedding any shame associated with reusing images, artwork, and logos for their own benefit.  Although I’m sure the marketing executives at Campbell’s Soup were a bit befuddled as to WHY Andy would make paintings of their product labels, they likely didn’t mind the extra exposure his work brought to the brand.

My question today is – has it gone too far?  Have artists become so dependent on premade images that we can no longer function without this cultural crutch? Or, is appropriation the natural direction that art has taken since the invention and rise of photography?

If I asked you to paint a picture of a flower, would your instant response be a Google Image search for the ideal candidate?  I know mine would be.  Sometimes I grow frustrated when I try to create a new work of art because I can imagine what it will look like in my mind, but I can’t quite find the right image to serve as my starting point.  For example, I may be looking to create a picture of a bird in flight.  Countless photographs and drawings of birds in flight have been made and yet not even John James Audubon   can come to my rescue because I have constructed a very specific mental image that I can’t quite seem to satisfy.  I might search online, look at books in the library, consult countless stacks of National Geographic or the World Book Encyclopedia, and still not find what I’m looking for.  WHY – you may ask, do I just not draw the picture in my mind?  Partly because I am spoiled enough by modern technology to know that the image I am looking for is out there somewhere.  Secondly, if I am truly honest with myself, I can’t draw the image from scratch because I have grown lazy by depending on others to have the image ready and waiting for me and I am not well-versed enough in the nuances of aviary anatomy to create a believable rendering of the bird in question.  Audubon made countless sketches, studies, anatomical drawings, and studied both live and dead specimens to truly master his craft while I just typed “flying bird” into a search engine and hoped for the best.  I don’t study harder and learn more about my subject matter because I don’t have to.  It’s all out there somewhere.  And that is a problem.

When we first learned to draw, we drew in symbols.  A stick figure is a person.  A square with a triangle on top is a house.  A circle in the corner with lines coming off is the sun.  None of these symbols really look like what they are supposed to represent, yet we all know what they imply.  Once we learned a bit more and developed better skills, we abandoned the symbols, yet drew pictures from ideal angles.  Faces would either be presented in a direct frontal view or from the side in a perfect profile.  Cars would be drawn from a direct angle of the the front, sides, or the back – never a ¾ angle of the front bumper from a worm’s eye view.  Do you remember when you first sat in on a group still life or figure drawing session and got a less-than-ideal view of the subject?  It was no doubt incredibly difficult to simply draw what you saw rather than draw what you thought it should look like from a better perspective.

As artists, we are still looking for that perfect angle for our needs.  We might wish to paint a Thoroughbred horse leaning over a fence at just the right angle, but rather than searching for a horse and a fence, we just search for a readymade image of what we are seeking.  It’s certainly easier to type into a search engine than to seek out a horse farm and ask permission of the owner.  While finding images online seems to be a matter of convenience, it can also be the source of quite a lot of controversy when it comes to copyright law.  If the artist doesn’t change the work significantly to make it their own, the original photographer/artist/image creator can even hit you with a lawsuit.  The degree to which the original work must be changed is subject to scrutiny and there are few hard fast lines to follow.  Even famous artists have been busted for appropriating inappropriately.  Perhaps they are more likely to get caught because of their high profile in the public eye, but it can happen to anyone.

Warhol got into some trouble for his appropriation of Modern Photographer editor Patricia Caulfield’s hibiscus flowers.


Artist Jeff Koons lost a lawsuit with photographer Art Rogers over his sculptural reinterpretation (String of Puppies,1988) of Rogers’ photograph.


More recently, Shepard Fairey was fined and sentenced to two years probation over his appropriation of an Associated Press photograph in his famous HOPE poster of then Presidential-candidate Barack Obama.


It can be said that art is not created in a vacuum and that art begets art, but artists must be careful in how they go about finding their inspiration.  Copyright law is a vague and murky field in which there are few absolutes.  One person’s “fair use” of a subject could easily be turned into a costly copyright violation in a court of law.  While most Sunday painters or hobbyists are not at high risk of legal action, artists who plan on making money at their craft (and don’t we all?) must take precautionary measures to ensure that they are not encroaching on another artist’s intellectual property.  Copyright law is always changing and I have no doubt that we will see the laws begin to loosen with the proliferation of picture-heavy social media outlets (or are they inlets in this case?) such as Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

While appropriation is – in my opinion – a necessary evil for contemporary artists, I encourage you to try the old-fashioned method of actually finding your subject in the real world and studying it closely to see how it works.  If you are painting a cat, and actually own a cat, follow it around, sketch it, and take pictures of it.  Study the shadows and the way that light reflects off your subject.  While it is tempting (and often necessary if under deadlines) to take shortcuts to find your ideal subject, don’t be afraid to follow in the footsteps of the masters and study to hone your craft.  Maybe someday someone will copy-and-paste your work into their own.  After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.