Richard Prince May Be a Jerk, But He’s Not a Thief

Richard Prince Instagram Gallery

Image Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photograph by Robert McKeever.

There has been major outrage recently about Richard Prince’s works of art that are screenshots of other people’s Instagram images. Though he has been doing work like this since the 70’s, I’m going to focus on the Instagram images.

People are upset he is selling “other people’s” art for $90K a pop and not sharing the money. I keep hearing how he’s such a thief and a jerk and a liar, etc. There are several things I think people are getting mixed up and confused about.

Marcel Duchamp Urinal Fountain
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain

First, Prince is merely continuing the tradition of Marcel Duchamp, who in 1917 famously displayed a urinal he didn’t make and signed it with a fictitious name and called it art. People were outraged, “That’s not art!” they said. Duchamp said he had “created a new thought for that object.” “He rejected the assumption that art must be linked to the craft of the hand and instead argued that a work of art should be primarily about the artist’s idea” (SFMOA, 2015). That work of art is now one of the most influential pieces of art of the 20th century.

Prince has ingeniously applied Duchamp’s challenge to our generation’s art world that is full of social media, Instagram, liking, selfies, etc. He took screenshots of images people have posted on Instagram with a comment by him below the image, blew them up and turned them into pixelated prints. He does not claim to have taken the original image, which would be lying and stealing, instead he claims to have taken a screenshot of the original image. He changed the context of those images and turned them in pieces of art in a gallery. People are so focused on the $90K instead of on the concept. With the pervasiveness of social media, digital art, and photography the lines of originality, copyright, and stealing are being blurred constantly. Prince is making us think hard about where those lines are.

Picasso by Banksy
Picasso by Banksy

Banksy, the famous graffiti artist, also addresses the idea of continuing original art work with his Picasso sculpture. Here he writes a quote credited to Picasso and crosses out his name and puts his own. He just took ownership of that quote by permanently engraving it onto a sculpture. Banksy creatively demonstrates the meaning of that quote. But I have not heard a single person call Banksy a fraud or thief, he just stole a quote. The idea of continuing original artwork is actually an essential part of how the art world functions.

Years ago Smashing Magazine posted an article called Tribute To Graffiti: 50 Beautiful Graffiti Artworks. This article highlights some of the best works of graffiti by referencing images taken by photographers who most, if not all, are not the original creators of the art work. If you click some of the images they will take you to a Flickr page where the photographers have placed a copyright on the images. Are they stealing? They did not create the original artwork in the image but yet they claim ownership of the photo. Taking a photo of graffiti is virtually the exact same thing Prince did. Again, I don’t see or hear people calling them thieves.

For some reason photographers find it their right to take photos of anything they want and profit off of the photo. Things that have trademarks and copyrights like buildings, sculptures, bridges, clothes, cars, furniture, products, paintings, etc. Except other photographs, that’s the one big no no. If you take a photo of a photo you are officially a thief now but everything else is fair game? That doesn’t sound fair to me. If you are offended by Richard Prince’s art, then go through your photography collection and see how many photos of copyrighted and trademarked things appear in your images. Of course this doesn’t apply to all photographers, as some photographers strictly shoot nature, portraits, etc. I’m referring to photography as a whole.

Rather than being so upset about what Prince is doing, why don’t we seriously consider what he is saying and doing and how it fits into our art. Allow his pieces to get us to critically think about how are going to approach art in this modern era of digital technology. After all, none of us actually produce art that’s 100% original, especially in thought. Plus, it has come out that two of the women whose Instagram photos were used by Richard Prince admitted they didn’t even make the original image they posted.

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