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  5. Plunder and protection: attitudes to Aboriginal art
  6. Appropriation and postmodernism
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Appropriation and postmodernism

The exploratory urges of modernist art have not ended in the era of postmodernism. Many artists continue to look for representations that are transcendent and symbolism that is universal. The climate is even more conducive to appropriation, and the ethics more complex, because of the tendency of postmodern art to reposition images (or 'signs') so that the interpreter is provided with questions or challenges about what the images signify. A non-Aboriginal artist, therefore, might make a very conscious attempt to challenge assumptions about the 'primitive' or the 'traditional' by providing new contexts for recognisable indigenous images or styles. In this approach, the artist is said to be 'referencing', not ripping off.

There is also a tendency towards a 'global consciousness' in this era of close and immediate cultural exchange. Artists of all kinds are making apparently sincere attempts to open up their thinking and their sources of influence. Inevitably, this leads to the adoption of forms and styles that are 'outside' the artists' cultural traditions.

Discussion points

  • Is it possible for present-day art to be monocultural? Why or why not?
  • What is valuable about artists focusing on their cultural heritage? What negative aspects might there be?
  • Aboriginal artists are not free to borrow from other Aboriginal cultural styles in their work unless they have the consent of the original owners (note the comments by Peter Skipper and Banduk Marika as quoted in 'Fair game: 'Aboriginal' designs in the marketplace'). Does this mean that there is a 'level playing field' in the art world?
  • What connections can you make between mass media and artistic appropriation or misappropriation?
  • Once an image is widely disseminated, its meanings can rapidly change. Consider the associations or feelings that you might attach to the following and how they might be different from the associations intended when the images were first created:
    - a McDonald's sign
    - a gold-leaf Madonna
    - a bowl of fruit painted in oils
    - a linocut bottle-brush
    - a stencilled hand.
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Appropriation and postmodernism