Appropriation in the Digital World

Digitally created images derive from prior techniques, yet offer the power to meld and manipulate images that bring the very truth of those images into question. Unlike fine art, in which the brush stroke may establish uniqueness and, therefore, value, the digital image exists in a different construct and can be infinitely reproduced without any generational loss of image quality. Certainly the digital world is a more hospitable environment for copying than the world of the brush stroke or even the transparency. In fact, the truth of the image is so vulnerable to manipulation that some advocates for ethical practices have proposed what amount to labeling requirements that would disclose when work has been altered. Of course, infringers would ignore such disclosure requirements in the same way that they ignore the boundaries set by the copyright law with respect to copying. Implicit in all this is the power of the computer to take existing images and change them beyond recognition.

So the digital image not only eliminates originality in the sense of physical uniqueness (since the art can be reproduced an infinite number of times without any generational loss of image quality), but it also challenges the concept of the individual creator’s originality as the memory of the computer holds more and more appropriated imagery.

Appropriation art is a postmodern theme. Some gallery artists gain fame by appropriating the images, and sometimes the life styles, of their famous, painterly predecessors. Is appropriation the proper response to consumerism and the money excesses of the art world? Is this an attitude that has perhaps gained wider acceptance than we might imagine? Is the easy taking of the appropriation artist being paralleled by the budget-conscious behavior of corporations whose bottom-line concerns are paramount? The answers to these questions will become apparent with the passage of time. For now, we can only emphasize that infringement is unlawful and unethical. Artists must do whatever they can to protect their images and ensure that appropriation, in whatever guise, is not allowed to become an artistic norm.

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