Richard Prince – Untitled from Censored Art series (2011)
Richard Prince is the reigning king of appropriation in the art world.
He’s made a career of stealing work from other artists without permission. This can take the form of rephotographing an image–Sam Abell’s cigarette ad vs Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy). And there was the recent kerfuffle where Prince took images created by others on Instagram, more or less as is, and sold them as his own work.
I’m not someone who dismisses what Prince does entirely out of hand. I mean consider the quote that’s frequently (and inconclusively–to the best of my knowledge) attributed to Oscar Wilde about talent borrowing and genius stealing–and you have to accept Prince’s work merely as proof of concept.
And although he’s definitely an entitled white, cishet asshole, there is some conceptual merit to his interrogations. With his appropriation of Abell’s photo, he introduces notions of authorship/ownership and the relationship between process and commodification in the advertising world vs. in the art world.
Similarly, his selling of Instagram images he did not make, can be interpreted as the art industry paying exorbitant sums for work that is unoriginal/stolen or worse. Also, it presents questions about who owns the copyright for work displayed on social media sites. (I’m sure everyone reading this has gotten those concerned messages about whether or not uploading work to Flickr or FB will result in losing one’s All Rights Reserved proviso.
The problem with the Instagram business was he primarily stole work from young women–which is very different than stealing corporate art from a tobacco company. (For example: there’s continued disagreement on the appropriateness of rape jokes in comedy–and it’s pretty much agreed that the acceptability of the jokes depends on which way you’re punching–like if you’re making the victims of rape the punchline, that’s not cool, whereas making the perpetrators of rape the punchline is punching upward, and OK.)
Prince’s career in my experience is centered around looking for easier and easier targets.
That being said: I do like the work from the series of which the above is a part. Reason being that apparently the photos are images he made himself and then placed the stickers over them. (The appropriation becomes an organic part of the whole instead of the works raison d’etre.)
Conceptually, there’s a lot to unpack. The notion of paywalls–you don’t get to see this unless you pay us, the question: does the disconnect between the work and the intervention of the sticker upon the work enhance or muddle meaning. Also: does censoring something increase merely it’s interest or does it contribute otherwise unfounded creative merit? Questions about whether or not limited resources of consumers limit societal creativity–the notion that this is a photograph infringed upon by a sticker from a DVD from one of the definitive punk bands, i.e. do we consider connections we’re not explicitly told to consider by artists, critical types. It’s also interesting that the photos are all of the type that you would see in mainstream pornography (something which is made with a profit motive) and mementos of consumption–those stickers on CDs serve no purpose other than to facilitate commerce; thus, they serve no purpose. Further, does censoring the graphic parts of the image also make the images less useful as porn, and more appropriate as art.)
They all seem like profound questions, at first. Except they are all really rather staid. It’s kitschy but also clever.
I’m reminded of seeing Junot Diaz speak earlier this year. He was asked about cultural appropriation and made a stunning observation that essentially (this is a rough paraphrase) the line dividing cultural appropriation from cultural appreciation has to do with one’s degree of personal engagement with a particular culture.
It’s like that scene in Dead Poet’s Society where Robin Williams encourages his class to all walk in a slightly different way and one of the students stays leaning up against a wall. When confronted, the student points out that he’s exercising his right not to walk. And Robin Williams thanks him for proving the point of the exercise.
Richard Prince is that kid. Only his entire career has made his actions entirely predictable. At least Censored Art reflects upon the culture with which he is most ostensibly engaged.