I would be surprised if you’ve been on the internet lately and managed to avoid hearing about this story. Artist Richard Prince creates blown up canvases featuring screenshots of Instagram posts and sells them for $90,000. Is it art? Is he a thief? Where is my pitchfork? At times I have been tempted to chime in on various Facebook/Twitter/Instagram threads about these works. Most of the comments are pretty negative, and I understand where they are coming from, but my own opinion, while not glowingly positive, is a little more kind.
This story, like a lot of other stories that have blown up on the internet, isn’t quite new. These works first went on display sometime last fall. It’s just that these things that get circulated take time to percolate and reach a tipping point before we all have a chance to share in the viral goodness.
Let’s back up. Way up. Almost a hundred years ago to 1917 and an artist by the name of Marcel Duchamp. An exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists featured a found art sculpture by Duchamp titled Fountain. Actually, featured is too nice of a word because the work was hidden out of view from the rest of the exhibition.
Fountain was nothing more than an existing urinal purchased at a plumbing store and signed, “R. Mutt 1917.” Duchamp may have had a collaborator, but the fact remains that it was submitted to the show anonymously. For this exhibition any artist who paid the fee was guaranteed entry and though Duchamp himself was a board member of the Society of Independent Artists, he was unable to sway opinion of the board and keep the sculpture in plain view for the show.
An anonymous editorial on Fountain and the artist following the show read in part:
Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
This is something that has stuck with me. I must confess that I’ve never been great at art history and my recall of famous artists is not as good as it should be, but Marcel Duchamp made an impression. Though he had beginnings as a painter, his thing became escaping what he called “retinal” art, stuff that is pretty to look at, and instead make conceptual art that makes you think a bit.
Let’s fast forward about fifty years to 1962 and an artist that I’ve mentioned several times, Andy Warhol. Warhol initially made 32 screen printed canvases for each of the Campbell’s Soup flavors.
In 1964 of the Campbell’s Soup Can series of works Duchamp said:
Pop Art is a return to ‘conceptual’ painting… If you take a Campbell soup can and repeat it 50 times, you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is that concept that wants to put 50 Campbell soup cans on a canvas.
And maybe that’s true, but this brings us to appropriation. Warhol wasn’t the first to appropriate images of others, but these are maybe the most recognizable to the layperson. Eugène Bataille, Duchamp, and Salvador Dali all famously appropriated Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in various ways previously. The Mona Lisa, however, would certainly have fallen under public domain. Campbell’s was no doubt a registered trademark. Could Campbell’s have sued Warhol and won? It doesn’t seem as though they ever tried. They were happy with the publicity as shown in this letter from Campbell’s to Warhol found at Letter’s of Note.
To my knowledge Warhol was never taken to court over any of his appropriations, though it could be argued that his are either original and altered enough to get a pass. If I drew a still life of my refrigerator and included a can of Pepsi, I don’t think Pepsi-Cola would come after me.
What about artists that have been taken to court? In 2008 Shepard Fairey created this poster of Barrack Obama in support of his presidential campaign:
It was discovered that the source image was that of an Associated Press photographer and Fairey was taken to court. The judged urged Fairey to settle as the court wasn’t likely to side with him in the opinion that this was a case of Fair Use. This was a bit surprising to me. I’m not a lawyer, but this seems plenty altered from a photograph, and certainly more altered than hundreds of photos that Andy Warhol turned into silkscreen prints of celebrities. Fairey settled with the AP for an undisclosed sum and agreement.
Here are two different looks at appropriation. On the left, the original cover for Patrick Wensink’s novel, Broken Piano For President. This resulted in a cease and desist from Jack Daniel’s (though they were pretty nice about it). On the right, we have a Jack Daniel’s inspired cover for the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. The book cover pretty much takes the original swirls and details. The album cover takes it’s inspiration from the bottle, but the differences are apparent. I don’t think Wensink is too disappointed; the story of the cease and desist letter probably pushed him to the top of Amazon’s Bestseller list (Wensink details that it isn’t as big a deal as you might think).
Back to Richard Prince and the legality of Fair Use. It doesn’t sound as if any of the Instagram users who have had their images appropriated have filed suit yet, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. Most seem to be taking it in stride. Suicide Girls has started a price war, taking their appropriated images back from Prince and offering them up for a mere $90 in contrast to the $90,000 that Prince is asking. Prince was perviously brought to court by Patrick Cariou for a series of Rastafarian paintings which were appropriated by Prince. Most articles I’ve read on the subject note that Prince won the lawsuit, but that is a little misleading. Ultimately 25 of 30 appropriated images were deemed fair use and Prince settled with Cariou on the remaining five. How it was settled we’re not sure, but hopefully Cariou was not too disappointed with the result.
The legal issue still seems foggy to me (and I still feel like if Prince can get away with these works, Shepard Fairey should have been in the clear), but now the last issue: Is it art?
Of course it’s art. The good news is that just because it is art, you don’t have to like it. I feel like as humans we like to put things in nice boxes and draw lines. I’ve often said that art is biggest three letter word, second only to God (whether or not you believe in a god, you can’t deny religion’s influence on the world at large). The Mona Lisa is a work of art just like an awful rerun of Married With Children. We can put more weight on some works than others, but we don’t get to decide if something is art of not. Only the artist gets to decide that. We decide how much we like it.
How much do I like Richard Prince’s Instagram prints? My knee jerk reaction is similar to most, but maybe that’s largely out of jealousy. I’d love to be selling prints for $90,000. I haven’t made a sale in weeks and I’m raiding my meager retirement fund to make my next mortgage payment, not to mention the fact that I draw my own stuff. However, most of my stuff is mere “retinal” art, largely because the conceptual art is that much harder to sell (for my senior project I dressed as a Robot Jesus and crucified myself on a cross made from old telephone polls). Maybe he’s commenting on the zeitgeist, exposing our vain proclivities and the perversions of voyeurism. Maybe he’s laughing all the way to the bank. The fact remains that Richard Prince is an established artist and he’s created something here even if it’s just controversy. Duchamp’s Fountain and Andy Warhol’s soup cans were similarly controversial in their time and now they are notable icons in the history of art. When I read the angry comments it’s tempting to join in. Maybe Richard Prince is a thief and a hack, but I won’t say he’s not an artist. If nothing else he has made a number of people who don’t normally care about art stand up and take notice, and that brings a smile to my face.