Contemporary culture is built on appropriation. With digital technology, it has become ever easier for consumers to reuse and manipulate images. Like other consumer-producers, artists use Photoshop and other widely available editing programs—though the most commonly practised form of appropriation is still the act of channel-hopping, creating unforeseen and ephemeral combinations of images at the touch of a tv remote control.footnote1 Nicolas Bourriaud has argued that in today’s digitized culture of browsing, sampling, file-sharing and photoshopping, we are almost all ‘semionauts’ who ‘produce original pathways through signs’.footnote2 If this is true, then what is the value of these millions of ‘original pathways’? Though digitization is often presented as heralding the end of the standardizations associated with modern mass media, could it end up reinforcing them? Might the ‘pathways’ it produces turn out to be interchangeable consumerist trajectories?

The term ‘Appropriation Art’, which emerged around 1980 to characterize work by artists such as Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine, has clear intimations of transgression and illegality. Yet by now the art in question is historical, some of its practitioners have become blue-chip artists, and the critical claims made for appropriation as an artistic strategy in the late 1970s and 1980s have met serious objections. If the culture industry is based to a significant degree on the appropriation of material from art and various subcultures, as well as from different historical epochs and cultures, why should appropriation as an artistic strategy have special status? Even in 1982, Douglas Crimp—one of the main defenders of appropriation art—noted that ‘if all aspects of culture use this new operation, then the operation itself cannot indicate a specific reflection upon the culture’.footnote3 Early claims for the inherently critical cast of appropriation were themselves too abstract and uncritical, much like Bourriaud’s sampling utopia. In a culture in which materials are everywhere appropriated and re-appropriated, how can appropriation as such be intrinsically progressive?

Recently, Isabelle Graw has pointed out that Appropriation Art theory has often—in spite of the post-structuralist critique of originality and authorship—treated the appropriating artist as a fully conscious, detached and critical subject, thus denying that the appropriated material may have a hold on the artist, acknowledged or otherwise, influencing the outcome of the appropriation. Graw has noted that Richard Prince, the alleged inventor of re-photography, took pictures of photographic images in such a way as to give the result a seamless quality and operate subtle modifications: in Prince’s early re-photographed advertisements, the interiors, watches and pens seem to possess an uncanny lustre.footnote4 His re-photographed Marlboro ads are devoid of logotype and text, leaving only photographic images of cowboys; while the ‘critical’ imperative of art world discourse ensures that this is seen as a reflection on masculinity and visual culture, the cliché hardly loses its power altogether—it remains as compelling and seductive as the pens and watches.

The same could be said of Prince’s notorious Spiritual America, a re-photographed picture of a naked, pre-pubescent Brooke Shields first shown in 1984 as the sole work in a makeshift gallery. The use of this image made at least one early supporter of Prince extremely uncomfortable, leading to a break-up with the artist because he seemed ‘mesmerized’ by the image. Regardless of the exact ratio of fascination and critical detachment in Prince’s use of this image, it is obvious that such an appropriation and presentation could hardly be free from some measure of libidinal investment.footnote5

Graw’s text is part of a recent re-examination of Appropriation Art—and the accompanying discourse, with its blind spots and limitations.footnote6 Such a renewed investigation is a necessary step towards a reappraisal of the possibilities and pitfalls of appropriation, and the development of a tactical approach, rather than an essentialist stance that assumes appropriation to be inherently critical. But the net should be cast wider, beyond its American exponents of the late seventies and early eighties. For there is an under-examined aspect of the history of appropriation: its recurrent conception as a mythological practice. As we shall see, this neglected genealogy highlights both its urgency as an artistic strategy, and the problems with which it is fraught.

Around 1980, Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine ‘re-photographed’, respectively, contemporary ads and historical masterpieces of photography, while Louise Lawler photographed works of art installed in museums or collectors’ homes, or at auction houses. Critics—most notably Douglas Crimp and Hal Foster—regarded these artists as Barthesian mythologists who ‘steal’ and subvert media myths: ‘Drawn to pictures whose status is that of a cultural myth, Levine discloses that status and its psychological resonances through the imposition of very simple strategies . . . [she] steals them away from their usual place in our cultures and subverts their mythologies’.footnote7 Although it may be slightly crude, this Barthesian discourse—by now part of appropriation art’s history—can also serve as the starting point for a more differentiated discussion.

As is well known, the ‘myths’ studied and criticized by Barthes in Mythologies (1957) were examples in the media of a bourgeois ideology that transformed history into nature, hijacking signs and giving them a saturated surplus meaning. Myth was a second-degree semiotic system grafted onto a first-degree one. The image of a black soldier saluting, presumably before the French flag, had a second, ‘mythical’ meaning beyond the literal one: it signified that France was a great nation, its principles were universal, and people of different races gladly pledged allegiance to it.footnote8 Barthes defined his mythology as a synthesis of two sciences: semiology and ideology—the latter possessing a historical dimension, unlike semiology.footnote9 Founded during the French Revolution by Destutt de Tracy to enable rational inquiry into the human mind and ideas, the science of ideology was a fruit of the Enlightenment’s reassessment of knowledge and beliefs. Ideology’s roots ‘lie deep in the Enlightenment dream of a world entirely transparent to reason, free of the prejudice, superstition and obscurantism of the ancien régime’.footnote10