Instagram, an artist and the $100,000 selfies – appropriation in the digital age
Richard Prince has turned borrowing online images into high art – and hard cash. But is the artist’s work anything other than genius trolling?
Hannah Jane Parkinson, Saturday 18 July 2015 05.00 EDT
It’s a question as old as art itself: “Yeah, but is it art?”
Type it into Google and get 1.26 billion results. It lends itself to book titles, television series and conversations between white walls, whetted by prosecco.
It’s a question asked of a shark in formaldehyde; an unmade bed; a sleeping footballer; two humans meeting in silence across a table, and before those of John Cage; Mondrian; Pollock.
This question, the distant cousin of “my kid could have done that”, has quietly endured.
The decibel levels rise, however, when it comes to appropriation. Appropriation is the practice of artists taking already existing objects and using them, with little alteration, in their own works. The objects could be functional, everyday objects, or elements of other art pieces; commercial advertising material, newspaper cuttings or street debris. Anything, really.
It’s interesting, though, that some appropriation in art is seen as acceptable in the public consciousness, some not. Warhol: of course. Sampling at the birth of hip-hop – well, sure. Found object art like Duchamp’s Fountain? Hmm.
Richard Prince and the art of ‘rephotographing’
Richard Prince is a New York-based artist famous for appropriation. His work relies heavily on the work of others. Not all of his pieces or projects are appropriated, but his most famous pieces owe their existence to the technique.
Take, for instance, Prince’s “rephotographing” of Marlboro cigarette advertisements, specifically those featuring the Marlboro Man (originally shot by Sam Abell). The series, entitled – and some might say, appropriately – Cowboys, began in the 1980s. A more recent piece from the series (2000) sold for more than $3m (£1.9m) at a 2014 Sotheby’s auction.
There’s a rather brilliant PDN interview, in 2008, with Abell, who speaks about Prince’s appropriation of his photographs. At the beginning of the interview, Abell states: “I’m not angry, of course”. He then speaks for three minutes, getting angrier and angrier.
I’m not particularly amused … it’s obviously plagiarism, and I was taught by my parents the sin of that … it seems to be breaking the golden rule … he has to live with that.”
Abell’s Marlboro photographs are not the only pictures to be repurposed by Prince. In 2014, Prince settled a three-year-long copyright case with the photographer Patrick Cariou after the former used Cariou’s Yes, Rasta, a book on the rastafarian community, as part of his Canal Zone series. He’s also been known to hand out copies of A Catcher in the Rye with his own name on the cover.
Now, Prince is back in the spotlight. His current exhibition – New Portraits – opened in June at the Gagosian gallery in London, having debuted in New York in 2014.
The portraits, however, are not new to everyone – and certainly not new to their subjects.
This is because Prince’s New Portraits series comprises entirely of the Instagram photos of others. The only element of alteration comes in the form of bizarre, esoteric, lewd, emoji-annotated comments made beneath the pictures by Prince.
Prince’s pieces sold for up to $100,000 (£63,700) at New York’s Frieze art fair, according to CNN. This might not sound a lot, given the prices fetched for oher artists’ works at the Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions in London this month – including $32.1m (£20.9m) for a Warhol painting of a $1 bill – but it is what mothers around the world would call “better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick”.
As collaborations go, if Jay-Z and Beyonce duetting represents a bringing together of the best of hip-hop and R&B, and Scorsese, Nicholson and DiCaprio a filmmaking supergroup, then Richard Prince and the internet are an appropriation dream team.
So it is that one of the oldest questions (“but is it art?”) collides with one of the most pressing, current global debates: that of online privacy and ownership in the digital age.
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