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Appropriation Art, Reframed Meaning, and a Continuum of Genre

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David Shields' Reality Hunger: A Manifesto radically adopts the notion of art as appropriation. Among many of his noteworthy provocations, he states: "the citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Reality can't be copyrighted" (29). The core of Shields' argument is embedded in the form of his work: a collection of 618 aphorisms, most of which quote (but do not cite) other writers, artists, musicians, and critics. Shields intended to publish the work without attributing credit to these other voices, but "Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for [him] to provide a complete list of citations," (209) which are contained in the appendix. In this paper, I will explore the various premises and arguments of Shields' work: the idea of art as appropriation, that the novel as a cultural form has become irrelevant, and the implications of a more fluid understanding of genre in which distinctions such as fiction and non-fiction become at best questionable, or else completely unfounded and artificial.

Shields begins his text with the statement that "every artistic movement from the beginning of time is an attempt to figure out a way to smuggle more of what the artist thinks is reality into the work of art" (3). He then implies in a reference to Nabokov that the word "reality" is a word that only has meaning when viewed as a human construction. Shields claims to be writing his so-called manifesto to herald a rather fragmented yet present artistic movement whose key qualities include:

a deliberate unartiness: 'raw' material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional...Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity....a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real. (5)

The "unartiness" that Shields proposes hearkens back to such movements as Dada that challenged art and the Visual through techniques like mixed mediums, surprising juxtapositions, collage, and visual puns and nonsense. Shields argues, both explicitly and implicitly through the form of his text, that such unartiness and self-conscious appropriation can be translated into the medium of written representation as well.


Raoul Hausmann, ABCD, 1923-1924


Visual art, beginning in the early 20th century, already self-consciously adopted radical notions of appropriation. Perhaps most notably, Picasso and Duchamp used borrowed or ready-made materials in their artwork. Such artwork deliberately recast already present cultural symbols and objects in new contexts that thereby changed the meaning of the work. Artists challenged the conventions of traditional art by presenting the chosen subject from a different, often surprising, perspective. Take, for example, Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. of 1919 which reframes one of the most iconic artworks of all time, the Mona Lisa


In L.H.O.O.Q., Duchamp has taken a copy of Da Vinci's masterpiece the Mona Lisa and added a mustache and beard along with the new title, which acts as a visual pun. Duchamp creates a parodied version of the work in which the gender of the subject becomes ambiguous and the seriousness with which one previously encountered the original is displaced by irreverent humor.

Appropriation art takes as its premise that all cultural artifacts are the result of a re-mixing of past ideas and forms. In other words, originality does not exist in the sense that everything written, thought, or said must necessarily be the result of one's engagement with cultural and historical influences. Many are resistant to the idea of appropriation art as a valid and enriching cultural movement, viewing it instead as the expression of a cultural nihilism or lack of creative thinking. As literary critic Michiko Kakutani states in her article, "Texts Without Context":

...our cultural landscape is brimming over with parodies, homages, variations, pastiches, collages, and other forms of 'appropriation art'-much of it facilitated by new technology that makes remixing, and cutting-and pasting easy enough for a child...All too often however, the recycling and cut-and-paste esthetic has resulted in tired imitations; cheap, lazy re-dos; or works of 'appropriation' designed to generate controversy like Mr. Shields's 'Reality Hunger.' (

Kakutani importantly points out the profound effect that new technology has had in enabling varied acts of remixing, all of which have become widely available through such flexible and widespread mediums as the Internet. However, her characterization of appropriation art as resulting in "tired imitations" and remixing that is "easy enough for a child" defines a position in which appropriation art somehow lacks in innovation and requires little in the way of advanced skills and knowledge. With such remixing now being widely available and relatively easy to produce, there will no doubt be a range in the perceived quality of each work of appropriation art. However, this does not mean that all works of appropriation must necessarily be merely imitative and lacking in creativity. Appropriation art, in whatever form it may take, has the capacity to provoke and enrich cultural discourses precisely because it self-consciously re-contextualizes the quoted material and grants it reframed meaning. As Shields states, "by changing the context you change the connotation" (90).

Continuing in this movement of appropriation, the majority of Reality Hunger is composed of quoted material from literary critics, authors, artists, and musicians, among others, taken out of its original context and given new meaning. In exploring issues of plagiarism and intellectual property, Shields deliberately leaves the quotations uncited, leaving the reader uncertain as to whose words he or she has just read.  This uncertainty highlights the degree to which ideas cannot be "owned," but only exist in an extensive discourse that in some ways transcends both time and place. The juxtapositions of quoted material from different thinkers is at times surprisingly apt and at others seems to parody notions of cultural hierarchy, much as Picasso's use of commercial products in his synthetic cubism challenged the distinction between high and low art.

Often Shields' juxtapositions seem to deliberately highlight the influence and/or kinship of one individual with another. For example, Shields juxtaposes ideas from Emerson and Nietzsche on more than one occasion. This would seem to be more than accidental as Nietzsche was profoundly influenced by Emerson's transcendentalist philosophy, keeping a collection of Emerson's essays, which he marked and underlined extensively (Nietzsche, The Gay Science, "Translator's Introduction," 7). In addition, there are places in the text where Shields places together quotations from individuals whose contexts differ greatly, for example when he places lyrics by Nirvana beside a quotation from Schopenhauer (Shields, 180). Despite the fact that Nirvana was a grunge rock band from 1990s and Schopenhauer a 19th century philosopher often associated with the school of pessimism, the sentiment of human aloneness is shared between the two, as highlighted by the quotations Shields selects. There is something pointedly absurd in the notion that someone could claim sole intellectual ownership to the idea that every human being is essentially alone; rather, this is a sentiment echoed throughout human culture again and again, but in varying ways according to the given context in which an individual expresses it.

In continuing his exploration of plagiarism and originality, Shields argues in support for what he views as an artistic form that has evolved beyond narrative: collage. He states: "In collage, writing is stripped of the pretense of originality and appears as a practice of mediation, of selection and contextualization..." (120). Shields' promotion of collage as an artistic mode is an extension of his argument for appropriation art. Collage gains its meaning through the selective borrowing of cultural materials to create a new, complex form that in some senses transcends its original components.



In arguing for collage as the form most expressive of the fragmented reality in which we now live, Shields contends that narrative forms, in particular novels, are no longer relevant to the culture in which we live. He announces, in a Nietzschean manner: "The novel is dead. Long live the antinovel, built from scraps (115)." Like Nietzsche, who proclaimed, "God is dead" and predicted the collapse of Christian values, Shields seems to be announcing the end of an era, one in which the novel as a more or less universal cultural form conventionally "teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in a neatly wrapped-up revelation" (113). It may be true that as a culture we have become less inclined towards reading conventional fiction, and are less likely to read hefty novels that seem to pompously demand that we excavate truth and meaning from their many pages. As Shields would say, in our hunger for a reality out of reach, we turn increasingly towards what we see to be "authentic" accounts of real people's lives, in particular to the popular genre of memoir.

It may, however, be an over-generalized claim to denounce the novel as always portraying life as coherent and providing a "neatly wrapped-up revelation" (113). I think the novels that continue to have wide appeal and provoke debate are precisely the ones that elude such easy conclusions or interpretation. Perhaps some of us no longer have the inclination to dive into long works by Tolstoy or Dickens, at least when given an "authoritative interpretation" by which to read the text. However, I think it would be a more progressive and culturally accurate statement to say that it is not the novel that is dead, but rather conventional interpretations of classic novels that are dead. I think there remains a deep-seated interest in revisiting classic works from new, formerly unauthorized perspectives. By engaging with classic works and reframing their meaning, we contribute to the novel as an evolving form whose meaning is not limited by its original context, nor held solely between its covers, but rather unfolds in the interaction between each particular reader and the text.

Shields not only explores the continuing relevance of particular generic forms such as the novel, but also questions generic divisions in themselves, in particular pointing out the precarious distinction between literary fiction and non-fiction. He argues for a more flexible conception of genre, stating that: "fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and all forms of storytelling [exist] on a rather wide continuum, at one end fantasy...and at the other end an extremely literal-minded register of life" (63). Furthermore, considering that all forms of narrative generate from the human mind, which relies on arbitrary devices of selection and cohesion, it seems more accurate to define genre as existing on a continuum that acknowledges this role of human construction in all cultural forms. This allows us to realize that such divisions as fiction vs. non-fiction are false binaries that really suggest a futile effort to neatly categorize what in actuality is the much more blurred, ambiguous phenomenon of narrative.

In Wai Chee Dimock's "Introduction: Genres as Fields of Knowledge," she suggests a similar continuum of genres, with particular focus given to the idea of world literature and the implications of such generic fluidity for a curriculum in literary studies. Neither Shields nor Dimock is advocating that we completely dispense with our reliance on categories of genre. Rather, I think both are seeking to generate a greater awareness of the constructedness of all such categories and the degree to which any strict definition of genre blinds us to the overlapping nature of all categories, be it fiction and non-fiction, or national and chronological boundaries.

As Dimock states: "literary studies needs to be more fluid in its taxonomies, putting less emphasis on the division of knowledge and more on its kinships, past, present, and future" (Dimock, 1384). I would agree that literary studies needs to take into account the interconnections between generic forms from wide-ranging time periods and nationalities. Re-constructing literary studies so that it incorporates and explores the complex web of relations between different generic forms requires an openness and understanding that such an endeavor will require continual revisions and will be an ever-evolving process. That there is no single authoritative way to study genre is what makes the pursuit so generative and ultimately boundless.




Works Cited

Dimock, Wai Chee. "Introduction: Genres as Fields of Knowledge." Special Topic:

Remapping Genre. PMLA 122, 5 (October 2007): 1377-1388.

Kakutani, Michiko. "Texts Without Context." New York Times, 17 Mar. 2010.

Web. 2 May 2010.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufman. New York:

Random House, Inc. 1974. Print.

Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. United States: Random House, Inc.

2010. Print.