Legally Stealing – appropriation and concept in art

Appropriation – separating something from where it came to give it another purpose – has been with us for a while and seems hard for someone to understand how it works in art making today.

The idea that somethings are art and others are not isn’t the easiest thing to understand. It’s subjective and personal. The basic idea is that if it’s put into the context of art, it can or should be accepted as such. The question remains;  is it any good?

Marcel Duchamp

French artist Marcel Duchamp was a bit of an ass. I mean just look at that grin on his face. The kind of ass – the smart ass – that you don’t want to accept as being right. The guy who you want to out argue at a party because he’s drunk and making fun of you. But you have to admit it makes sense. On top of this, artists trying to prove their point have a particular brand of annoying.

This is a problem because no one likes feeling like they are the ass for not agreeing with an idea they don’t want to accept. Or a viewpoint they just don’t necessarily understand and that lack of understanding makes them feel not part of a cool club. Duchamp agreed. He took your view seriously and gave it deep respect.

“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
- Marcel Duchamp

Fountain, Marcel Duchamp, 1917

A real basic version of what Duchamp was saying when he first showed Fountain (above) in a gallery was that anything could be art, if the artist intended it to be. That if we put it in the context of art it can be looked at in that way. Even toilets.

But more important to us as viewers was what he was saying with the quote above. That it was your choice whether it makes the cut. Not just as an art piece, because Duchamp made it easy to make an Art. It’s your choice whether it’s an important piece or a valuable piece, at least to you. When he first tried to show Fountain, the orgainization he was a part of who put together the exhibition hid the work in the back because no one could agree whether it was art or not.

So Art is up to the maker, but art is also up to the viewers. This respect is what people don’t see when they look at Fountain; he wanted to give you the choice and trusted your opinion as just as valid as anyone else. The gesture was hoping you would consider something else and look closer at the world. To see everything as a possibility.


Marcel Duchamp

This changed literally everything. When Duchamp retired from art in the 1920′s to play chess he left an incredible amount of work undone. It made a lot of crap; when you were given the choice to get good at something as complicated as painting or sculpture or just walk around saying “that’s an Art and so is that” why bother making the effort? There are a lot of sad examples of this laziness, and some brilliant and violent ones, many are hilarious.

What Fountain led to was a new way of thinking. Work that started with an idea and sometimes didn’t show an artists hand or style, just their way of thought process and thinking. Conceptualism led to an entirely new way of looking at the world and art work and gave us things you just couldn’t accomplish with the old standards of fine art.

The New York Earth Room, Walter de Maria, 1966 – Present

Walter de Maria is a great example of this way of thinking. New York Earth Room is a beautifully simple idea that has maintained its power over the years and the Dia Art Foundation bought and has maintained as a permanent exhibition since 1977.


New York Earth Room, Walter de Maria, 1966 – Present

New York Earth Room is simply soil. 22 inches deep, the entire 3600 square foot space of the museum’s dedicated location. New York Earth Room is a quiet, white gallery space in Soho. It’s just soil but the location is one thing and the experience of the space is said to be solemn and church like.

The first thing you are said to notice is the smell. Earth has a certain smell that is a sharp contrast from the New York experience. The white sterility of the walls and gallery environment with the glass that holds the soil in there showing the depth and the contrast between the artificial environment of the art world and the natural fresh earth itself.

The New York Earth Room, Walter de Maria, 1966 – Present

de Maria didn’t do anything to the soil, it wasn’t like he invented dirt. He just placed it in the right environment and it became activated with a new purpose; to take people outside of themselves and see something familiar new again.


The Lightning Field, Walter de Maria, 1977 – Present

The Lightning Field is even simpler but just as connected to the natural world. The idea of using the natural world to activate the art work is almost a 180 degree turn in the concept. The piece sits in the New Mexico desert, a location de Maria spent 5 years looking for. The piece is 1 kilometer wide by one mile in length, and is composed of 400 stainless steel rods placed into the earth at the same height. Each rod is 400 feet from the next rod forming a grid.  As the desert floor changes in height, the rods maintain the same elevation throughout the piece.

The Lightning Field, Walter de Maria, 1977 – Present

Despite the name, lighting doesn’t strike the poles much. But part of the piece is experiencing it and the waiting. The expectation that something can happen. And the sharp contrast between the man made wanting to interact with the natural and the tense friction as you wait for it to happen.

It’s not something you can just drive up to and start up a barbeque however. Part of the Dia Foundation’s commitment to the original concept is that only a few people may visit the site at anytime, and making the reservations and time commitment to live at the site in the cabin’s provided is part of the piece.

To show it the respect and time to travel there, stay in the desert to watch the weather and fauna and to simply sit and wait. Your responsibility is to take the time to wait for something to happen.

And the hope of the work is that something will happen to you. I try to think about that as I rush through shows to see the next thing without taking the time to see whats in front of me.

It’s a far stretch from a urinal signed with a made up name, but that is part of the world that Duchamp created. Less limits and more possibilities and responsibilities; for the artist and the viewer.