Appropriation is so old that adults were born after it was already passé. I know because I got my BA in art school in 1991 (23 years ago), and I’d already learned about appropriation, written some essays on it, and even done my own appropriationist work [there are even two appropriations in this article]. I “got” it back then, and it hasn’t changed much since. Let me share a few examples before I launch into a mini-critique of Richard Prince’s latest exhibition.
The piece above revolves around the colors “appropriated” from a couple bars of soap from my shower. I mixed my acrylic with various mediums to come out with a very soapy sheen to match the bars as well. It’s color field painting done with colors taken from everyday objects, and incorporates the real bars of soap.
If you aren’t sure what appropriation means in an art context, here’s a handy definition from Student Pulse:
Appropriation refers to the act of borrowing or reusing existing elements within a new work. Post-modern appropriation artists… are keen to deny the notion of ‘originality’. They believe that in borrowing existing imagery or elements of imagery, they are re-contextualising or appropriating the original imagery, allowing the viewer to renegotiate the meaning of the original in a different, more relevant, or more current context.
Above is a diptych, and each panel is “L” shaped so they are hung interlocking. It’s all done with mechanical pencil, and I think it’s 6 or 8 feet wide (can’t remember). The source was a non-fiction, pulp, crime paperback about a girl who was captured by a couple and kept under their bed for seven years. The text is just paragraphs which describe the “victim” and the wife of the abductor. The content is sensationalist, but the photos and rendering matter-of-fact. The photos and the text were both drawn in pencil, and both became subjects in the same light.
Here I was, over twenty years ago, appropriating photos and text from popular, low-brow culture, and recontextualizing them in a fine art context.
Not as pure as the appropriation from the crime paperback, in the image above I combined photos to create a new one. To get the ships I took photos of a TV while playing a video of War of the Worlds. This method of photographing media, as opposed to taking pictures of the outside world, is stock and trade of appropriationist, Postmodern art. I then used a grid system to make a large drawing of the Martian war ships flying over the university where I studied. I did some other appropriation-related work, such as making a very large text painting using stick-on letters painted fresh green (but I destroyed that one after getting a savage critique by someone who had an overarching agenda problem).
As you can see, I was well aware of appropriation in art when I was an undergrad, 23 years ago. And when I see appropriation done in 2014, I find it sort of nostalgic and comforting, like the rare times I went to eat at McDonald’s while I lived in China. It’s no more new or challenging than an abstract painting. In reality, appropriation and abstract art date back to the early 1900’s. Nevertheless appropriation is still considered more radical and controversial than abstract art, but this is largely due to a lot of people not accepting appropriation as worthy of calling art at all.
If we accept that appropriation isn’t itself challenging, but just another approach or technique an artist might incorporate, than Prince’s new works have a chance of being relevant because of his particular application of appropriation. Prince has essentially immortalized his own Instagram activity, along with the people he engages with using the app. Like Koons aggrandizing a balloon dog by enlarging it and putting it in the fine art context, Prince has done the same with the phenomenon of Instagramming. People’s selfies become fine art portraits.
A measure of how successful Prince’s “Portraits” are would be to gauge how viewing them changes the audience’s perception of their own Instagram activity. Does one come away rethinking their social media participation as “art”? Do we see the otherwise missed poignancy or beauty of a casual snapshot (even though Instagram is designed to produce just such an effect)? Or de we ponder the superficiality of the whole process, and how all our social media self-representation is so much artifice and masquerade?
Some critics have made a big deal about Prince including his own text comments, as if they contributed something meaningful. But they are all throwaway lines, such as “Now I know” in response to a girl’s selfie with her longish tongue stuck out. It’s not really what he says, so much as that he says something at all. His comment is like a signature, signaling that he contributed SOMETHING (though because of this convention he probably unintentionally positions himself as always getting the last word). And as artist Clayton Cubitt pointed out on Twitter, “Watching Richard Prince do Instagram is like watching your dad try to rap.”1
Through using Instagram, Prince tried to bring appropriation up to speed, and make it and himself seem contemporary, on the edge. With the technology available today, however, millions of people regularly take images and texts and cut and paste them into new contexts. We do that every time we share something from someone else on Facebook. When we put that cute cat photo someone took in Timbuktu on our Facebook wall, we recontexualize it within the Facebook paradigm (or matrix if you prefer). People were already taking screen captures of Instagram pages and redistributing them online in other contexts before Prince got the hot idea to showcase them in a gallery/museum framework.
Prince’s show was designed with the white-walled gallery space in mind. The gallery framework is part of the art, and inseparable from it. If you take the images out of the backdrop of the gallery, they return to just being people’s anomalous Instagram posts, and cease being “portraits” selling for over $40,000 each.
In both of the Richard Prince exhibit shots I shared above, I used Photoshop to replace one of the images with some other Instagram photo I grabbed from a Google search.
If you haven’t been to the show, you probably wouldn’t even notice the difference (can you guess which don’t belong?). That’s because it doesn’t f’ing matter which picture or which text, and that’s a bad sign for the art, because a sign of good art is that you can’t change anything without risking ruining it. Here, most any other Instagram snapshot would do, or any other one-liner. Prince can get away with this sort of arbitrariness though, because once any picture is presented within the Gagosian gallery backdrop and context, it becomes significant art. And this look of white-walled authority can be faked, and yet it still has that quality of importance about it, which shows that the authority is merely an association between the gallery space and the importance of the institution of art.
In today’s art world/market place, the gallery gives the art meaning, and not the other way around. Seen as most people access art today, in their social media feeds, Prince’s appropriations are visually indistinguishable from the original sources. The thing that separates them is celebrity and recognition within the contemporary art world/business framework.
This is very similar to something one of the Beatles pointed out back in the 60s about their celebrity status. He said that once you are on television, people treat you differently, and they don’t know how to act normally around you. What Prince is doing is merely the equivalent of putting someone on TV: he’s showering the Instagram photos with celebrity by putting them on the fine art pedestal. It’s really a collaboration between the artist and the art institution, which must be considered while contemplating the art.
In other words, it’s nothing. As a friend just pointed out, if the same pieces were shown in a different building, people would just assume there was a new service for printing out Instagram photos.
The bad news is that the death of originality is dead.
The good news is that originality lives on (as music continuously proves if you stop and think about it for a while), with or without the gallery/museum matrix.
- Sentence appropriated wholesale from: Richard Prince Sucks, by Paddy Johnson, for artnet news.Tuesday, October 21, 2014.
Here are some good articles I read about the exhibit:
- Richard Prince’s Instagram Paintings Are Genius Trolling, by Jerry Saltz
- Richard Prince’s Instagrams, by Peter Schjeldahl
- Richard Prince Sucks, by Paddy Johnson
- Richard Prince, New Portraits @Gagosian