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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_GoldsmithAny day soon, the Supreme Court will hand down a decision that could change the future of Western art — and, in a way, its history, too. Blame the appeals court judgment from 2021 declaring that Andy Warhol had no right to copy someone else’s photo of Prince into one of the Pop artist’s renowned silk-screened portraits.

The art world quailed at the verdict.

“It strikes at the heart of the way artists today have been taught to make and comprehend art,” the Brooklyn Museum opined in a brief to the Supreme Court, which is currently revisiting the appellate court’s decision about copyright law.

Artists joined on with a brief condemning the appeals court for “denigrating art that takes, appropriates and replicates past works as something close to plagiarism or exploitation.”

In its own brief, the Andy Warhol Foundation, whose fight with the photographer Lynn Goldsmith got the case started, quoted a certain Blake Gopnik, writing in this newspaper: “The act of ‘retaining the essential elements’ of an extant image is Warhol’s entire m.o. as one of the most important of all modern artists.” I had gone further: “There’s a lot that judges can do with the stroke of a pen, but rewriting art history isn’t one of them. They’re stuck with appropriation as one of the major aesthetic inventions of the modern era.”

We art lovers were right to come to the defense of appropriated art. Today’s culture would undoubtedly be weaker without Warhol’s Campbell Soups, Brillo Boxes, and Flowers, motivating us for six decades today.

But what if their pleas to the justices were too modest?

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Andy Warhol’s Flowers series (1964) was taken from a magazine shot. Credit…The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS) (ARS)

Maybe Warhol’s right to use Goldsmith’s photo wasn’t genuinely about anything that transpired in the past century.

Maybe his appropriations matter so much because they get at the heart and meaning and origins of the entire legacy of Western art. They may have so much power now because they lead us back to a moment, during the Renaissance, when a series of appropriations radically altered the purpose of European paintings and sculptures, turning them into the kinds of museum-worthy items we contemplate now.

Humans had been building stunning, strong items for millenniums. But those usually had rather clear functions: to call down the favor of a god, or to demonstrate a noble genealogy, or to show off a new marriage. What seems to happen around 1500 is that certain fancy Europeans started to imagine they can take those functional objects — sacred paintings, family portraits — and appropriate them, unchanged, into a new domain that looks more like the art of today, where images aren’t expected to have any fixed function at all, except to trigger wonder and puzzlement and, especially, endless talk.

For a half-decade, I’ve been puzzling over art’s functionless function with Alva Noë, who chairs the philosophy department at the University of California, Berkeley. His new book, “The Entanglement,” dives at the gap between the photos and items humans use every day, to shop on Amazon.com or to call on their gods, and the pictures and objects we use as works of art.

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“Sure, that’s my grandma from the photo album,” Noë stated in our most recent conversation. “But if you take it out of the context of the photo album and put it on a wall in a gallery, what the heck is it anymore? It’s no longer evident what it is, what it is aiming to show or what it is for – what it is a tool for doing.”

And that’s the point. Once the photo is in a gallery — once it has been appropriated from family life into the world of art — “it is going to seduce you and invite you to look harder, look longer, ask questions, interrogate, try to make something of it,” Noë said. And that, according to Noë, helps us reassess our lives beyond art.

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That opening up of new possibilities, while avoiding any definitive conclusions, is what makes art so compelling.

So maybe we truly use the word “art” to imply two different things, the way “bat” might designate a flying animal or a stick for striking balls. We use “art” to describe practically any form of a noticeably lovely object. And then we use those same three letters to point to the tiny subset of objects that get the outrageously odd kind of attention museums are supposed to promote.

The phrase “Fine Art” has often been used to split apart that second connotation, but I loathe how that “fine,” and those capital letters, implies some kind of superiority. A picture we are using to illustrate a war crime may really deserve more respect than one of those self-portraits by Cindy Sherman that has us continuously discussing and wondering. So lately I’ve started compressing “Fine Art” into the new term “fArt,” so that we art lovers — fArt enthusiasts — know not to take ourselves too seriously.

We can acquire insight into the first change of art into fArt, approximately 1500, through the studies of Alexander Nagel, an art historian at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. It looks as though a few religious reformers — in particular Girolamo Savonarola, the Florentine firebrand — began to be disgusted by the distracting realism of certain new sacred paintings, like the ones that scored artistic points by posing local girls as biblical heroines: “The figures you have made in the churches are in the likeness of one or another woman, which is very badly done and in great disregard for what is God’s,” Savonarola raged.

Just In! - Mona Lisa Predicted the Brillo Box, read how.
In “The Three Philosophers,” dated approximately 1508-09, Giorgione may have been consciously rejecting the usual religious motif of the three magi. Credit… KHM-Museumsverband

The issue, as Nagel spelled it out in his book “The Controversy of Renaissance Art,” was that the paintings’ viewers, instead of having their minds on God and his saints, were engaging in “the pleasurable activity of pictorial analysis” — the kind of contemplative work that Noë finds in what we’re calling fArt.

Some of Savonarola’s contemporaries solved the problem. Franz von Sickingen, a patron of Martin Luther himself, urged that those distracting church paintings should be placed into secular settings — as “ornaments of elegant rooms,” he claimed, where their “art, beauty, and magnificence” might be safely studied and appreciated. That is, those newfangled religious items should be seized into the sphere of fArt, to receive the kind of attention we give them today when they’re displayed down the hall from the Warhols. (Of course, other forms of fArt have sprung up at other moments in other locations — in Persia, or China, or Japan — but they didn’t play a role in the Leonardo-to-Warhol scenario.)

In the early 16th century, all sorts of things whose roles might previously have been clearly started moving — start getting appropriated — into such rooms. You find religious artworks being gathered into art collections where they can’t have had any ceremonial use. The Mona Lisa actually never gets delivered to the patron who paid to have his wife immortalized in it; instead, Leonardo da Vinci carries the painting with him wherever he travels, revising it as an example of his art. After Leonardo’s death, in France in 1519, the picture is revered by King Francis I and his descendants, none of whom cared about the woman it represented or the vanity of the man who married her.

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Around the same period, paintings start being created that are so hard to figure out, they could only ever function as fArt. A picture by the Venetian artist Giorgione is referred to as “The Three Philosophers,” but the title is so imprecise mainly because we have never been able to settle on what the artist had in mind for his three characters.

Nagel believes that Giorgione had such unsettled meaning as his goal, and he tracks how the artist actually worked to make his subject less legible, abandoning the standard religious imagery of the magi at the manger by leaving a blank space where you’d expect Christ and his mother, turning the three kings into the “philosophers” of our new title. “The target of the inquiry is missing: We don’t know what the target is; they don’t know what the target is,” Nagel added. “They’re just there.”

It’s not that subjects and meaning quit mattering in the unstable artworks of Giorgione and his ilk, becoming supplanted by so-called aesthetic criteria such as “beauty” or “form.” Exactly the opposite: Meaning stops being a given and becomes the object of a compelling search, as it is now when we puzzle out a picture of a soup can.

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After art began to be made for its own sake, from scratch, appropriation went mostly to sleep for another 500 years. It ultimately came back into play in Europe early last century, when contemporary painters tried to shake up a stale art world by injecting it, once again, with energies plundered from outside.

Just In! - Mona Lisa Predicted the Brillo Box, read how.
Government documents seized by the director Laura Poitras are converted into artwork (“November 20, 2004,” 2016) when they are displayed on a museum wall.

Masks, statuettes, and other ceremonial artifacts seized from Africa and beyond got brought into museums where they could appeal to the unusual taste of Western colonizers for thinking and talking about gazing. In Africa, “when the mask wasn’t being danced, it was rolled up normally and stored away; it wasn’t hung out to be viewed and appreciated,” observed Larry Shiner, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois. His seminal work “The Creation of Art” concentrates on the difficulties of power — even occasionally of violence and theft — that have always troubled Western art and its appropriations.

If cultural influences have always run back and forth between peoples, full-blown cultural appropriation may have a specific history in Europe. After the Renaissance created its new “art system,” as Nagel describes it, around appropriation, Europeans felt free to reimagine the functions of artifacts from foreign cultures, regardless of what those might have meant for their makers. “That creative system continuously needs to be nourished, even from its origins, by what is outside of it,” Nagel added. “That is the way it works.”

As Shiner has pointed out, sometimes it means asking the West’s own everyday goods to serve the functionless functions of art.

Early on, art museum curators began collecting photos commissioned for geological surveys so that, Shiner said, they could be “taken out of their function as showing you what something looked like — for purposes of geology, exploration, camping or whatever it might be — and treated purely as images to be enjoyed and appreciated.”

In 1942, Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, may have carried appropriation too far for his own benefit. Once he presented an elegant shoeshine stand as a sculpture, his board of directors demoted him to the curator.

Today’s art world doesn’t hesitate to rely on appropriation to fuel contemporary movements like relational aesthetics, where Rirkrit Tiravanija’s curry parties invite reflection as fArt, or investigative aesthetics, where the political fact-finding of Laura Poitras gets accepted into an art museum.
This wild variety is feasible because when we talk about fArt we’re not talking about any particular kind of object, but about something we do to an object. It’s more of a verb than a noun: We fArt the topics we want to consider. And that’s true even of the fanciest of paintings and sculptures, which can spend most of their lives playing pedestrian functions — as investments, tourist attractions, or over-the-sofa décor — except for the moments we pay them a special kind of museum attention.

That’s what Warhol initially made plain, in 1964, with “sculptures” that were pretty nearly indistinguishable from the everyday cartons used to distribute Brillo pads — except that Warhol’s boxes were supposed to do all their work in what Noë calls “a realm of thought and discourse, a space of criticism.” (Marcel Duchamp had done a similar approach in 1917, with the urinal he presented as sculpture, but that was less appropriation than detonation, aiming to destroy art rather than give it new life.)

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Maybe the creative instability that’s at the center of Western art is there because we know that every painting or sculpture we’re employing for pensive, talky purposes might just conceivably have been put to more practical use. It’s that divided personality — Brillo box or sculpture dubbed “Brillo Box”; religious icon or landmark painting; investment or museum item — that gives art its charge.

The twofold identity is on view in the Prince’s portrait silk-screened by Warhol since it never conceals its source in Goldsmith’s shot of the Prince. Those appeals court justices were notably upset by discovering that Warhol’s appropriation left both Princes in sight at once. They should have known that the art in question brought us, Prince, squared.

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