People have been up in arms about artist Richard Prince screenshotting people’s posts on Instagram and selling them for upwards of $100,000 at Frieze. It sounds like a clear case of copyright infringement, right? Why should this guy be making so much money off of other people’s works? Because he’s a genius.
First off, this is Richard Prince’s metier; he’s been appropriating photographs, advertisements and other works since the ‘70s. It’s in a similar vein to Pop Artists purloining mass culture as subjects (Andy Warhol, Richard Hamilton) or other “rephotographers” like Barbara Kruger and Thomas Struth. Controversial, of course, but this kind of art has been around for a while. In fact there are whole books and anthologies written about appropriation and mass media from Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction to Whitechapel’s Appropriation. Love it or hate it (and plenty of people hated Warhol’s soup cans) lots of scholars and artists find this type of work inspiring and valuable.
Also, Prince is within his rights to use these images. After a litigious battle between Prince and photographer Patrick Cariou that settled in 2014, the courts ultimately decided that some of Prince’s photographs of Cariou’s work were “transformative” enough to escape copyright laws. Basically, if you change enough of the original work (which, honestly, doesn’t have to be much of it) it’s fair use. Not to mention, we’re all embedding and regramming and sharing like crazy every day.
Regardless, who is he really hurting? Was someone going to sell that photo for $100K and now they can’t? Isn’t it more likely that the press they received from this incident will help them in the long run?
Prince’s “New Portraits” is a brilliant critique of our social media-obsessed culture—it’s a commentary on the cheapening and devaluing of the photographic image in the context of the never ending visual streams (often extremely intimate or sexualized) that make up our daily lives. It’s an heuristic device that illuminates our voyeuristic culture and the question of how much authorship do we really ever have once we hit publish?
Good artists copy. Great artists screenshot.
Photo © Richard Prince. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Robert McKeever.