Who’s afraid of Richard Prince?
I have nothing to be afraid of. I am not skinny enough, cool enough or successful enough. Plus I’m pretty sure that, at 25, I’m past my peak creep prime, at least from the perspective of 65-year-old Prince, who seems to run more in Terry Richardson’s line of thought. Why fear a body snatcher if you don’t have body worth snatching? That’s really all Prince is guilty of. And it’s not even an original crime.
If you are not familiar with Richard Prince, he is an American appropriation artist who became well known in the 1980s for his project Cowboys, in which he rephotographs Marlboro Man advisements stripped of their branding. In this work, he was said to be questioning everything, from American masculinity to “what is real.” This work was followed by a collection called Girlfriends, in which he rephotographs pictures taken of bikers’ girlfriends sprawled out on bikes. So, other than a brief stint in 1985, when he turned his attention to painting mildly sexist jokes on canvas, Richard Prince has always been a body snatcher. Most recently, Richard Prince has caught a lot of flak, not for body snatching, but for “stealing” the photographs of Instagram users, printing them out and selling them for ridiculously high prices as part of a series of shows called New Portraits. The series consists of 37 prints, and first opened for private viewing at the Gagosian Gallery in New York City in October of 2014. Each print is a 65-by-48- inch screenshot that Prince took of someone else’s Instagram photo, always including an often mocking and nonsensical comment made by Prince himself. The photos are mostly of young, conventionally attractive women, many of them highly sexual, many of them selfies. Almost all of them are of highly successful Instagram users or celebrities, though some of them are celebrity fan accounts.
Most of the critique of Prince so far ha concerned his stealing photographs and making money off other people’s work (although many have rightfully accused him of being a big old creep and making boring art). But it’s not necessarily the photograph that Prince is profiting from. Instagram is made of photographs, but what powers it is bodies and aesthetics. Photographer Donald Graham wrote a cease and desist letter to Prince and the Gagosian, asking them to stop showing or attempting to sell his photograph, Rastafarian Smoking a Joint, Jamaica. However, there are several layers of Internet gray area between Prince and the photograph. Prince found Graham’s photograph of a Jamaican man smoking a joint on the Instagram account @rastajay92, which had reposted the photograph from the Instagram account of Australian Jamaican model @indagoochild, who presumably liked Graham’s photograph enough to upload it to Instagram. Like the majority of Instagram photos, it was uploaded without credit. Unlike the majority of Instagram photos, it is now potentially being sold for thousands of dollars. In this chain of use and reuse, it becomes hard to pinpoint who is culpable for what. Maybe those who uploaded the photograph should have credited it, maybe Richard Prince should have alerted the artist to its use.
But there is another layer of appropriation. The man in the photo has no idea his picture was hanging in a New York gallery. A picture of a man of color was taken by a photographer, his aesthetics matched to one user and then another user, and that picture is now suddenly worth thousands of dollars. This may be victimless crime. It may not be. Donald Graham is by no means an underdog starving artist. He can clearly afford a lawyer to pen his cease and desist letter. He is internationally well respected and his works hang in major art galleries and private collections. Perhaps the credit and the $90,000 should go to the man whose appearance and lifestyle, while completely marginalized, are aesthetically considered a hot commodity.
Interestingly, Graham is not the first white male artist to come into conflict with Prince over the use of the black male Jamaican body. Prince recently won a fiveyear-long legal battle with Patrick Carou over his use of Carou’s photography in his self-described “meaningless” collection of work Canal Zone. In Canal Zone, Prince cut out and defaced pictures from Carou’s book Yes, Rasta, an anthropological photo essay on Rastafarian culture in Jwamaica. While many who sided with Carou pointed out that these photos were taken after extensive community engagement and research in order to gain the trust of people in the culture, it’s hard to not view the squabble as two white men arguing over the use of a black man’s body. This is not to defend Prince, whose treatment of the photographs could easily be read as racist (for example, when he enlarged the subjects’ mouths and erased their eyes). At the time, he wrote,
I don’t want to talk about where the Rastas came from. Like most images I work with, they weren’t mine. I didn’t know anything about Rastas. I didn’t know anything about their culture or how they lived. I had plenty of time to find out. What I I don’t want to talk about where the Rastas came from. Like most images I went with was the attraction. I liked their dreads. The way they were dressed […] gym shorts and flip-flops. Their look and lifestyle gave off a vibe of freedom. Maybe I’m wrong about the freedom but I don’t give a shit about being wrong.
But one of Carou’s biggest complaints was not Prince’s disrespect, but the fact that he lost his show at a Paris gallery due to Prince.
For me the majority of Prince’s New Portraits were repugnant only in that they were symptomatic of one the art world’s greatest crimes: body snatching. I think the term “re-voyeurize” is important to understanding how Prince snatches bodies. When a photo is placed on Instagram, it is intentional and meant to be viewed by anyone. There is nothing voyeuristic about a sexual Instagram photo posted by a consenting party. OG sad girl artist and Instagram super star Audrey Wollen told i-D,
What Prince is doing is colonizing and profiting off a territory of the internethat was created by a community of young girls, who, needless to say, do not have the cultural space Prince has. Selecting specific bodies from a sea of images, amputating them from their context, and then naming himself the owner of those bodies.
Prince takes what was a consensual picture of a body and places the body in a non-consensual context. Part of the appeal of the project, part of its “sexiness,” is that he throws into question the agency of those whose pictures he uses. Now, instead of a woman posting a sexy picture of herself online, you are spying on her body in a context she never consented to. He re-voyeurizes the bodies of young women, who, in posting pictures of themselves online, are seeking to profit off their own bodies and working to reclaim the theme of the young nude female as something owned and controlled by young the nude female herself. By using their photos he forces them back into the role of passive model. He renders them innocent again. Ripping away the agency of choice and credit, he sends them reeling back in the realm of spied-upon and preyed-upon. The issue is not whether Prince used photographs he did not take, the issue is that Prince is laying claim to the visual capital of the bodies of those who, through designing, curating and consenting to publication, have acted to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, namely their bodies.
Of course, not all the Instagram users included in New Portraits are offended. Karley Sciortino, a writer for Vogue and the woman behind Slutever.com, told Business Insider that she was “honored” to be in Prince’s show, because he was a “successful artist.” However, Karley Scortino is already a well-known writer and critic. Many of the younger and less well-known participants were not as enthused by their inclusion, especially those who were trying to own and profit from their own bodies. For example, Sean Fader, a young recent MFA graduate had a picture from his performance art project Wishing Pelt seized by Prince. Fader’s project consisted of letting people take selfies of themselves rubbing his chest hair. They were told to make a wish while they were doing so, and that if they posted the picture to social media the wish would come true. Sean expressed his frustration to Hyperallergic, saying,
There’s obviously that part of me that’s mad because I’m a poor starving artist with six-figure student loan debt, and you’re just a giant that runs through Instagram pillaging, taking things into your own museum, and calling them yours.
Then there is the snappy response of Selena Mooney, founder of SuicideGirls, a model-run, highly lucrative pin-up community. Upon hearing that her photo was being sold for $90,000 dollars, Mooney started selling it online for just $90. However, Mooney is in a unique position to play this game. Ann Collins, a self-described “working student in school” who is “extremely broke,” was also outspoken in her frustration at Prince’s exploitation of her body. “I could have used that money for school,” she told the website Artnet. Artnet was quick to point out that Anna did not actually take her own picture. However, Collins’ issue was the not the use of the photograph itself, it was the use of her body. Collins explained to Star Entertainment that she wanted to “send a message to the art world to stop commodifying women’s bodies for the sake of art.” Collins was not interested in the use of her photograph, she was upset about the use of her own body, now in the public eye without consent or credit — a situation which, as a poor and young woman, she could do little to change.
It is not a coincidence that a struggling performance artist (like Fader), members of a ballet troop (like Collins), models and makeup artists are upset with Richard Prince. Unlike Sciortino, they use their bodies to survive. The structure and material fabric of which their body is built is precious to them. Models, dancers, sex workers and artists pour their energy into shaping their bodies, so they may profit off of the shapes they create and survive off of those profits. Many change their bodies for cultural capital as well. While we all should fight for the licensing right to our bodies, for some this is the bare means of their survival. Male artists who capitalize off the bodies of women and white photographers who capitalize off the skins of brown and black subjects are hardly a novelty. Yet, except in specific circumstances, these What Prince is doing is colonizing and profiting off a territory of the internet There’s obviously that part of me that’s mad because I’m a poor starving artist bodies are seldom credited. Prince ripped away the credit that many on Instagram are finally receiving for their bodies. When one posts a picture of oneself online, one is laying claim to the product of all the labor it took to make and present one’s body. The models of SuicideGirls put an extraordinary amount of work into their bodies. They work out, they get tattoos, they spend time on makeup, clothes and piercings. They strive to be financially rewarded for this labor, and that financial reward is a societal affirmation of the credit they deserve.
When visual artists make use of models, they seldom credit the work the model does to maintain her body. I think they should start. When a photographer travels through America, to rural areas or poor black neighborhoods, or abroad, to seek out distinctive cultures or lived experiences, I think he should give partial credit to every person he photographs and, probably, some of his royalties. After all, the body produced by the agency of the model is partially responsible for its own pictorial iteration. Think how this would radically shift the demographics and economics of representation in major art institutions. The muse — a model used continuously over time — is supposed to be a creation of nature that captures the artist’s heart and mind; she is as much responsible for her power to dazzle as a child is for the clothes that their parents buy them. But in today’s society we are never innocent of our bodies. The natural is fetishized, but only as framed by a narrative fiction. “Natural beauty” is a patriarchal fallacy that tells us that being beautiful is essential and, at the same time, that to strive to be beautiful is shameful. Plastic surgery, incredibly common among a diverse section of the world’s population, is still widely condemned. The reasons given for this — that it can be dangerous, that it sometimes doesn’t make you look better, that it is often obvious to the beholder — ring hollow. The real problem is that while we want people to adhere to monetarily profitable beauty standards that uphold the superstructures of patriarchy and the male ego, we do not actually want them to have control and ownership of their bodies. If a woman looks as if she spends time working out, she has a man’s body; if a guy spends too much time on his appearance he is effeminate. We approve of people who “pass” in the gender they identify with, as we can see with the media reaction to Caitlyn Jenner, but, in general, we shame other members of the Kardashian/Jenner family for the aesthetic plastic surgery they pursue. I think that anyone who gets plastic surgery should be consid — ered a designer. After all, they are striving to create an ideal thing of beauty, just like an artist.
I read an article by Karley Sciortino a while ago called, “Why do we like having sex with artists?” (The title really should have been, “Why do straight women want to have sex with successful, attractive male artists?”) Sciortino writes about the time she participated in Prince’s Frieze Art project: she wore a bikini top and short shorts, and waxed his fancy car. She enjoyed it and also resented it when a woman tried to hand her a sweater — waxing a car will make you hot — and I can understand why. It sounds like hard work, but the attention could be validating. Sciortino went on to explain that she wanted to be a muse, a dream she seems to have achieved. There is nothing unfeminist about wanting be a muse. What is unfeminist is the idea of a non-consensual muse. The muse who is striving to use her body to inspire herself, the muse who is seeking to profit off her own body, only to have it snatched from her and placed in a non-con — sensual context, the credit for all her bodily labor taken by someone else.
As an artist, I want credit for any time my body is used. If a guy jacks off to my picture on Instagram, I want a check in the mail. But being realistic, I know that many muses are non-consensual, and will never receive credit. So what do we do if we don’t want others to profit off our bodies? My only advice is to make your body as unprofitable as possible. If you are in a place where this feels safe and comfortable, don’t give a fuck about “passing.” Don’t work out. Get fat or maybe don’t — that can backfire. Don’t brush your hair. Get really nasty, obvious plastic surgery. Dress up like an animal all the time. In other words, get ugly. I mean really ugly, don’t get “riot girl” chic, don’t get alt, don’t get edgy, get unattractive. It’s tricky, because ugly is in the eye of the beholder, but I have faith in us. And maybe, if you get just ugly enough, no one will want to snatch your body for their art.