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Visual Arts

Art and Appropriation

Matt Broach
Kurt Schwitters The Cherry Picture (partial) (1921), from “Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Rum -- the Art of Appropriation” at the Museum of Modern Art.

Using trash to make art is a political statement, though not necessarily the one the artists may intend. The implicit message, reduce and reuse, runs counter to the consumerist impulse to always buy more.

The political undercurrents of contemporary art often go unnoticed. Three recent exhibitions in New York each featured artists who reclaim materials and images from outside the art world: “Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Rum -- the Art of Appropriation”, at the Museum of Modern Art, “Second Life” at the Museum of Art and Design, and “Tara Donovan at the Met” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Found-object art is certainly nothing new, as the MoMA show makes clear. Most scholars trace its origins to Picasso’s turn-of-the-century use of collage -- perhaps his most lasting influence on artistic technique. Few Cubists remain, but it seems young artists today are tripping over themselves to incorporate new kinds of debris into their work -- a tactic Connie Butler, the curator of the MoMA show, calls “appropriation”.

Against the backdrop of our spiraling but much ignored waste problem, the act of artistic “appropriation” seems like a political as well as an artistic choice on two fronts. First, by making our trash visible, appropriation raises our awareness of the pure quantity of waste we create, tearing down the protective wall of invisibility surrounding our garbage. Second, the art serves to beautify our trash, which reduces our desire to discard it in the first place. The implicit message, reduce and reuse, runs counter to the consumerist impulse to always buy more.

Consider these facts: The average American, according to the Clean Air Council, creates 4.6 pounds of trash per day. Much of the trash is non-biodegradable, meaning that it will accumulate, and not necessarily where we’d like it to, if left unchecked. Californians Against Waste estimates that Americans consume some 84 billion plastic bags a year (the product of roughly 12 million barrels of oil) -- many of which, along with many other forms of terrestrial waste, are collecting in an area in the northern Pacific Ocean known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, a floating mass now more than twice the size of Texas.

What is most impressive about our relationship to garbage is how well we keep it hidden. Paul Hawken notes that 90 percent of waste isn’t even visible in products and services we use as consumers but rather is created as by-products of extraction and manufacturing. How many people have visited a landfill, let alone a site of toxic-waste storage? How about the vast manure pools -- the run off our industrial meat farms?

But packaging is also a problem. The Clean Air Council points out, that almost a third of the 230 million tons of trash generated in America by consumers is packaging. Fast food containers, disposable razors, plastic shopping bags are created principally to be discarded. In the midst of consuming, it’s easy to ignore these macro-level numbers, which appear disconnected from the reality we confront as individuals. The mandate of consumerism requires a certain amnesia about what we waste: It encourages us to forget the old and buy the new. Confronting the physical reality of our waste, however, might force a reexamination of our relationship to rampant consumerism.

The sudden interest in found-object art at the recent exhibitions seemed to suggest that the art world was prepared to encourage precisely that sort of reexamination -- or so I thought before I actually attended them.

That’s not to say that these shows are not without political statements. Once, a piece in the “Second Life” show at MAD, is a chair made of hundreds of reclaimed chopsticks. Made by WOKMedia (a collaboration between Julie Mathias and Wolfgang Kaeppner), it’s an effort to use recycled materials in both an artistic and practical way. The wall text accompanying the piece spins some numbers very similar to those I’ve provided above: Each year in China, 45 billion pairs of chopsticks are discarded, fashioned from some 25 million trees. While no one would call the piece beautiful, it certainly uses the act of appropriation as a way to rescue discarded objects, functionally and aesthetically.

Other pieces in the MAD show, such as Johnny Swing's Quarter Lounge or Terese Agnew's Portrait of a Textile Worker make overt anticonsumerist statements, too, albeit somewhat facilely. Swing's piece, a lounge chair made of welded quarters, offers the implication that money may be more useful when fused into one place rather than circulating through the hectic exchanges of rampant consumerism. Agnew's work -- in which designer labels are sewn together to form a mosaic depicting a Bangladeshi textile worker -- attempts to trace the origin of our clothing back to its often unattractive means of production.

The problem with such pieces is that they all employ essentially the same technique. In her review of the show in the New York Times, Roberta Smith is spot-on when she writes, “The basic experience with these works is: You see the thing, then you see the things it is made of. Something in the way of a punch line follows.” While it may provoke a pleasurable “a-ha” moment, the method is ultimately too simple to inspire much reflection. Furthermore, crowding the show with a glut of artists exploring exactly the same technique dulls the rhetorical force of any one piece.

Installment from "Second Life" at the Museum of Art and Design

It’s no particular surprise that the works in the MAD show seem politically ineffective; political art has a long history of impotence. The real cracks in the appropriation-as-political-comment thesis begin to show at “Pipe, Glass, and Bottle of Rum,” at MoMA.

Again, the show begins promisingly enough -- Arman’s 1973 piece Accumulation, which hangs right next to the show’s entrance, perfectly encapsulates the critical potential of found-object art. The piece is a glass-covered box, roughly a foot high, the back of which has been stamped an uncountable number of times with the word “Accumulation”. The hand-stamps, spent and discarded, rest in a pile at the bottom of the box. The weight of the piece is palpable -- the stamping is so dense in parts that it borders on illegible, and the red ink feels like a deliberate assault. If a few hand stamps can feel this oppressive, imagine the emotional toll of confronting a full landfill. Indeed, the piece provides much of the nuance lacking in the political thrust of the MAD show.

What, however, is one to make of Richard Prince’s pieces, around the corner from Arman’s? The photographs are of Marlboro ads, carefully cropped to remove any ad copy. Prince argues that the iconic Marlboro cowboy, when removed from its original advertising context, encapsulates a certain segment of the American mythos. Perhaps, but the images never are removed from their advertising context -- Marlboro’s images are enough of a cultural mainstay that we’re perfectly capable of identifying them without the Marlboro logo. The brand is far stronger than Prince’s effort at artistic dislocation. The primary effect of Prince’s appropriation, rather than rescuing our detritus from obscurity, is merely to extend the reach of advertising into the gallery and the museum. One can hardly claim this is a radical political act, certainly not one that runs counter to consumerism.

Further into the show, Barbara Kruger’s works step even deeper into the world of advertising. Her work, like Prince’s, appropriates both its images and its forms from advertising. Kruger, in fact, had a successful career as a designer for magazines such as Home and Garden and Aperture before transitioning into the fine arts. Yet, as the objects on display at MoMA attest, Kruger never really left. She continues to insert her imagery into mass production. She has used her found-imagery-and-text collages to design a CD cover for the band Consolidated and magazine covers for Ms., Newsweek, and Esquire.

Now, I’m not arguing against wider exposure for visual artists; rather, I want to highlight a certain contradiction in Kruger’s work. Her pieces often contain overtly anticonsumerist messages, such as her most famous piece, which bears the ironic text “I shop therefore I am” in her trademark font. She seems entirely comfortable, though, packaging her work as part of consumer products or in magazines with print runs in the hundreds of thousands. The political aspect of image appropriation is totally lost if the results are reproduced to excess -- trash which eventually ends up as a whole lot more trash.

For me, the coup de grace for the politics-of-appropriation idea is a piece by Ai Weiwei at MAD, Colored Vases. The work consisted of 20 or so Neolithic vases, each between 5,000 and 7,000 years old, which Weiwei had dipped in garish, pastel-colored industrial paint. Irreplaceable artifacts -- one of the few links we have to a select part of our distant past -- were not just destroyed, but smothered in materials which represent the cheapest and most banal aspects of contemporary cultural. In the context of these pieces, any blanket explanation of the political aspects of appropriation must be discarded; the old and handmade is harvested merely to be drowned by the new, the gaudy, and the mass-produced. Weiwei’s deeply cynical message seems to be: No matter how hard you might try to rescue your treasures and trash, eventually they’ll be drowned by consumerism.

Weiwei’s consummate perversion of the past left me longing for the work of another artist -- one conspicuously absent from the MoMA show: Joseph Cornell. Cornell assembled his famous box constructions out of objects he collected from a lifetime of trolling the second-hand stores on the Lower East Side. He was one of the earliest practitioners of what would burgeon into the field of found-object sculpture. Since I saw a retrospective of his work in a small museum outside Boston in the summer of 2007, I have not been able to stop thinking his work. My initial infatuation was almost purely emotional -- his box constructions and collages, displayed in the darkly lit rooms of the Peabody Essex museum, evoked the same tension between wistfulness and slight morbidity that attracted me to other artists, such as Boards of Canada, and which wished to incorporate into my own work. His work haunts the MoMA exhibition as well; the Arman’s glass-covered box owes much of its form to Cornell’s shadowboxes.

Cornell’s omission is unfortunate, because his work demonstrates much of what is lacking in the both the MoMA and MAD shows: an emotional investment in the life of his rescued objects. Consider his 1953 collage For Emily Dickenson. The work mainly consists of two images: the top third, a black silhouette of two young girls jumping rope against an impossibly orange sky; the bottom two thirds, an image of clouds at sunset. In other hands, the imagery might veer towards Hallmark, but it is pulled back from the edge by Cornell’s compositional mastery, and the layout’s ambiguity. A swath of black separates the two images: Is the sky meant to be a reflection in a lake, or is it simply meant as one of Cornell’s celestial metaphors? It is impossible to tell.

What is certain is that we want to linger in the piece. Cornell’s found objects, so manipulated, make us long for a past we have lost, and it is this quality that ultimately separates Cornell from the artists in “Pipe, Glass, and Bottle of Rum” or “Second Life.” Indeed, an air of clinical detachment pervades both shows. It is not simply enough to rescue trash from obscurity, to make it visible – one must approach discarded objects with a sense of reverence and awe. Political art, without this emotional appeal, reads as, at best, pedantic. Cornell’s boxes are seeped in a sense of loss – a desire to preserve (to embalm, even) a lost childhood constantly threatened by New York’s constant rush forward. Flipping through a monograph of Cornell’s work at home, I realized that the most radical political act in contemporary artwork isn’t appropriation; it’s nostalgia.

Image (partial) of an Installment by Tara Donovan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art found on The Art

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