At this point, there remains very little to say about an artist who has been as roundly, comprehensively, and rightly criticized as Richard Prince has over the years. Even so, there’s something particularly egregious about the art world’s most notorious magpie’s new project, which, as widely reported, consists of printed screenshots of people’s Instagram photos. The fact that Prince has been selling these images for $90,000 apiece probably says more about the gullible nature of fine art collectors than anything else, but it does add insult to injury for anyone who happens to be the subject of one of the pictures that have been lifted.
As the Washington Post explains, Prince gets away with this because he alters the images enough to allow for his work to be seen as “transformative,” a concept that was upheld in a 2008 court case wherein he won an appeal against a judgment that he had infringed the copyright of French photographer Patrick Cariou. (In this case, he changed the images’ captions to varying degrees.)
The principle is not unlike that which allowed Vanilla Ice to get away with lifting the bassline to Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” for “Ice Ice Baby” — the presence of one extra note in the latter song allowed the rapper’s lawyers to argue that the two basslines were not the same. (In any case, Vanilla ended up getting relieved of most of his money while he may or may not have been being dangled out a hotel window by Suge Knight, which only goes to show that karma is, indeed, a bitch.) It doesn’t appear anyone is about to dangle Prince off a balcony any time soon — although that’s probably just as well, since he’d probably use it as an excuse to photograph the view and then claim the street below as his own.
It’s important to note here that recontextualization of existing works of art is a perfectly valid art form in and of itself — you can look no further than Andy Warhol’s famous Marilyns, or Méret Oppenheim’s furry teacup, or Barbara Kruger’s use of found images in her work. Indeed, the idea of recontextualization is a cornerstone of post-modernism, and when it’s done well, it’s a fascinating way of looking at the fact that no work of art has a set, immutable meaning. Surely innumerable visual artists out there have fascinating ideas as to how to use Instagram images in their work, and rightly so, given that the rise of that platform is one of the defining web-based cultural trends of this decade.
The problem with Prince’s work isn’t that it’s using existing images — the problem is that it’s dull. It was dull in the 1970s when he was re-photographing billboards; the fact that he’s essentially still doing the same thing 40 years later speaks volumes about the depths of the man’s artistic vision. The idea of just sticking your name on something and calling it art was interesting in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal; nearly 100 years later it’s unimaginative, passé, and pointless. (Unless, of course, the point is to prove that you can literally print something off the Internet, fiddle with the caption a bit, and then sell it for a small fortune because you’re Richard Prince — in which case, good job, you proved it. Now please, can you go away?)
The whole sorry business is ultimately an indictment on the nature of the highest echelons of the art market. In the last few decades, expensive art has evolved into something like tax-efficient trading cards for rich people, the exchange of objects that are valued more for their investment potential than for their artistic merit. In this respect, Prince is the perfect artist for our times — even more so than, say, Jeff Koons, his art says literally nothing, existing purely as a blank space for someone to project a monetary value onto. This is interesting as a phenomenon, but as far as art goes, it’s deathly boring. Lifting other people’s Instagrams and selling them for a shitload of cash may or may not be “genius trolling” of the art world, as Jerry Saltz suggests. Either way, what’s less interesting than one rich white dude “trolling” a bunch of other rich white dudes?
Of course, when you’re talking about a hugely successful and powerful artist taking whatever he pleases from people who could never afford to challenge him, it’s laden with moral questions. Prince has long since demonstrated he cares not a whit about any such questions; the rest of the art world could at least have the decency not to continue indulging him. But, of course, the rest of the art world doesn’t care either — it’s a sort of Game of Thrones for the rarified world of gallerists and collectors, so who cares if little people get hurt?
Perhaps the last word in this debate, though, goes to Suicide Girls founder Missy Suicide, who, on discovering that an image of Suicide Girl Doe Deer was used in Prince’s show, decided to take matters into her own hands. She’s currently selling prints of Prince’s print of Deer’s Instagram for $90 a pop, with all proceeds going to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Now that’s genius trolling.