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Uni Archive: Identity Crisis: Feminism & Identity in Postmodern Appropriation Art

Originally written circa 2010 for B.F.A. – I don’t have a digital copy of this so I’ve typed it up from my original paper copy – as such, no in-text ref or footnotes, only bibliography – left completely as-is, including too-long first sentence and the section my marker described as ‘convoluted’ at the end of 1st paragraph – (if you’re interested, this one only got me 75%, so maybe don’t plagiarise this one, kids)

Identity Crisis: Feminism & Identity in Postmodern Appropriaton Art

The very definition of postmodernism has been debated and critiqued many times over: described as “illogical and over-ambitions”, and one must consider these discourses when attempting to formulate a definition for a term used so broadly to describe recent developments in everything from urban planning to theology. Denzin defines postmodernism in two ways – as a “form of theorising… and a period in social thought”, and Reed adds that it “challenges the modernist certainty about the autonomy of art”, challenging notions of authorship, reality, representation, abstraction and originality. Postmodern appropriation art blossomed from these concepts, a symptom of the “uncertain status of imagery”. Artists such as David Salle and Julian Schnabel rose to celebrity on the back of the early eighties’ soaring art market, their work linked to theories such as Baudrillard’s theory of Simulacra, appropriating images from posters, paintings, television, film, as well as everyday found objects. Appropriation art communicated the Baudrillardian idea that it was “naive to imagine a work’s author inventing its forms or controlling its meaning”, and demonstrated the postmodern focus on the way images’ and symbols’ (described by Reed as “signifiers”) meanings shift when their contexts are changed (“appropriated”), and the postmodernists’ “deconstructing” of the ways that meaning itself is constructed. This essay will explore the theory behind appropriation art and analyse the contrasting and conflicting ideologies behind feminist appropriation art and postmodern appropriation art.

Salle became famous for producing works like Autopsy (1981) and Savagery and Misrepresentation (1981) and was hailed by Thomas Lawton as “one of the hopes for the survival of painting”. Autopsy is described by Schor as being blatantly misogynistic, in its representation of a naked woman with dunce caps on her head and breasts, placed next to a larger “generic modernist abstraction”, reflecting the history of modernism being used as a tool in the oppression of femininity. It becomes unclear whether Salle is protesting such oppression, supporting it, or merely pointing it out, despite Schor’s claims that it undeniably functions as misogyny. This lack of clarity is continued in Savagery and Misrepresentation, a superimposition of line drawings of a “cartoonish horse-man and recumbent nudes over a waterfront scene drawn from Reginald Marsh… The relationship between the two images is left unclear. Does one erase or cancel another? Do they comment on each other?”; it is this ambiguity that Reed feels leaves this kind of appropriation art open to criticism, and marks a point of divergence between artists such as Salle and feminist appropriation artists.

Feminist appropriation art was produced by artists such as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman and Sherry Levine, forming a “new awareness of certain identities” previously excluded from art by modernism’s belief in a “transcendental or universal art (that just happens to be created overwhelmingly by and for a specific demographic group: white, Western, apparently heterosexual men of the upper middle class)”. Feminist critics questioned the way that postmodernism’s anti-authoritarian rhetoric had seemingly become a cultural authority itself, and began to produce a different kind of appropriation art. Many artists media and production techniques themselves, Judy Chicago used “traditional art forms such as embroidery, sewing an china painting” in projects such as Womanhouse (1972), Dinner Party (1974) and Birth Project (1978) to explore women’s specific shared experience of femininity – not only deconstructing modernism’s separation of “art” from everyday artifacts and life, but constructing “an alternative narrative:…a story of women’s history”. Feminist artists also used appropriation techniques when producing images, whether they be painted or photographic, as it was felt that “Women artists who tried to create “original” images of woman, particularly positive ones, were deluding themselves: such efforts were doomed to relapse into unconscious stereotypes created by patriarchy”. Sherry Levine appropriated not only famous works by artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Walker Evans, but also images from Playboy and soft porn magazines, raising the question: “is the representation of imagery with an ironic intent enough to subvert the originaly meaning of the material that has been represented?”. Schor suggests that “a wet T-shirt clinging to breasts is the same old thing, whether you call it draperie mouillée… or tits and ass”, but such works by Levine and Sherman raise questions about the artist’s power (or lack thereof) to decide and communicate an image’s meaning, especially when an image has been appropriated from a source that gave it an entirely different meaning. The intention of works produced by Salle is still to this day debated upon, the meanings of works like Autopsy unclear and undefined, however we easily accept that appropriated images used by feminist artists are used ironically, subversively and critically. The very fact that the artists who produced them are part of the feminist community indicates to us that no matter how closely their images resemble the icons of patriarchy from which they were taken, we can be sure that they are critiques of these images and the society that produced them.

Lucy Lippard insisted that feminist art was more than just another passing style, asserting that the differences between feminist art and postmodern art were significant, claiming that “it is impossible to discuss [art] without referring to the social structures that support and often inspire it”, stating that art is not simply about expressing oneself, but plays a more important role: “expressing oneself as a member of a larger unity or comm/unity”, and it is this action within a broader collective identity which sets feminist art apart from postmodernism. Even Cindy Sherman’s work, considered “an exemplar of the instability of identity” functions as part of a broader identitiy of femininity, a critical analyses of the “specularisation” of woman. Lippard describes feminism as constructive, acting as part of the “comm/unity” whereas postmodernism functions as a deconstructive authority, becoming nihilistic in its fervent embrace of Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra. While feminist artists work involves activism, postmodernists’ work is ambiguous, its efforts to reveal “all reality as a series of shifting simulacra”, leaving it in no place to carry out “principled action”, existing merely to rebut modernism, and yet unwittingly forming many links to it along the way.


Baudrillard, J., ‘The Precession of Simulacra’, in Simulations, trans. Foss, Patton, Beitchman, Semiotext(e), New York, 1994

Reed, C., ‘Postmodernism and the Art of Identity’, in Stangos, N. (ed), Concepts of Modern Art, Thames & Hudson, London, 2006

Schor, M., ‘Backlash and Appropriation’ in Broude, N., & Garrard, M.D. (eds), The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, Harry N Abrams, New York 1994

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