Research - Authorship, creation, originality, appropriation, authenticity and ownership / by Ally McGinn

Ally McGinn (2016)  Kenneally.  Artists rag with oil and acrylic. 134 x 91 cm.

Ally McGinn (2016) Kenneally. Artists rag with oil and acrylic. 134 x 91 cm.

The idea of authorship is so interlinked with other ideas that it’s hard to isolate it without touching on a few other things. This post is a relatively brief exploration of the notion of authorship and associated concerns – originality, appropriation, ownership, authenticity, and creation.

A few of these ideas were discussed in my dissertation, and the following is a more in-depth view of these ideas.

Beginning with the beginning – Creation

Dissertation excerpt “The concept of ‘creating’ is highly contested.  Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin questioned authorship in the 20th century. (Barthes, 1977) Both discussed whether there is an author at all and how much has to be in place for authorship to happen. Barthes wrote about the death of the author, suggesting that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” (Barthes, 1977: 148) Michel Foucault agrees, arguing that the concept of the author allows for an almost tyrannical rule that restricts the free-thinking of the reader, and by extension the viewer. (Foucault, 1984: 121)

Exploring the work of people like Derrida and other philosophers, we can see how interconnected and dependent the internal and external are in any artwork. In any piece of art, how much of the creation is due to the artist and how much to the ‘Artworld’?

The question is not one that necessarily needs (or can be) to be answered, but its existence must be acknowledged to better understand the idea of authorship.

Can we claim authorship over anything? It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that if there is no creation, then there is no authorship, that everything made is re-contextualising or re-presenting.  However, that argument would change the perspective of ownership in the modern world and its history. It does beg the question, how can you claim ownership of an idea?


An artist creates. This is one of the fundamental principles of art, whether contested or not (and it is highly contested). (Marriner, 2015) At the heart of this creation is the idea of originality. Modern society and the human condition seems to continually imply and reject the notion that everything has already been invented.

There can be no entirely original inventions because even the smallest part of the whole has elements that have already been designed, made or explored.

Is it only in the combination of existing things that originality is found?

It is arguably true that total originality is a myth. As humans, we are combinations of genetic, historical and societal events and attributes that combine to form the person we become. Artworks, especially the good ones, are remarkably similar to people in this regard. Take any artwork, made anywhere in the world, and it is merely a matter of knowledge to be able to find the links to other artworks throughout history, as well as links to various different themes, issues, and ideas that exist in our world.

Maybe there is no original art, just varying degrees of transparency?


What is it that makes an artist the author of an artwork? If the ideas of creation and originality are questionable, then the question of authorship is even more muddied. It is generally agreed that art can be anything, or that anything can be art. This inclusion means that the question of the author becomes a complicated one. Is the manufacturer of paint an artist? The question then becomes one of language. What is the definition of an artist, and who gets to decide which people fit the bill? One crucial factor seems to be that the author has the ultimate responsibility to whatever objectives they choose to pursue through the work.

Marcel Duchamp is the foundational figure of these ideas in art. His readymades, which were selected through “visual indifference” (Tompkins, 2013) and with a sense of irony and humour, epitomise nomination as an art form.

If we take Duchamp's assertion that readymades can be art, which I most certainly do, then the tools that an artist uses are already art. If Michael Landy’s art bin (Bishop, 2005) is art, then so are the artworks artists deem non-art. Performance, environments, social change, and any other action or object that an artist chooses to nominate can be, and are, art…...but then who is the artist?


A word must be said on appropriation; a word that is synonymous (in the art world) with authorship. Appropriation can be said to not only be a modern idea. Defined as the intentional borrowing, copying, and alteration of preexisting images and objects, appropriation has been considered a legitimate tool for artists as long as there has been art.

Appropriation is defined as the art of using pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them, which can be one description applied to both my process and some of the pieces created recently.

In art terms to appropriate is to adapt, borrow, recycle or sample aspects (or the entire form) of human-made visual culture (although it can be argued that appropriation from naturally occurring visuals is also appropriation).

Appropriation is accompanied by the re-contextualisation of the object or image.  Even if this is just the artist saying, “it is art.”

Appropriation can be explained as "the taking over, into a work of art, of a real object or even an existing work of art." (Tate, Undated) The Tate traces the practice back to Cubism and Dada through to Surrealism, pop art and Neo-geo artists in the 1980’s. (Tate, Undated)

What is considered the first piece of appropriation in art was done during the Cubist movement, although who did it first is still in question. (it was either Picasso or Braque) By adding a piece of oilcloth onto the canvas and later working with newspaper and other materials appropriation began through collage. The two then used appropriation to explore ideas of the significance of realism. Showing that appropriation, like creativity, can be considered a tool for the artist to examine broader questions.

The practice of adding appropriated imagery has been expanded to include entire works of other artists, claimed by someone else, in blatant and defended plagiarism, Richard Prince being the prime example. (Richard Prince, Undated) Who famously appropriated images from Marlboro cigarettes, re-photographing them and presenting them as art.

I've discussed the implications of Duchamps readymades in more than one other blog post, so I'll dispense with that here, other than to say that here again Duchamp intersects visual culture. The readymades were appropriated objects, as well as nominated ones. (Tompkins, 2013)

Appropriation was continued and developed by the Dadaists and collage artists like Kurt Schwitters. (Tate, Undated) Found objects had become a recognised material, and a tool artists began to think with.

A link to another post can be found in Schwitters’ “Merz”, which is a precursor of the development of installation art.

Surrealism took found objects and subverted our expectations of them to form new meaning.

Robert Rauschenberg made what he termed ‘combines,' literally combining readymade objects like tyres or beds, painting, silkscreens, collage, and photography. More on Rauschenberg in another post. (Robert Rauschenberg, 2016)

Later artists like Klaus Oldenberg (Evans, 2009) and Andy Warhol (Evans, 2009) appropriated commercial images and images from popular culture. To both artists pop culture is accessible to all, regardless of class, or education. No matter who you were, it meant the same thing.

In the 1960’s appropriation artist, Elaine Sturtevant created works that were copies of other artworks, with little interaction, nominating them as art. (Evans, 2009)  Created using the same techniques, occasionally with advice from the artist being copied, each work had a mistake in creation, to distinguish between the copy and original. This process, and the resulting ‘new’ work, openly acknowledges its status as a copy; challenging the concept of the author.

When Duchamp nominated his readymades, and Warhol appropriated popular culture they chose certain objects to become art. The work of Sturtevant, and mine eschews this level of decision, by allowing other artists to determine what is worthy to be treated as art.

One of the best-known artists, who work with appropriation as a subject as well as a tool, is Sherrie Levine. I recently saw some of her work at the David Zwirner gallery in London. (Sherrie Levine, 2017)

Levine is primarily a photographer, popular in the 1980’s for reproducing, through photography, recognisable works of art.

Through this change in medium, she questions the author of the artwork and the very nature of authorship.

Sherrie Levine (1996)  Fountain [Budda]  Cast bronze. 30.48 x 40.32 x 45.72 cm. 

Sherrie Levine (1996) Fountain [Budda] Cast bronze. 30.48 x 40.32 x 45.72 cm. 

Levine explored this idea in sculpture, recreating ‘fountain’ by Marcel Duchamp in bronze (The Broad Gallery, Undated) (which is arguably as ‘real’ as replicas seen in galleries today - see my post on the Dali/Duchamp exhibition at the RA for more context around this comment) among other works.

One of her most famous series were photographic reproductions of photographs by Walker Evans. Levine took photographs from the exhibition catalogue and presented (or maybe nominated) these as her work. (Sherrie Levine, 2017)

Artist Michael Mandiberg took this idea one step further in 2001. (Maniberg, 2001) He created an online archive of the images (taken from the same catalogue) which could be accessed and, with precise instructions, printed by anyone with access to the internet and a printer. Viewers can also print a certificate of authenticity (for a Mandiberg).

This work challenges the commodity that Levine's work became, and it would be interesting to find out what she thought of the website -

Artist Mike Bidlo painted reproductions (although he didn't call them that) of works by famous artists, notably Pollock, Warhol and Duchamp. (Evans, 2009)

Often, as can be seen with Levine, Mandiberg and Bidlo, the artists use the original ‘creator’s name in their own titles. Showing that the intention is not to steal, or otherwise claim any of the original skill of the works, indeed it could be said that their content becomes if not irrelevant than at least less important than the fact that they are appropriated.

This is probably most interesting in the case of remade readymades, recreations of Duchamp's works. Arguably the second artist is doing what Duchamp himself did, albeit looking in a different ‘everyday’ for their source material - the everyday of the artworld.

This is an extremely important point in my practice, and a term I often use when collecting materials from around my own, and others, working spaces.

Appropriation has sparked in numerous copyright lawsuits. One of the reasons appropriation is such a controversial subject is the existence of the ‘Artworld’, a term coined by Arthur Danto (explained further in other posts) that describes the foundational context that surrounds any artwork. (Danto, 1964) As the revelation suggests, anything can be art, and art often challenges our assumptions, in which appropriation is a useful tool.

The work of these artists is linked by an inclusion of large components of the work of other artists, from the start. Traditionally the artist is held responsible for all aspects of their creations. Gerhard Richter suggested that art is “ a series of yes or no questions with a yes at the end.” (Richter, 2000)

Even when chance is considered, the artist is still deciding to include or remove something. This is what makes art open to interpretation, in questioning why the artist did something we can interpret the artwork as art.

Total appropriation, or near enough, seems to eschew any responsibility for the details of the work. (Although there are enough artworks in existence, even famous ones, that the decision by these artists arguably comes in the choice of what to reproduce.) Instead, the works reflect the decisions taken by the artist subjects.

My recent works have a similar sense of authorship and responsibility, although certainly on a scale.

These artists are the authors of their work, this point is fact rather than opinion and is repeatedly evidenced. The fact that they are needs no arguing, but the reason is interesting and instead the subject of the work. They are art because they are nominated art, and the artists achieve the recognition of the work as such. That recognition is an important factor when considering the author of the work. Art is only Art with the existence of an artworld, and that artworld is built on a foundation of mutual recognition.

The work of these, and other, artists could be seen as evidence that the author is dead. However, they are closer to comments on the purpose of authorship, and originality, than rejecting it.

Appropriation artists are sometimes seen as undermining notions of artistic authorship and even skill, but the intention is usually far from negative, and in fact, serves as evidence that originality is not all it would appear, and that art has the potential to ask questions we might not typically ask.

The pressure to be original is felt by artists around the world, and yet our very understanding of the term is flawed, we are an amalgamation of influences and experiences, as are artworks. The inclusion of appropriated materials can be done for many reasons, and different artists will have different interpretations of the meaning of these items, as will the viewers, but the inclusion itself has a particular meaning.

One thing that these artists show is that originality is not a prerequisite for art.

I'll end the section on appropriation with three quotes from Michalis Pichler’s ‘Statements on Appropriation’ which contained 24 statements, 6 by the artist, about appropriation, pulled out of a hat. (Pichler, 2009)

“Ultimately, any sign or word is susceptible to being converted into something else, even into its opposite.”

“Plagiarism is necessary, progress implies it.”

“No poet, no artist, of any art has his complete meaning alone.”


Along with the idea of originality comes the notion of authenticity. Primarily associated with the art market, there is an implicit authenticity required for something to be considered ‘Art’. There are of course exceptions to every rule, but generally, we trust that the ‘Art’ that we are looking at is what the artist is presenting it as, even if that is a planned pretence.

There is also an element of trust implied within the art gallery, the level of which depends on the status of the institution. We expect works shown at the Royal Academy or the Tate to be ‘Art’ whether we like or understand it.

Beyond the financial or historical implications, authenticity is, as many of the other terms in this text, a tool in the artist's work. It is used by artists to express ideas and to explore our understanding. Using the notion of authenticity can invoke questions about what we perceive as art.


When an author claims a work as their own, they are claiming a form of temporary ownership.  That ownership is vital for the nomination of the work as Art.

As discussed above, contemporary art is filled with artists who have taken this conversation to its extreme, often resulting in lawsuits and lengthy debates over authenticity (another term intrinsically linked to this subject). If we accept that no work is original, then we are all plagiarists, and plagiarism is a fact of creation, rather than merely something to be avoided.

Ownership, when discussed in the art world, brings the art market into the conversation, bringing with it the truth of the commodity that all artworks are - no matter the intention.

The art market is a symbiotic partner to the art world, so interlinked that they are dependent upon one another. (The worlds most expensive painting, 2011)

Artworks are commodities, and the prices of the most expensive artworks are continuing to rise. Even artworks created to reject the art market, like environmental art, can be commercialised (in that case through documentation and reproduction)

Many of my pieces discus, or inspire, the artwork as a commodity (occasionally unintentionally) and whether that discussion is a rejection or a celebration is mostly a question for the viewer. From my perspective, I consider them both. I dislike the commercialism of the modern world and believe that it could be changed for the better but (in the art world at least) I understand the need for it and the purpose it has.

These works have no internal answer to the question of whether the artwork as a commodity is a positive or a negative, they merely embody the question.

A position I choose for many of my works. They are intentionally ambiguous on opinion. I think that is one of the reasons I always include chance elements and unwanted items, the removal of hierarchy and aesthetic preference negates the idea of opinion and adds to the questions invoked.

Conclusion - sort of

At its foundation, it is important to remember that these ideas are metaphysical conversations. Each is as open to interpretation as art itself, and have inspired thinkers for centuries.

The point, as convoluted as it seems, appears to be that nothing is as simple as it first looks. Authenticity, originality, authorship, and creation are all made complicated when applied to art. There is no substantial formula, nor any rules that cannot be broken. The critical factor in the examination of these issues is the artist. It is not in the creation of the work that these conversations exist but in defence and explanation of them.

Regarding my work, these ideas recur regularly. From the collection of unwanted materials, failed experiments and placed canvases, each of my pieces contains an element of shared authorship. That shared authorship, when combined with other contextual features, seeks to question the definition and reality of art.

IMPORTANT EDIT/REALISATION 10.12.17 - I've come to realise that writing and speaking (or language in general) is a form of appropriation. We rarely make up our own words. The personal element comes in our interpretation or understanding of the words, or gestures, of others.


Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. St Ives: Fontana Press.

Bishop, C (2005) Installation Art. London: Tate Publishing.

Danto, A C. (1964) ‘The Artworld’. The Journal of Philosophy, Volume (61): Pages 571-584.

Evans, D. (2009) Appropriation (Documents of Contemporary Art). London: Whitechapel Art Gallery.        

Foucault, ‘What Is an Author?’, trans. Josué V. Harari, in Paul Rainbow (ed.), The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), pp. 101-120.

Kabakov, I. (2000) ‘Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933) on installations’. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P. eds. Art in Theory:1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Blackwell: 1175-1180.

Mandiberg, M (2001) After Sherrie Levine. [Online] Avaliable from : [Accessed 05.11.17].

Marriner, R. (2015) Making and the Contemporary. Bath Spa University. October-December 2015.

Pichler, M. (2009) Statements on Appropriation. [Online] Avaliable from : [Accessed 01.12.17].

Reiss, J. (2001) From Margin to Center: The Spaces of Installation Art. London: MIT Press.

Richard Prince (Undated) Richard Prince. [Online] Avaliable from: [Accessed 04.11.17].

Richter, G. (2000) ‘Notes 1964-65’. In: Harrison, C and Wood, P. eds. Art in Theory:1900-2000 An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Blackwell: 757-760.

Robert Rauschenberg (2016) [Exhibition]. Tate Modern, London. 1 December 2016 - 2 April 2017.

Sherrie Levine : Pie Town (2017) [Exhibition]. David Zwirner Gallery, London. 4 October - 18 November 2017.

Tate (Undated) Appropriation. [Online] Avaliable from: [Accessed 03.11.17].

The Broad Gallery (Undated) Sherrie Levine, Fountain [Buddha]. [Online] Avaliable from: [Accessed 05.11.17].

The worlds most expensive painting. (2011) [DVD] Russell England. UK: BBC1.

Tompkins, C. (2013) Marcel Duchamp: The afternoon interviews. Brooklyn: Badlands Unlimited.


The author of many of my recent works is ambiguous due to the different signatures found on the surface and the previous owners (and creators) of the found objects. (although this is only when the context is known, on initial visual inspection the works are assumed to be authored by me)

The critical factor appears to be the moment when the other artist agrees that their action, object or artwork is not useful for them, and the moment I take ownership of them.

The actions captured are those that the artist disregards - without canvas on the floor, wall or table those actions and marks would be lost.

The objects are either finished containers, unwanted tools or 'broken' items.

And the artworks are all either donated or sourced from bins - all regarded by the original author as unwanted.

Once I take ownership of these objects (or objectifications in the case of placed canvases), they become the materials of my practice. Through this filter, they are in turn nominated and presented as Art.

Without that filter they remain what they once were because it is only through the nomination that they are put forward to be understood, questioned and interpreted as Art.

The fact that an object can be collected and presented, without interaction, as art shows that it is the nomination that counts.

(Although that begs the question of whether the nomination counts as an interaction if it does then the interaction is synonymous with the nomination.)

That the nomination is done by me could, arguably, be enough to count myself as the author.

However, I have to note that even when referring to the placed canvases in passing I refer to them as if they belonged to the artist whose actions are collected. This could be because the artist becomes an adjective rather than a noun. The descriptor of these works is the artist involved. This conflict of description only seems to occur when dealing with the placed canvases and unwanted works - materials, tools, and general rubbish seem free of author-dilemma.

The collaborative authorship of these pieces negates some of the automatic personal associations between author and work. Adding to the unintentional narrative of the pieces.

When thinking about the originality of these pieces, I believe they are often more original than the artworks created during their use. They are referencing and collecting process, and in themselves are completely honest, the occasional dishonesty comes through my interaction.

Their originality can be compared to other works about a similar subject of course, but I (as with most artists) can only hope that they are original enough.

Their authenticity is harder to pin down, by intention. They are what they are, they have a reality, as do all objects.

They are authentically what they are, and when questioned I, as the artist, always tell the truth about their origins and process. However if not challenged, or when seen and not investigated further, some of the works (primarily the found or placed canvases) are misleading, pretending to be something they are not. The viewer may assume that the marks are intentional, or created in an alternative way.

I discuss this because many people seem surprised when they hear how the works are made, and it has been suggested that my current interaction with the work is not enough to call it art.

I have found evidence of this when discussing the works with visiting tutors and other students or viewers. When informed of how they were made (especially the piece - Even babies lie) viewers are often surprised.

That the nomination, not the interaction, is enough for consideration as art is evidenced in historical canon. Further actions from me either solidify or negate the nomination.