The Pseudo-“Banksy NFT” and Intriguing Aspects of Appropriation Art
The talk of the town in the past 24 hours was about the mysterious artist on Rarible and Opensea known as Pest Supply and a frenzy of collectors looking to get NFT works from the artist. We have covered Pest Supply in our weekly newsletter earlier this week and was equally intrigued by the art and the artist’s approach with a heavily Banksy-inspired school of art-making:
What’s intriguing about the artist Pest Supply is that putting whether he/she is Banksy himself/herself aside, he/she never mentioned the word “Banksy” or “Pest Control” or anything related with Banksy throughout the artist’s profile page and art, if he/she is not Banksy, he/she has created some phenomenal appropriation art that dissects the perception from the collecting circle and how value can be created from satire.
What is appropriation art?
Appropriation in art is the use of pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them. The use of appropriation has played a significant role in the history of the arts (literary, visual, musical and performing arts). In the visual arts, to appropriate means to properly adopt, borrow, recycle or sample aspects (or the entire form) of human-made visual culture. Notable in this respect is the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp.
Inherent in our understanding of appropriation is the concept that the new work re-contextualizes whatever it borrows to create the new work. In most cases, the original ‘thing’ remains accessible as the original, without change.
From our editor’s perspective, there is a vast discrepancy between the NFT art world and the contemporary art world due to that many collectors in the NFT Art world are very new to the concept of art collecting and hence many art genres, schools and movements such as appropriation are unfamiliar to most of them.
Appropriation art means if artist A creates art with a concept, an intent that can raise a dialogue upon a specific topic or idea, then artist A can choose to appropriate artist B/C/D’s works without notification or recognition. Sometimes the concept plays on the value of art, sometimes the concept plays on the public’s perception of beauty, sometimes it is a little bit of both and other things such as the use of machine labor and studio assistant labor and if the art is still original or not.
So, contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as “Copyright Beef” in the fine art realm, an artist has the free expression to use or take inspirations from ideas and concepts of others to generate and recreate a new concept or decipher a new way of explaining a concept.
A great example is Elaine Sturtevant, also known professionally as Sturtevant.
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Going only by her last name, Elaine Sturtevant was a master of appropriation who re-created works by iconic 20th-century artists in order to explore authenticity, artistic celebrity, and the creative process. Calling her approach “repetition,” she began making deliberately inexact copies of the work of her predecessors and contemporaries in 1964, repeating pieces by the likes of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Marcel Duchamp. Some artists appreciated her project: Warhol loaned her original screens for her reproduction of his “Flowers” series. Others were angered. For example, Claes Oldenburg bristled when she presented a version of Oldenburg’s The Store. Sturtevant was variously criticized, dismissed, and celebrated (she was awarded a Golden Lion in 2011) throughout her career. In 2000, she began focusing on video, utilizing clips from the mass media and popular entertainment to challenge the politics of image production.
Through such a mode of creation, Sturtevant challenged the very logic of Pop art, exploring notions of originality and authorship. She has been called the mother of appropriation art — a movement that flourished only later in the 1980s.
Sturtevant disliked the term, however. “The appropriationists were really about the loss of originality,” she explained. “And I was about the power of thought.”
The New York Times observed in 2014: “As a replicator, Ms. Sturtevant was an original. A Sturtevant work is as instantly and uncannily recognizable as a Warhol silk-screen, say, or a Johns flag. But, at the same time, each in its own way is a deliberately inexact likeness of its more famous progenitor.”
Sturtevant was said to have read Gilles Deleuze’s seminal 1968 text, Différence et repetition, in its original French, with the aid of a dictionary, before it became available in English. At once same and yet different, her work compels viewers to look beyond the surface into what she termed the “under-structure of art”.
Beneath the ‘copy’ is a rigorous study on the action of art itself — not only its making but its circulation, its canonization, and its value. Sturtevant said: “I make reproductions in order to confront, in order to trigger thinking” (the artist cited in Bernard Blistene, ‘Lavel Elaine’, in exh. cat. Frankfurt, Museum für Moderne Kunst, Sturtevant — The Brutal Truth, 2004, p. 36).
The importance of Sturtevant’s pioneering oeuvre was overlooked for decades. In 2011, she was rightfully awarded the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.
Another triumph — one arguably more significant — surfaced in the same year, when her reworking of Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl (1963) sold for USD 710,500 at auction. The ‘original’ lithograph by Lichtenstein sold for only USD 78,400 in 2007.
Peter Eleey, curator of Sturtevant’s major retrospective at the MoMA in 2014, the year of the artist’s death, declared: “She was the first postmodern artist — before the fact — and also the last.”
Though her work of the 1960s and 1970s may appear to be simply mimetic exercises in proto-appropriation, Sturtevant is better understood as an artist who adopted style as her medium and took the art of her time as a loose “score” to be enacted. Far more than copies, her versions of Johns’s flags, Warhol’s flowers, and Joseph Beuys’s fat chairs are studies in the action of art that expose aspects of its making, circulation, and canonization. Working primarily in video since 2000, the artist remained deeply engaged with the politics of image production and reception, using stock footage from Hollywood films, television, and advertising to point to the exhaustion built into much of postwar cultural production.
The difficulty of telling Sturtevant’s vivid blooms apart from Warhol’s was entirely intentional on the part of both artists: Warhol actually lent Sturtevant his original to execute the images for the show. Over the coming years Sturtevant would make a habit of copying the works of Warhol, who connived at the practice and, to avoid answering cloying questions about his working methods, once quipped: “I don’t know. Ask Elaine.”
Sturtevant’s “repetitions”, as she called them, were designed to disorientate. They were intended to be precise enough to persuade viewers that they were looking at an “authentic” Warhol or Stella, and at the same time sufficiently free and inexact to suggest that another hand might actually be at work — indeed, for the work to be no less unmistakably a Sturtevant. “I create vertigo,” the artist-repeater liked to say. If you visit the Vice Versa show currently at Thaddaeus Ropac in London, you may find yourself growing dizzy among all the Sturtevant-Warhols, Sturtevant-Lichtensteins, Sturtevant-Stellas.
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In the case of Pest Supply, the artist has meticulously created art that’s not the exact same copy of Banksy, but with style inspired by Banksy while focusing on different concepts, objects, and events that may impact the society or the artist. For example, in work NFT Morons, the artist Pest Supply quirkily replaced Banksy’s iconic Moron edition with a laptop operating figure next to a sign “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this NFT shit” to signify the current boom and frenzy within the NFT art market and how many collectors are caring less about works’ provenance and concept but instead more for a quick flip immediately after purchase. The artist is questioning the legitimacy of NFT art while using the art as a valuable test to test people’s perception of value, all done without mentioning a single word about Banksy or Pest Patrol. That in itself is quite an ingenious performance and appropriation art that’s similar to Sturtevant Warhol and Yves Klein’s gold project, Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle. And with Sturtevant Warho commanding millions of dollars of prices like the works from Andy Warhol, appropriation art has its market recognition and added layer of concept and can be great art to collect if one happens to find good ones like that from Pest Supply.
The history of appropriation art is profound and full of fun and insightful dialogues and stories, so next time if a friend or people ask you opinions about a certain artist’s works and if they look similar on the surface, instead of using the Great Picasso’s “Copy & Steal” line, mention the name of Elaine Sturtevant and let them Google, and learn something more about art together.