Text: The Irreverent Plagiarists. After Sherrie Levine, Michael Mandiberg and Hermann Zschiegner | DANIELA DUCA

Text: The Irreverent Plagiarists. After Sherrie Levine, Michael Mandiberg and Hermann Zschiegner | DANIELA DUCA

“Good artist borrows, great artist steals” is a statement that is commonly believed to have been coined by Picasso. A more thorough search reveals though that T.S. Eliot had already alleged another almost identical statement: “Talent imitates, genius steals”. Picasso stole Eliot’s line and thereby proved his genius. This very ironic example seems to be an ideal preamble for the highly provocative speculations on authorship, originality, appropriation, and plagiarism, which this paper aims to address.

In 1933, Walker Evans creates a photographic series depicting a family of workers during the Great Depression. Some of these images, such as the untitled portrait of Allie Mac Burroughs, became an icon in the history of photography, as well as symbol of the Great Depression.


Allie Mc Burroughs by Evans

In 1981, appropriating artist Sherrie Levine exhibited in New York her photographic series called After Walker Evans. Levine photographed the famous series of Walker Evans directly from an exhibition catalogue.


Allie Mc Burroughs by Levine

Allie Mc Burroughs by Levine

After almost two decades, another artist, Michael Mandiberg scanned and posted online the photos that Sherrie Levine appropriated from Walker Evans. He also created a website entitled aftersherrielevine.com, where the photos appropriated by Sherrie Levine once protected by copyright become available for further appropriation by any user of the website.

Allie Mc Burroughs by Mandiberg

 Allie Mc Burroughs by Mandiberg

Last and most likely not least, at the exhibition From here on hosted in 2012 by the Photo Museum Antwerp we see a series of twenty-six portraits depicting Allie Mac Burroughs, this time under the signature of another appropriating artist, Hermann Zschiegner, who printed all the different versions one can find through a simple search on Google images when introducing the criteria Evans+Levine. File size, resolution and URL of all images are included as a frame of reference under the portrait, indicating whether the image belongs to Levine or to Evans.

It is obvious that we are not only dealing here with a mere act of appropriation but all the more with an instance of irreverent artistic forgery, which challenges authorship in an unprecedented way. By carrying to excess the debate around authorship and originality, they do not solely aim at a “parody of creation”, but attempt to make instead a serious and far-reaching statement.

Giorgio Agamben, in his essay “The Melancholy Angel”, refers to the outstanding virtues of quotation epitomized in the figure of Walter Benjamin’s ‘collector’. The act of transmissibility of tradition or culture involves an act of alienation and the agent of it, the collector, becomes, says Benjamin, a revolutionary. This alienation amounts to a felicitous disavowal of authority, which Agamben interprets as a form of liberation and improvement towards the object’s utmost disclosure of ‘authenticity’. It is precisely by losing the ‘transmissibility’ and ‘comprehensibility’ it used to have within a given cultural order that the object of the past can achieve its redemption in the present. The collector alienates, he “quotes the object outside its context and in this way he destroys the order inside which it found its value and meaning” (105). He liberates the object from his previous prerogatives which tradition endowed it with. While for Benjamin reproducibility features a loss of authenticity, for Agamben it involves precisely a retrieval of the authentic being of an object (106). For Agamben, authenticity stands for a certain freedom of the object from its ethical-social significance, as well as from its utilitarian value, which made it tributary to the cultural or social order. The quotation, through its facility to alienate and re-place, to destroy transmissibility of tradition, becomes therefore the ultimate source of aesthetic pleasure. There is in fact no other way to re-enact the aesthetic value of an object that belongs to the past. It is its “alienation value” in which its aesthetic value can possibly lie. In their approach, Levine and Mandiberg manage to act precisely like these revolutionary collectors. They proceed through appropriation and quotation, proving that the object they appropriate has still the ability to live anew, and render meaning through the experience of shock which lies in making us witness the dissolution of transmissibility.

With the help of semiotics, this fascinating inquiry of sameness, aimed at in our paper, will reveal how and why three visually identical images can be semiotically distinct when certain parameters are changed. This semiotic approach will shed new light on how these artists use authorship to interrogate authorship and how they use sameness to interrogate change.

Early semiotics (Saussure et al) taught us that any sign results from the association between a signifier and signified, whereby two identical signifiers do not involve by necessity two identical signified. Umberto Eco applied this distinction in his essay Critique of the Image. He acknowledges that the iconic sign is as ‘arbitrary’ and ‘conventional’ and ‘unmotivated’ as any other sign systems. The three signs we are discussing in this paper, the three images, so to speak, are, therefore, not identical because the signifier and the signified are not one and the same.

In his Eléments de sémiologie, Roland Barthes elaborated a series of concepts, which carved out the way of a new theoretical discourse. His most notorious concepts, such as connotation, denotation, first-degree and second-degree semiological systems, code, myth and mythology will prove exceedingly useful for the present paper. In Rhetoric of the Image, Barthes applies these concepts on photography, which he considers to be the epitome of the ‘mythical’ medium (32). Since it entertains the illusion of a truthful depiction of reality, of an almost physical and mechanical recording of it, photography appears as ‘pure denotation’, indexically tracing back the image to the signified reality. With its ability to obscure connotation and entertain the illusion of a sort of self-evidentness, photography operates exactly like a myth and is even more prone than other forms of art to deceive the spectator into assuming it as a form of unquestionably truthful testimonial. A photograph, contains according to Barthes two messages, which co-exist, one without a code (the photography as ‘analogue’) and another one with a code (the ‘rhetoric’ of the photograph). It is thus in this duality, explains Barthes, that the paradox of photography emerges: ‘the connoted, or coded message develops on the basis of a message without a code’ (19). Given its denotative status, the photographic medium can deliver connotation under the disguise of denotation, benefiting from the prestige of the latter (21). This analogy with Barthesian semiotics will prove of particular relevance for the present discussion. Many critics have in fact created a link before between appropriation art and Barthesian Mythology. Donald Crimp and Hal Foster (Quoted in Lütticken 219) regarded appropriation artists, such as Richard Prince or Sherrie Levine as ‘Barthesian Mythologists’ who steal and undermine cultural myths. They manage to usurp photography’s deceptive responsibility of being an eyewitness, of depicting reality and guaranteeing its authenticity, aiming at a very paradoxical honesty, tributary to sophisticated plagiaristic workings.

This being said, it becomes clear that these irreverent plagiarists do not only aim at a “parody of creation”, but they also attempt to make a serious and far-reaching statement. Like a true Barthesian, Sherrie Levine subverts the myth of the original, modernist male artist embodied by Walker Evans, as well as the photographic portrait as reliable, truthful document, restoring the apparent ‘first degree semiotic system’ (the myth) to its actual, true status as ‘second degree semiotic system.’ This attempt is an embodiment of this quest or, in Barthesian terms, of the dialectical attempt to hijack myths, by neutralizing their tendency towards apparent naturalization. Since myth robs us, why not rob myth? (Barthes quoted in Lütticken 205).

As Lütticken argues, the risk of re-mythification is always present, whereby the apparently ideology-free appropriating photograph might end up embodying a new myth, let’s say, of the ‘purely critical’ art. It occurs to us that an actual ‘true mythology’ can only exist as such within the very short time lapse of its coming into being, whereby duration would subvert its intentions, by giving it the time to be contaminated, or in Barthesian terms, ‘infected’, with additional, at first glance inconspicuous mythical connotations. This is when the appropriation of appropriation becomes again necessary, in order to generate the same sort of disobedience. This is also why Mandiberg`s appropriation of appropriation is not redundant, but in fact of crucial importance.

A discussion about plagiarism, originality and copywright cannot remain indifferent to the multiple debates around the idea of autorship. The foucaultian understanding of the author as a function of the discourse, neither incumbent, nor eternal, will prove exceedingly revealing. As our society changes, the attribution of a text or of an image to an author is gradually losing its relevance, believes Foucault, leaving behind nothing but a “stirring of an indifference” (222) featured in Beckett’s question: “what difference does it make who is speaking?” However, Foucault’s paradoxical essay about the author’s disappearance already has a long history of misunderstandings. Agamben, in his The Author as Gesture,further elaborates the core of this misunderstanding and his interpretation manages to shed some light on the way Foucault should be understood, by fully embracing the inescapable paradox of which Foucault himself is aware. Even if we stated that the author does not exist, there is still someone who denies the importance of the one who is speaking (61). Without this someone the statement could not have been formulated. Agamben explains thus: “the same gesture that deprives the identity of the author of all relevance nevertheless affirms his irreducible necessity” (62).

This fact applies entirely in the instance of appropriators such as Levine or Mandiberg and helps us understand that they do not, in fact, really go against the Foucaultian understanding of the author’s death. It is true, however, that their work seems in fact to reinforce and reaffirm the artist’s authorial function rather than undermine it. ‘Who is speaking’, namely whether it is Levine or Mandiberg, is, indeed, not only important, but imperative. Levine and Mandiberg are Foucaultian followers in as much as they prove through their undertaking that the author is nothing but a function of the text, a label, or in Agamben’s terms, a gesture. The appropriators use the Foucaultian distinction as part of their tactics. The author function is, according to Foucault “characteristic of the modes of existence, circulation and functioning of certain discourses within a society” (Foucault 110). He works also as a sort of projection “of the operations that we force texts to undergo, the connections that we make, the traits that we establish as pertinent, the continuities that we recognize or the exclusions that we practice”(110). The appropriators have assimilated this lesson by acknowledging the fact that by changing the name, one changes the way we operate on the texts, the connections and exclusions we rush to create.

To prove the conventional character of the author function, Foucault gives the example of the ‘ownership’, which is characteristic for our society but has not always been at stake in different periods of history. The system of ownership is more the result of a convention, as is the author function itself. Foucault also insists on the distinction between the biographical author and the author as text function and explains this distinction in terms of a presence-absence relationship. After producing a work, says Foucault, every author disappears and leaves a vacancy behind him. Because this vacancy exists, the building up of an author function becomes imperative in order to make the reading possible. Levine fills the empty place left by the author Evans. This attempt makes this absence Foucault is talking about particularly conspicuous to the reader, who is invited to catch hold of the unsuspected freedom he is now offered. The author’s name becomes a sort of signifier of an absence, a presence that postulates an absence.

It is needless to say that the author function occupied by Sherrie Levine is not only meant as a provisional occupation of the vacancy of Evans, aiming to make one aware of the existence of such a vacancy, but also as a new author-function meant to explain the new modes of existence, circulation and functioning of the discourse in the society they represent: a society marked by postmodernism, conceptualism and feminism, in the case of Levine, and a world dominated by internet and a constantly diffusing mass-culture, in the case of Mandiberg. One author dies and another one is born. For Levine, it is the allegedly original, modernist male author who dies and the distrustful, subversive, conceptual female author that is born. Mandiberg, instead, kills that author who is, and should not be, unique, because he is, and should not be, through the mere agency of this uniqueness, an accelerator of economic value. In other words, Mandiberg makes a point about reproduction in quasi the same way Benjamin discussed it several decades ago. Photography, he implies, artificially produces a minimum number of prints in order to increase its market value. This involves authorial claims of uniqueness, which are non-medium related and entail, thus, a betrayal. Even if he apparently proceeds just like Levine, Mandiberg drives the semiosis one step further, obviously bringing additional connotations to the sign. Denying the modernist myth of the original, male author is no longer his goal. By allowing the visitors on his website to copy paste all the images, he manages to change entirely the implications of the sign. What used to be a feministic attack against the male hegemony in arts, or a critical exploration of the conventions of the photographic medium, becomes a sort of manifesto for a new generation of accessible copy-paste digital images for a visual world archive of free use and unimpaired appropriation. By making the images accessible to any user of the website, Mandiberg makes a critique of the illegitimate economic value of a photograph in its printed version. Not only the digital image, but also its printed version are equally affected by reproducibility, in as much as they have in fact no more authenticity and no more economic value than any other printed version of the same.

His critique of authorship bears a new dimension in the specific context of Internet and of a constantly propagating mass culture in which the boundaries of originality are blurred and the “reproduction and accessibility democratize image ownership, making images part of the public domain.” (Mandiberg “Texts”) Unlike Levine, who establishes copyright on the appropriated photographs, Mandiberg allows every user of his websites, aftersherrielevine.com and afterwalkerevans.com, to take possession of his photographs. Due to open source software, everyone can copy paste the images and even acquire a ‘certificate of authenticity’ provided that they respect several printing and framing instructions. The certificate guarantees that the accompanying digital image printout Untitled is an authentic work of art if several conditions have been met. In the following, he indicates with accuracy the size of the print, the resolution, the quality of the paper and the brand of the frame.

Even if it seems to be nothing but an intellectual joke, Mandiberg makes in fact a serious point about authorship and meaning. It is not only what it depicts, which becomes significant, but also in which format, what size, on which type of paper. The combinatorial capabilities of these parameters disturb the previous disposition of the signifieds, fixing them again in a new configuration. Moreover, the distinction between the virtual image as potentiality and the printed product as the actual finalized art object is also meaningful for Mandiberg, and it is even in this very act of printing that additional connotation can be produced. As an Assistant Professor of Media Culture at CUNY in the United States, Mandiberg seems very concerned with finding the right way to teach the students how and why they should make a distinction between plagiarism and appropriation. By reading some of his articles on websites like learningthroughdigitalmedia.net or rhizome.org, one becomes aware that his appropriation projects accomplish also a downright didactic mission. By doing this, Mandiberg tries to test and prove the inherent semiotic dynamic of any image appropriated without impediment or scruples, making the viewer more aware of the immense possibilities contained in any appropriation act. In the article Learning Through Digital Media, Mandiberg explains: “the question of appropriation and citation is not one of legality but, rather, of semiotics. Appropriation and citation are not indicated by a formal footnoting practice, but by the semiotics of the image itself”. In other words, we do not experience appropriation and citation because we have a footnote indicating the fact but rather because the appropriating object is fundamentally changed whatsoever. The image undergoes an ontological change, making the footnoting futile. One should be astute enough to acknowledge the change, and it is precisely this astuteness that Mandiberg attempts to train through playful enterprises, such as his project AfterSherrieLevine.com.

Concerned with the fact that the sign, in its digital form, might be completely exhausted and not really able to stimulate additional appropriation acts, Mandiberg imagines a playful way to rescue the signifier. The printing prescriptions Mandiberg makes in his ‘certificate of authenticity’ are meant to promise the redemption of the sign in its afterlife as printed image. In this respect, Hermann Zschiegner is one of Mandiberg’s followers, the first and most probably not the last. By printing all the versions of Allie Mac Burroughs that can be found online, Zschiegner works more as a conciliatory and impartial archivist than as a daring plagiarist. By showing us the afterlife of the sign, he restores at the same time the ‘transmissibility’ and ‘comprehensibility’ of culture. Through his serial presentation method, he homogenizes the past with conciliatory impartiality. Within the undiscriminating confines of the list, the usurpations we have discussed so far become history, therefore nothing but harmless object of an inquisitive investigation.


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Daniela Duca. I am 24 years old and I have recently graduated from Univeristy of Leuven with a Master`s in Cultural Studies. I currently live and work in Berlin as a freelance literary translator. Starting March 2013 I will hold the position of cultural attache at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Berlin.