Richard Prince is no stranger to controversy, but with his latest work – a series of other people's Instagram photos on sale for $100k each – has he gone too far? Will Furtado attempts to unpick the situation...
As of last week much has been said about Richard Prince’s most recent, highly controversial new work “New Portraits” – a series of blown-up screenshots, taken straight from his Instagram feed, each on sale at Frieze Art Fair New York for $100,000 a piece. The fact the artist is profiting hugely from appropriated photos of semi-naked girls without their permission is, understandably, causing quite a stir. However, in my eyes the real outrage is the art world’s insistence on championing lame art by unimaginative celebrity artists.
Prince’s “New Portraits” series, which were first shown at Prince's own Gagosian gallery in New York last year, are exact copies of unauthorised images, jet-printed on six-foot canvas with added salacious remarks in the comments thread. Some of the images were taken from celebrities’ profiles, including Pamela Anderson and Taylor Swift, but many of them were taken from the account of SuicideGirls, a community of alternative pin-up models.
The controversy itself is dividing opinions, with New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz defending the works as “genius trolling”, while The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl concluded they made him “wish he was dead”. Paddy Johnson, meanwhile, openly called Prince out on his crass sexism and inability to understand youth culture. There were also mixed reactions from the Instagram account owners themselves, with sex writer Karley Sciortino admitting she felt honoured, while SuicideGirls founder Selena Mooney claimed the installation felt like “a violation by someone who doesn't get it.”
In an effort at retaliation, Mooney started selling prints of the images for $90 with the proceeds going to charity. Commenting on the affair, she wrote: “If I had a nickel for every time someone used our images without our permission in a commercial endeavour I’d be able to spend $90,000 on art. I was once really annoyed by Forever 21 selling shirts with our slightly altered images on them, but an artist? Richard Prince is an artist and he found the images we and our girls publish on Instagram as representative of something worth commenting on, part of the zeitgeist, I guess? Thanks Richard!” Prince tweeted later that he thought it was a smart move.
Regardless of how amusing this circus might be, let’s get one thing straight: Prince’s latest attempts at creating something of artistic merit are tired and desperate. Prince started his career in the 1970s with appropriation. He shot to fame by re-photographing Sam Abell’s photograph of a cowboy, and later caused more controversy by appropriating photo of a nude Brook Shields aged 10 with the pretext of highlighting how American culture sexualises children. So, his formula is a medley of barely legal themes, with a bit of added flesh and a hefty price tag, all working as a critical portrait of society. And, 40 years on, he’s still relying on these “shock tactics” for attention, although this time he’s using images from “ordinary” people as opposed to those of major corporations or celebrities. Really, is there anything more tame than a one-trick pony celeb artist?
“IG [Instagram] is a bedroom magazine,” he wrote about the series on his blog. “I can start out with someone I know and then check out who they follow or who’s following them, and the rabbit hole takes you on an outer body experience where you suddenly look at the clock and it’s three in the morning. I end up on people’s grids that are so far removed from where I began, it feels psychedelic.” Prince is a joker with a one-dimensional sense of humour, who behaves as if he’d only just discovered the internet. But this type of art is not really funny, because a rich artist using an old trick to make thousands at the expense of other people’s Instagram photos is not funny or clever, is just eyeroll inducing.
Across all its dimensions, there’s absolutely nothing new to find in this “New Portraits” series. We can trace the practice of appropriation in modern art back to Marcel Duchamp, who utilised day-to-day objects entirely as they were and called them art. His most iconic work is undoubtedly the urinal-turned-sculpture “Fountain” (1917), which spawned the era-defining quote: “It’s the artist's choice. He chooses what is art.”
Since then, Duchamp’s legacy has been followed by many great artists, among them Andy Warhol, Mat Collishaw and Tracy Emin. Warhol in particular took the practice further, and in the ’60s he conceived the series “Flowers” consisting of other photographers’ images which he then silk-screened, leading to him having to pay a sizeable cash settlement to each artist.
Using unauthorised images found online is also by no means a novelty. In 2012 artist Marc Adelman exhibited “Stelen (Columns)” (2007-11), a collection of more than 100 photos culled from gay dating site profiles. It caused agitation when the work was featured in New York’s Jewish Museum, and one of the photos’ owners threatened legal action if his picture wasn’t taken down.
Last year in Berlin, “Wanna Play?” – another similar artistic experiment – broadcast live private chats taken from the dating app Grindr in the middle of town. It also caused outcry, many claiming that the artist was violating the safety and privacy of users and exploiting the gay community. At the time, Haus der Kulturen der Welt curator Ashkan Sepahvand called it “sloppy artistic practice” and the whole installation was abandoned after just five highly controversial days, so why is it that Prince’s sloppy work is being celebrated at millionaire’s art fairs?
What Richard Prince did skirts exploitative territory, but exploitation is sadly nothing new, and all-too-often its perpetrators find themselves celebrated in the worlds of ultra-expensive fashion and art. So, it’s no surprise that an older, white, privileged male art critic stepped up to back Prince (who’s now in his mid-60s) and his latest exhibit. NYMag’s Jerry Saltz argues that, in this day and age, images are “materials, and artists use materials to do what they do.” He contends that these images were in the public domain, and thus fair game for use, yet fails to explain why he believes this trite move is “semi-revoluntionary” in any respect. Perhaps that’s because there’s nothing revolutionary about it at all.
Yet, regardless of your opinions on the art itself, the question many were asking is: are Prince’s actions legal? The somewhat frustrating answer is: probably. Previously, Prince has been embroiled in a long-running legal battle with photographer Patrick Cariou over his unauthorised use of Cariou’s work – a battle he partially lost, leading to the destruction of several works in the collection (although by no means the majority of it). By now he’s more than familiar with the legal definition of so-called “fair use”, and has likely positioned this work just enough on the side of the law to make it stick, should a case ever be brought against him.
Prince knows that, provided he alters an image just enough to call it “original,” he’ll get away with it. As such, his own sleazy additions to the pictures like, “Nice. Let's hook up next week. Lunch, Smiles R” – a comment left under a photo of a girl in a swimsuit – might actually save his bacon. However, copyright is murky legal territory that’s only truly navigated with the aid of highly-paid lawyers, and should anyone bother taking the artist to court they will only be able to claim the market value of the images themselves – which, for the likes of SuicideGirls, wouldn’t be very much. Ultimately, Richard Prince knew exactly what he was doing when he picked them as his target, and that’s what makes the act all the more deplorable.
Still, despite all this there are those who claim Prince’s work is culturally valuable for the issues it raises in the global conversation. But let’s examine those issues a little closer. If, in fact, it was his aim to raise the issue of narcissism in the digital age, such a move would be no better than sanctimonious finger-wagging akin to the mother who shamed her daughter on video for posting sexy snapshots on Facebook. Thanks, Daddy Prince, for the moral lesson, but there’s zero cultural value in a rich man seizing and exploiting a woman’s image for his own financial profit, even if she is supposedly “fame-hungry” (and if, in the end, the image is returned).
Perhaps, instead, he’s trying to use his art to bring attention to how corporations like Facebook (which owns Instagram) have the power to monetize our images, despite not owning them. Yet, far from critiquing the practice, Prince’s actions simply play the role of such corporations, which is something only a hypocrite would do.
Regardless, there is perhaps one good thing about Prince’s sad spectacle, which is that the publicity stunt has (whether or not intentionally) unleashed a web-wide debate on art, copyright, appropriation of women’s bodies and our behaviour online. It has perhaps ignited a similar conversation to that of Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance, when she columbused twerking to mainstream audiences, instigating fervent analysis of white privilege and the indiscriminate appropriation of Black culture. At least that’s some small payback.
It’s long been apparent that the internet is up for grabs, and for that reason there are no shortage of people desperately trying to control it. It’s widely known that Mark Zuckerberg and Co. are selling our data to companies (and perhaps one day to governments), and Prince’s work is a reminder that our rights in these matters are painfully thin. Yet, in its lack of imagination, it feels very much inconsequential.
Words by Will Furtado for Highsnobiety