Appropriate Behavior

Appropriate Behavior

Randy Nordschow

By the time you’ve finished reading this, I want you to love the concept of appropriation and the art behind it as much as I do—or, at the very least, be a little more friendly towards the idea. Really, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Throughout history, artists of all stripes have indulged their urge to copy. Painters, poets, and composers have ripped-off elements of artworks created by their colleagues and predecessors, which in turn has aided in the growth and development of art itself.

Unless you’re appropriating funds or something like that, the word appropriation is rather benign compared to, say, plagiarism. Indeed most terminology describing the act of incorporating work by others into your own art—theft, rip-off, steal, pilfer, rob, pirate, infringe, etc.—makes it sound as if a violent crime is being committed. Perhaps plunder has a softer ring here, but that term has already been co-opted by the sample-based, prank-heavy practice known as Plunderphonics. But more on that in a moment.


First, a little history. As luck would have it, some of the most brazen artistic burglaries to take place in the 20th century happened right off the bat, back in 1913. Who would have guessed that the French-born painter and theorist Marcel Duchamp, just one year after creating his famous canvas Nude Descending A Staircase, would boldly confound the art world with his ready-mades, casting doubts upon the notion of authorship? Of course a bicycle wheel is a rather oblique statement to be sure, but in a way Duchamp had managed to reinvent the wheel, simply by mounting said object upside-down on top of an ordinary kitchen stool. Even with Duchamp’s minor alterations, the fact remains that the artist really didn’t create anything new per se, but transformed the context: take a urinal, sign it (a pseudonym will do), throw it atop a pedestal, title it Fountain, and voila! Six years into producing his infamous ready-mades, Duchamp decided to pencil a moustache and goatee on the Mona Lisa. There was never any question as to the origin of Duchamp’s ornamented source image in L.H.O.O.Q., which by the way, sounds a bit like “elle a chaud au cul” or “she has a hot ass.” Furthermore, there is no doubt that Duchamp had created an entirely new work of art with a completely new meaning and intention—dependent upon, yet undeniably divorced from, Da Vinci‘s.

Just shy of a century later, visual artists and the machine, trading floor, cult, or whatever you want to call the industry behind them, seem liberated. Collectors, curators, museums, galleries, and the artists themselves have worked out a balanced system that happily includes appropriation in the mix. In fact, five years ago a replica of Duchamp’s original Fountain, recreated in an edition of 8 under the artist’s supervision in 1964, fetched over $1.7 million at auction—affirmation of the sculpture’s bona fide cultural value as well as a fiscal gauge to the significance the art establishment places on the

DJ Dangermouse
DJ Danger Mouse

work and its creator. Comparatively it seems out-of-step that in the year 2004 a musician such as DJ Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton) is chastised for lifting the a cappella tracks from Jay-Z‘s The Black Album and recombining them with material from the Beatles’ White Album, which he called The Grey Album—but, in fact, Burton’s actions aren’t just undervalued, they are illegal.

Let’s not forget that music has a rich tradition of appropriation. Baroque composers playfully challenged one another by quoting and re-harmonizing the melodies of their peers, attempting to outdo the other’s cleverness by inventing increasingly beautiful or surprising alternative solutions to the first composer’s musical brainteaser. Even after the dissolution of a common practice, composers continued to muss around with the music of their colleagues without much hassle. Granted, writing variations on a theme by so-and-so is slightly different than pastiche—and imitation doesn’t always imply flattery. But in a time when we’re up to our ears in cover tunes, and tribute bands don’t necessarily have to play real instruments (i.e. Mini-Kiss), you’d think we’d have a better handle on how to deal with the artistic hunger for the recycled. We all know recycling is good for the environment, but what about music? Well, no matter what your take is, it would be hard to imagine our musical landscape without Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or the countless re-appropriations of "L’Homme armé" by Renaissance composers. And what about Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis or Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated?—as Martha Stewart might have said had she evaded the prison sentence, “stealing, it’s a good thing!”

It seems only recently that the music industry has adopted an attitude similar to George W. Bush’s approach to foreign policy—you’re either for us or against us. And unfortunately for musicians like DJ Danger Mouse, there is no room for grey here. But make no mistake, this is a grey, murky area. The value of bootlegs, copies, forgeries, tributes, covers, pastiches, variations, quotations, samples, rip-offs, hijacks, plagiarisms, and recontextualizations collide and crisscross in a potholed web that, like a Rorschach inkblot, means many things to many people.

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