In March this year, paintings in an exhibition by the British artist Damien Hirst caused controversy for bearing strong resemblance to works by Aboriginal artists from the Central Desert region near Alice Springs.

Hirst, one of the world’s best known contemporary artists, unveiled 24 new paintings at an exhibition in Los Angeles. The works, called Veil Paintings, were large canvases covered with thousands of multi-coloured dots.

Many Australians immediately noticed the similarity to a style of Indigenous dot painting developed in the Central Deserts region, particularly the paintings of internationally renowned artist, Emily Kngwarreye.

Kngwarreye’s paintings of layered coloured dots in elaborate patterns portray aerial deserts landscapes crafted from memory. Her style has been passed down across generations and has deep cultural importance.

Barbara Weir, an artist from the Central Deserts, told the ABC that Hirst recreated the painting style without understanding the culture behind it. While Hirst denied being aware of Kngwarreye’s paintings, Bronwyn Bancroft of the Arts Law Centre said that he still had a “moral obligation” to acknowledge the influence of the Aboriginal art movement.

Whether or not Hirst was directly copying the style, the controversy his paintings caused centred on the ethical issue of appropriation. Should artists use images or styles that are not their own, especially when those images or styles are tied to the sacred history of another culture?

Avant-garde appropriation

While copying and imitation has been central to artistic practice in many cultures for millennia, appropriation as a creative technique rose to prominence in avant-garde modernist movements in the early 20th century.

Cubists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque used appropriation in their collage and pastiche paintings, often lifting images from newspapers to incorporate into their work. Marcel Duchamp developed the practice further through his ready-mades – objects taken form real life and presented as art – like his infamous Fountain, a urinal signed, turned upside down, and positioned on a pedestal.

“These artists used appropriation to challenge traditional notions of originality and often approached art as an ethically weightless space where transgressive ideas could be explored without consequence.”

The art of appropriation was further developed by pop artists like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns in the 1950s and later in the 1980s by Jeff Koons and Sherrie Levine. These artists used appropriation to challenge traditional notions of originality and often approached art as an ethically weightless space where transgressive ideas could be explored without consequence.

A more recent proponent of appropriation as creative practice is the poet Kenneth Goldsmith, who wrote a book called Unoriginal Genius, which defends appropriation in art. He argues that in our digital age, access to information has made it impossible to be truly original. In such an environment, the role of the artist is to embrace a free and open exchange of ideas and abandon notions of singular ownership of an aesthetic or style.

Cultural appropriation

While appropriating, remixing, and sampling images and media is common practice for artists, it can cause conflict and hurt, particularly if the materials are culturally or politically sensitive. For instance, in 2015, Kenneth Goldsmith performed a poem that appropriated text from the autopsy of Michael Brown, an African American man who was shot by police.

Critics were outraged at Goldsmith’s performance, particularly because they felt that it was inappropriate for a white man to use the death of a black man as creative material for personal gain. Others labelled Goldsmith’s poems as an extreme example of cultural appropriation.

Writer Maisha Z Johnson defines cultural appropriation as “members of a dominant culture taking elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group”. The problem with cultural appropriation, she explains, is not the act of an individual artist, but how that artist perpetuates an unjust power dynamic through their creative practice.

In other words, cultural appropriation in art is seen by some as perpetuating systemic oppression. When artists in a position of power and privilege appropriate from those who aren’t, they can profit from what they take while the oppressed group gets nothing.

Cultural sensitivity

Issues of cultural appropriation are particularly sensitive for Aboriginal artists in Australia because painting styles are not only an expression of the artist’s creative talent, but also often convey sacred stories passed down from older generations. Painting, therefore, is often seen not only as a type of craft, but a way of keeping Aboriginal culture alive in white Australia.

It is possible that Hirst was not aware of this context when he created his Veil Paintings. In an increasingly connected world in which images and cultures are shared and inter-mixed, it can be difficult to attribute where creative inspiration comes from.

Yet, perhaps our connectivity only heightens the artist’s moral obligation for cultural sensitivity and to acknowledge that art is never made in a vacuum but exists in a particular geography, history, economy, and social context.

Follow The Ethics Centre on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.