Appropriation Art: The Meaning Is in the Media

Liz Sabatiuk


In the context of a dialogic, generative, or ritual approach to communication and culture, the concept of Appropriation Art can seem oversimplified at best. Yet the hypermediacy inherent in Appropriation Art offers a powerful interface through which to analyze the dialogic and generative properties of communication and culture. Artists like Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and Yasumasa Morimura emphasize the mediating function of their work to add meaning to the cultural encyclopedia from which their work draws. Applying the concepts of mediation and generativity from Peircian Semiotics along with Bolter and Grusin’s theory of remediation, we can better understand the power of this genre to hold a mirror to culture while ensuring that we realize the reflection we see is never the whole story, but rather a part of an ongoing evolution of meaning.


In the context of a dialogic, generative, or ritual approach to communication and culture, the concept of Appropriation Art can seem oversimplified at best. Appropriation implies the existence of an original and a copy as opposed to nodes in a generative cultural process in which each “original” has been informed and made possible by what has preceded it. In “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” James Carey writes, “If we are to engage in this activity — writing an essay, making a film, entertaining an audience, imparting information and advice — we must discover models in our culture that tell us how this particular miracle is achieved. Such models are found in common sense, law, religious traditions, increasingly in scientific theories themselves” (Carey, 1989). Carey is articulating the importance of understanding genre in order to participate in any form of meaning making. All artists must to some extent work within the context of their genre in order for their work to be relevant, so appropriation in the sense of taking something that exists and using it for one’s own purposes is a matter of degree rather than a present or absent quality.

Nevertheless, there is value in approaching the mimicry, performative re-creation, and recontextualization that characterizes Appropriation Art as its own genre, particularly when analyzing the relationship between “appropriated” works and the “original” works or genres they seek to evoke. Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and Yasumasa Morimura are all conceptual artists associated with the genre of Appropriation Art. All three artists use a practice that Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin call remediation to depict one medium using a different medium, drawing attention to context, genre, and the media themselves as they do so.

Warhol’s work remediates the mundane or commercial in a high art context, experimenting with scale, color, and repetition to create visual interest. Sherman’s work also defies convention by crossing genre boundaries; Sherman often uses her own face and body to create “stills” of films that never existed or remediate historical portraits with costumes, makeup, and photography. Morimura’s work also remediates, using elaborate sets, costumes, photography, and sometimes digital techniques to re-create and literally insert himself into famous imagery from art, politics, and popular culture.

In “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” James Carey notes, “We not only produce reality but we must likewise maintain what we have produced, for there are always new generations coming along for whom our productions are incipiently problematic and for whom reality must be regenerated and made authoritative. … Finally, we must, often with fear and regret, toss away our authoritative representations of reality and begin to build the world anew” (Carey, 1989). These artists perform both functions by reinforcing the cultural encyclopedia while simultaneously altering it, forcing viewers to see it in a different light.

Here's Yasumasa Morimura actually appropriating a work by Cindy Sherman.

Top: “Untitled #96” by Cindy Sherman. Bottom: “To My Little Sister: for Cindy Sherman” by Yasumasa Morimura. Found on

Peircian Semiotics and the Mediation of Meanings

In Signs in Society, Richard Parmentier quotes C.S. Peirce as saying “In portraiture, photographs mediate between the original and the likeness.” (Parmentier, 1994). Thanks in part to artists like Cindy Sherman, we now know that Peirce’s claim about portraiture using photography may be a bit naive. Putting aside the fictive capacity of photography and portraiture, Peirce’s example beautifully illustrates the importance of media in connecting meaning with an interprétant.

The meanings relevant to Peirce would be only those that are understood to be meanings (signs) by the interprétant.  As Parmentier puts it, “Peirce’s point is a subtle yet crucial one for his entire argument: ‘A sign does not function as a sign unless it be understood as a sign’ (MS 599:32)” (Parmentier, 1994). The meanings would also be limited to the intention of the artist if they are to be classified as “genuine” rather than “degenerate” signs. So, are there genuine meanings we can suppose are both intended and perceived in the works of Warhol, Sherman, and Morimura?

Marilyn Diptych image via Tate Modern's website.

Marilyn Diptych image via Tate Modern’s website.

Warhol. Warhol’s famous Marilyn Diptych has been so widely distributed and referred to that it has surely accrued countless additional meanings since Warhol first created it. Still, are there signs we can assume Warhol meant for viewers to interpret? While there are many ways to read this work and there is certainly room for further interpretation, some basic meanings can be deduced. We must begin by acknowledging that the tiny digital representation above does not represent the “original” work, which is almost 7 feet tall and more than 9 feet wide. The size itself seems like a sign of the monumental significance of this representation, yet the repetition of the printed image makes it clear that we are not viewing a single intact idol but rather a mass-produced and mass-consumed idol. The diptych format suggests a religious connotation and a strong visual duality, perhaps of life and death as was commonly depicted in medieval religious diptychs and is supported by the contrast of color with black and white.

#21 of Cindy Sherman's "Film Stills" series via MoMA.

Untitled #21 of Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills” series via MoMA.

Sherman. For the purpose of this analysis, Sherman’s “Film Stills” series can be taken as a whole rather than looking at an individual work. All the photographs are in black and white and all, as the name of the series suggests, appear to be moments taken from a film. The photographs are deliberately ambiguous, inviting viewers to imagine the plot and imagery of the film they’re supposed to represent. The characters are each carefully constructed to trigger in the viewer powerful associations from the cultural encyclopedia. To make sure the associations are clear, Sherman uses the “remediation” of the familiar but outdated genre of black and white film. She then invites the viewer to think critically about the familiar genre and stereotypical subject by remediating this genre in an unfamiliar context: the viewer is aware that the films do not exist and that rather than staring at the “big screen” of a cinema. Rather they are viewing relatively small prints of scenes that have been elaborately staged to evoke familiar genres and stereotypical subjects.

"In praise of Velasquez: Distinguished ones in confinement"

Yasumasa Morimura’s “In praise of Velasquez: Distinguished ones in confinement” Luhring Augustine.

Morimura. Like Sherman’s “Film Stills” series, Morimura’s series “Las Meninas Renacen de Noche” restages existing media to be at once recognizable and strange. Morimura remediates the famous 1656 painting “Las Meninas” by Diego Velázquez using staging, photography, and digital manipulation. Like Sherman, the artist depicts himself in different roles, but where Sherman’s depictions convince the viewer that she is someone else, Morimura’s depictions seem to suggest the opposite, that all the characters are him. Like Warhol, Morimura has employed techniques of repetition and scale. He has scaled down his reenactment of the original work and broken it out into a series of portraits of the characters, giving them all some version of his face. These manipulations dismantle the delicate social relations depicted in Velázquez’s painting, desensitizing the viewer to the individual characters while giving them all equal prominence. By highlighting each character individually with the same face, Morimura illustrates the power of art to confer fame regardless of one’s place in the current hierarchy while also reminding the viewer that despite their fame and recognizability, these individuals are still representations.

Yasumasa Morimura's series "Las Meninas Renacen de Noche" via Luhring Augustine.

Portraits from Yasumasa Morimura’s series “Las Meninas Renacen de Noche” via Luhring Augustine.

The way these three examples overlap with one another as well as with the works and genres that inspired them clearly illustrates the dialogic and intersubjective nature of art. According to Parmentier’s analysis of Peirce’s framework “…the triad of elements at one semiotic moment implies a constant expansion of the process of semiosis as the interprétant, in turn, acts so as to determine a further sign, becoming thereby a sign to that further interprétant” (Parmentier, 1994). Every instance of interpretation and the resulting creation supplies fodder for the next instance of interpretation and resulting creation, expanding the cultural encyclopedia indefinitely.

Despite Peirce’s insights about the role of mediation in meaningful communication, which could be said to presage Régis Debray’s concept of mediology, Peirce ultimately viewed media as nothing more than a means to an end. According to Parmentier’s interpretation, “If the primary function of signs is to be a ‘medium of communication,’ they fulfill that function more perfectly if the interprétant is determined to represent the complex semiotic object as if the mediating forms of representation were not there at all.” Parmentier concludes his analysis of Peirce with this observation: “Although he founded his semiotic philosophy on the notion of the mediation by signs of thought and reality, Peirce in the end reduced the role of signs to being blind vehicles for communication of meanings that they do not influence” (Parmentier, 1994).

Debray, Bolter and Grusin, and the Meaning in the Media

Régis Debray takes Peirce’s ideas about the semiotic importance of mediation to another level with his concept of mediology. In “What is Mediology?” Debray writes “Beyond a renewed place of honor for ‘intellectual technologies’ (Pierre Lévy) and the means of transport … the mediological approach could lead one day to a new way of describing the world and of telling stories, far from the inherited dualism. We can proceed by abandoning the ancestral oppositions which direct what we write like a remote-control: original/copy, potential/actual, internal/external, underlying substance/phenomenon, spiritual/material. These antiquated tandems reproduce themselves over and over again in other more techno forms: real/virtual; support/code; signal/message.” In his emphasis on “the function of medium in all its forms, over a long time span (since the birth of writing), and without becoming obsessed by today’s media,” Debray gives more weight to medium while still keeping it in a historical, non-specific perspective. Debray recognizes both the importance of not fixating on one particular medium and the importance of medium in general in conveying meaning.

In their Introduction to Remediation: Understanding New Media, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin explore the implications of the phenomenon Peirce identified of wanting media to seem as if it “were not there at all” (Parmentier, 1994). Bolter and Grusin observe, “Our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000). That Peirce observed this same phenomenon more than a century earlier strengthens Bolter and Grusin’s claim that it fits into an ongoing paradox of human experience rather than something specific to the digital age. Bolter and Grusin write, “Remediation did not begin with the introduction of digital media. We can identify the same process throughout the last several hundred years of Western visual representation. A painting by the seventeenth-century artist Pieter Saenredam, a photograph by Edward Weston, and a computer system for virtual reality are different in many important ways, but they are all attempts to achieve immediacy by ignoring or denying the presence of the medium and the act of mediation” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000).

Bolter and Grusin posit that this quest for immediacy, or the feeling that a mediated meaning is “real” rather than mediated, ultimately leads to a heightened awareness of the medium. Nevertheless we continue seeking technological advances to diminish the experience of the medium. In Bolter and Grusin’s words, “Although each medium promises to reform its predecessors by offering a more immediate or authentic experience, the promise of reform inevitably leads us to become aware of the new medium as a medium. Thus, immediacy leads to hypermediacy” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000). Bolter and Grusin define hypermediacy as a “style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000).

Against the backdrop of this ongoing tension between immediacy and hypermediacy, Appropriation Art can provide a fascinating exploration of both sides of the spectrum. All three examples referenced above convey immediacy and hypermediacy in different ways.

Warhol. The Marilyn Diptych in a sense seems to flout the immediacy quest. The photo Warhol printed from is easily recognizable as media and its status as an obvious symbol is emphasized by the repetition, the blocky, garish colors of the left prints, and the dramatic inconsistency in the ink distribution in the right prints. However, Warhol brings a different sort of immediacy to the viewer by unabashedly featuring the media. The scale of the piece and the texture and variability of the prints force viewers to experience the media itself, both the original picture and the printed artifact physically before them (presuming they’re viewing it in a museum as it was originally intended). In celebrating the media itself, Warhol flips the paradigm and creates immediacy through hypermediacy, illustrating that “Media have the same claim to reality as more tangible cultural artifacts; photographs, films, and computer applications are as real as airplanes and buildings” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000).

Sherman. By virtue of being photographs rather than silkscreen prints, the “Film Stills” images have a higher degree of immediacy than the Marilyn Diptych. Furthermore, the often off-kilter or seemingly haphazard composition of the photographs gives them a sense of movement and narrative which augments their immediacy. However, the immediacy of the “Film Stills” images is tempered by their hypermediacy. As discussed above, their high art context along with their aesthetic values make them instantly identifiable as media and therefore hypermediated, “ask[ing] us to take pleasure in the act of mediation” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000). The hypermediacy of the photographs reminds viewers that media representations aren’t always as they appear; it invites viewers to imagine their own narrative for the photos while bringing to their attention the role imagination and assumptions play in interpreting all media.

Untitled #5 of Cindy Sherman's "Film Stills" series via MoMA.

Untitled #5 of Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills” series via MoMA.

Morimura. Like “Film Stills,” the “Las Meninas Renacen de Noche” series creates some degree of immediacy simply by virtue of employing photography, yet as soon as we find comfort and realism in the sharp lines and smooth contours that suggest the photographic medium, we are confronted with numerous tell-tale signs of the hypermediacy of the works. Even “In praise of Velasquez: Distinguished ones in confinement,” the piece that most closely resembles Velázquez’s original painting, has all kinds of inconsistencies, most prominently the superimposition of Morimura’s face for each character depicted. The postures and positioning of the subjects looks awkward and collage-like in the photographic medium.

Morimura explores immediacy and hypermediacy further in the rest of the series, photographing himself looking at Velázquez’s painting, presumably in his normal dress, and photographing “real” depictions of the characters from the painting looking at Morimura’s version in the same gallery space. This reversal creates a sense of immediacy by foregrounding the photographic, seemingly “real” figures as they observe media while also creating hypermediacy by directing the viewers’ attention to the gallery experience. The reversal in these works also illustrates dialogism in art by suggesting that not only is Morimura drawing from the cultural encyclopedia; he is contributing to it.

The culmination of immediacy and hypermediacy in this series may be “Las Meninas renacen de noche IV: Peering at the secret scene behind the artist” (below), which appears to offer viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Velázquez’s masterpiece, which appears to hang on the wall in front of the group of characters, faithful to the original except for the presence of Murimura in place of Velázquez in the painting. Of course, the only face in the “real world” of the gallery where the painting is supposedly being staged is Murimura’s in the portrait of the Infanta, the subject of Velázquez’s unviewable canvas.


Yasumasa Morimura's "Las Meninas renacen de noche IV: Peering at the secret scene behind the artist”

Yasumasa Morimura’s “Las Meninas renacen de noche IV: Peering at the secret scene behind the artist” via Luhring Augustine.

Media as Content

In “A Cultural Approach to Communication,” Carey describes art as a tool for inducing people to reexamine the familiar things they might take for granted. He writes, “Things can become so familiar that we no longer perceive them at all. Art, however, can take the sound of the sea, the intonation of a voice, the texture of a fabric, the design of a face, the play of light upon a landscape, and wrench these ordinary phenomena out of the backdrop of existence and force them into the foreground of consideration.” (Carey, 1989). Carey applies this concept to objects and natural phenomena, but the works of Warhol, Sherman, and Morimura show that it can also apply to media. Remediation is not only about bringing some abstract semiotic content formerly communicated in one medium into a different medium; it is also about mediating media. Furthermore, because meaning cannot be divorced from medium, remediation of media brings all of the meanings associated with the media being mediated into the new iteration.


“There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and boundless future). Even past meanings, that is those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) – they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue. At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in renewed form (in a new context).” – Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 1986

Appropriation Art offers a powerful interface through which to analyze the dialogic and generative properties of culture and communication. Artists like Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and Yasumasa Morimura use hypermediacy to convey the addressivity and answerability of their work in context of the cultural encyclopedia (to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s vocabulary of dialogism). Applying the concepts of mediation and generativity from Peircian Semiotics along with Bolter and Grusin’s theory of remediation, we can better understand the power of this genre to hold a mirror to culture while ensuring that we realize the reflection we see is never the whole story, but rather a part of an ongoing evolution of meaning.

To carry this exploration further, it could be interesting to analyze more examples of the use of digital media to participate in ArtWorld and cultural dialogues, perhaps including memes and other lowbrow appropriations. Carey writes that “If one tries to examine society as a form of communication, one sees it as a process whereby reality is created, shared, modified, and preserved” (Carey, 1989). Looking directly at Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, setting aside the Morimura’s mediation for a moment, we can see that self-reflexive art far predates the digital age. Yet, digital media in particular has opened up many new possibilities for employing hypermediacy for art and cultural critique, many of which are already being realized, many of which are still be explored.

Works Cited and Consulted

Bakhtin, M. M. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Second Printing edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed. John Richardson. New York: Greenwood, 1986. Print.

Carey, James W. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Psychology Press, 1989.

Carrier, David. 1998. “ANDY WARHOL AND CINDY SHERMAN: THE SELF-PORTRAIT IN THE AGE OF MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 18 (1): 36–40.

Debray, Régis. Transmitting Culture. Trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Print.

Debray, Régis. “What is Mediology?” Le Monde Diplomatique. Aug 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.

Donald, Merlin. “Art and Cognitive Evolution.” Ed. Mark Turner. The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Irvine, Martin. “Mikhail Bakhtin: Main Theories – Dialogism, Polyphony, Heteroglossia, Open Interpretation.” 2015. Web. 28 April 2015.

Irvine, Martin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality” (preprint version). In The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies, ed. Eduardo Navas, et al. New York: Routledge, 2014. 15-42.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. INT edition. New York ; London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Richard J. Parmentier, Signs in Society: Studies in Semiotic Anthropology. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Rosenberg, Karen. 2015. “Yasumasa Morimura.” The New York Times, January 15.

Shanes, Eric. Pop Art. Ill edition. London: Parkstone Press. 2009.

Sherman, Cindy. Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills. The Museum of Modern Art. 2003.

Zohar, Ayelet. “The Elu[va]sive Japanese Portrait: Repetition, Difference and Multiplicity.” The Trans-Asia Photography Review 2 (1). 2011.

This entry was posted in Final Project on by .

About Liz Sabatiuk

Be it through digital media, Argentine tango, or interdisciplinary studies, I seek connections. Discovering unexpected connections is crucial to solving the complex problems of today’s world. And the feeling of connection – to self, community, and the planet – can drive us to make changes large and small in our lives and the lives of others. I’m pursuing an M.A. through Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture & Technology program to learn to better identify, explore, and facilitate these connections. When not studying at Georgetown, I create and edit content for, a birth control support network that makes birth control easy.