Guest post by Simon Herbert
Appropriation has always been a part of the history of art (Renaissance painters regularly ‘lifted’ iconography from one another), but it truly moved into the mainstream as its own accepted sub-category in the twentieth century. When Surrealist René Magritte deconstructed subject matter in his painting “The Treachery of Images” that a painting of a pipe was not, in fact a pipe at all (“Ceci ne’st pas un pipe”), he was marking artists’ increasing obsession with validating the truth of one’s own eyes; in an increasingly agnostic world, it seemed that subjective truth was rapidly becoming as reliable a guide as objective truth. Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” had already opened the conceptual floodgates eleven years earlier, in 1917: a porcelain urinal he entered into the Society of Independent Artists in NY. Unsurprisingly, at the time, the work was rejected, in a last gasp attempt to repudiate Duchamps’ provocations that “anything could be art.”
98 years after “Fountain,” Richard Prince has arguably reached the apotheosis of appropriation with his recent show at Gagosian Gallery in New York: “New Portraits,” features 37 images lifted from other peoples’ Instagram accounts. Enlarged to roughly 4 x 6 feet and printed on canvas, they are snapshots of people in the era of digital media, and reflect the narcissism of a continual “selfie” culture. The works sell for upwards of $100,000, fueling both outrage and acclamation in equal measure. The former camp is populated by those who think that there is little creativity in Prince’s lifting of other peoples’ images, and cite his decades of lifting other artists’ and photographers’ works; they believe it to be lazy at best, and outright theft at worst (the subjects of the paintings do not receive any percentage on sales). They also point out that Prince rarely creates the physical works himself; he employs assistants to fabricate them.
The latter camp – the defenders of Prince – will cite, doubtless, some of the artists mentioned above, and point to the consolidation of appropriation throughout the last century: Andy Warhol’s Factory was created by Warhol’s own recontextualization of found imagery (such as “Electric Chair” in 1963), and he, too, used assistants in a conveyor belt operation that worked both commercially, but also as a further critique of authenticity. In the nineties radical devil’s advocate and high art court jester Jeff Koons employed a small army of artisans to recreate mass-produced cheap kitsch objects as unique expensive one-offs; effectively inverting notions of “taste.”
So far, so good then: both sides make valid arguments, and it’s unlikely that any rapprochement will be made any time soon. Just as you might think that something is, or isn’t, a pipe; people project their own subjective values of work, authenticity, authorship onto both the processes and results of art making. In short, it’s a discussion that will never be “won.”
So what is left, in the case of the Richard prince show, is the guessing game of that other old chestnut: “the artist’s intentionality.” By any stretch of the imagination, Prince could put anything on a canvas or a plinth, and there would not only be sellers for it, but the run would be snapped up by buyers; so it’s fair to assume that Prince must have made the critical issues of his choice of subject matter for a reason?
It’s with this defining question that the conceptual aspects of the work, perhaps, begin to crystallize. To the subjective eyes of this writer (who usually falls into the camp of appropriation defenders), the schism between source material and artwork is pronounced and profound enough to justify the works as “art.” Consider the rarefied high art atmosphere that these selfies now exist in: surely that sense of inflated worth, and uniqueness, is exactly what the subject matter wanted for themselves when they first started documenting themselves? At a time when literally millions of people have an active compulsion to surrender portraits of themselves to a vast (but mainly imaginary: maybe a ‘tribe of friends numbering in the hundreds actually sees these photos, rather than the tens of thousand theoretically out there…) imaginary audience, Prince has amplified their narcissism and taken it to another level. The original Instagram portraits would have been consumed in split seconds, before the viewer moves on to absorb hundreds of other images that same day, with the click of a mouse of track pad; whereas now, in the Gagosian gallery, the subjects’ aspirations have reached a stillness, and permanence, beyond their wildest dreams. They remain inviolate, serene, loved, valued and magnified.
But just because Prince’s work is valid in this context, does it make it great art? That’s an argument for another time…