Saturday, April 16, 2011

Is It Appropriation or Mimicry?
Opinion Piece on Art

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Last year's award of the Wynne Prize for Australian Landscape was very confusing (to say the least). It was not an Australian landscape and moreover, Sam Leach (who won the prize) later admitted it was an "appropriated" piece. The winner of this years Wynne Prize will be announced within the next few days.

Sam Leach's 2010 award demands that artists should debate where the boundary lies between an "appropriated" image and a "mimicked" one. The former is a time honoured artist tradition, whereas the latter in it is "worst" art context is a fraud and in its "best" art context is a learning experience.

I hope you enjoy this opinion piece on art.

The Boundary Between Appropriation And Mimicry
In the digital era, the recipe for appropriation is simple: get a multi-mega pixilated photograph that you admire; use “photoshop”; edit with a range of filters and distortion techniques to re-cast the image; translate the new image onto the art medium of choice. This may be a process of appropriation but what happens when process just becomes mimicry?

Artists have been mimicking the art of other artists, ever since images were smoked on the walls of caves (in terms of a learning experience). However, as the education psychologist Piaget has pointed out, mimicking (and not appropriation) is the footprint of an under developed skill (i.e. the reflexive stage of Piaget’s four stages of psychological development).

Appropriation of art is not just replicating someone else’s work, but rather it becomes an important tour de force when it re-presents the original interpretation in a different art context or engagement. (See Codes - Lost Voices, on this blog site, where appropriation created a re-interpretation of the art context of the images presented, but in doing so, attribution was correctly placed squarely at the front and center of the ArtCloth installation).

None of us will forget Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa (L.H.O.O.Q.)

DuChamp's Mona Lisa (L.H.O.O.Q.)

He took an image that he considered was far too revered by the cognoscenti and then re-cast it from its extraordinary adoration context into a more ordinary context. For Australians like myself - who are born to be irreverent - DuChamp freed us to paint moustaches on Kings, Queens, Heads of State and politicians; that is, anyone we wanted to deride in order to reduce their self-esteem to a more mundane level.

In academia - appropriation when not correctly attributed - becomes plagiarism. Clearly, DuChamp’s Mona Lisa is correctly attributed since the image he appropriated was so well known that every art viewer was well aware of the attribution, without it needing to be documented. Note: he purposely and definitively refashioned the act of engagement when compared to the original painting.

What if an artist won a major Australian art prize by mimicking a fairly obscure 17th century Dutch painter and moreover, omitted to give attribution to the image he had mimicked? What if the same artist won this prize for an Australian landscape when in fact it is largely a procured image of an Italian landscape (without the people)? What if this artist called his painting, “Proposal for a landscape cosmos”, the title of which fails to attribute that it was largely procured from Adam Pynacker’s 1668 painting, “Boatmen moored on a lakeshore”?

This is what occurred with the 2010 Australian Wynne prize. The trustees of the prize condoned Sam Leach’s actions by reinterpreting that even a mimicked artwork from an Italian landscape, could still be construed as an original Australian landscape! I wonder if these same trustees would have reached this decision if Sam Leach had mimicked an aboriginal artwork - such as Natalie Bateman’s painting – “Tribal Wave at Scotts Head”. I doubt it!

Adam Pynacker’s 1668 painting, “Boatmen moored on a lakeshore”. It is an Italian Landscape.

Sam Leach: “Proposal For A Landscape Cosmos”. It won 2010 Wynne Prize for Best Australian Landscape.
Note: Spot the differences between the two - the Australian landscape never looked so Italian. Newcastle Art Gallery (Australia) has now acquired Sam Leach's version of Pynacker's painting.

The trustees that awarded the prize, stuck to its guns when comparisons were made between the two paintings after it was awarded (even though some of the judges were not aware of Adam Pynacker’s 1668 painting at the time the prize was awarded and Sam Leach entry never mentioned Pynacker's painting).
Note: What Leach failed to do was to refashion and definitively alter the act of engagement. His painting is just a poor reflection of the original.

My take of these events is simple – the Wynne prize has been severely compromised and so the kudos in winning future Wynne prizes will be severely diminished. Leach’s mimicry is not appropriation, but rather is the product of an artist whose development in capturing Italian Baroque Art is at best in Piaget’s reflexive stage. We can only hope that Mr. Leach reaches the more mature formal stage of development as quickly as possible so that we can all enjoy his own imagination rather than a procured version of someone else's.

What DuChamp did was appropriation and what Leach did was mimicry. There is nothing subtle or blurred between these two approaches – the differences are glaringly self-evident. The former altered significantly the act of engagement, whereas the latter painted a pale reflection of the original.

We all appropriate at some point in creating artwork. My golden rule is - be confident to attribute your work and so let others enjoy your re-interpretation and new insight of the original artwork(s)/images. If you are mimicking the artwork, it is clear you want to learn from it, rather than to re-interpret it and in doing so, you are also following a time honoured learning tradition.

So what is your verdict? Was it an appropriated artwork or a mimicked one? Where do you think the boundary lies?

For a further discussion on appropriation - see Aboriginal Art Appropriated By Non-Aboriginal Artists.

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