Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Appropriation in Photographic Art: I. Controversy as a Business Plan

Sometimes it’s complicated. You carry your serious camera into the High Museum and the guy behind the security desk tells you that you need to sign a piece of paper. The sheet says that you agree to the rules:  I can take photos on the first and third floor on this wing but not on the second floor of the other wing. Then when I do take photos on even the approved floors I cannot sell them to someone else. Sure, I can agree to this on principle but I wonder if I can show them in a gallery if only a small part of my picture contains the forbidden work? Is that allowed? Then what about that clever Roy Lichtenstein house in the central courtyard? Is that fair game for the lens? And the most complicated question of it all is always looming in the background. What will the juror at the next show think if half my picture has someone else’s art in it? Like I said, it’s complicated.

The whole topic of making art from other art, or appropriation as it is known in art review circles, is a topic that can be questionable in the best of times and downright contentious in others. Interest in appropriation in fine art seems to peak when a particularly significant exhibit opens that accentuates the point. Whenever the reviews are published by the likes of the New York Times, shortly afterward dozens of blogs light up with appropriation in their titles so they can get their word in edgewise.

Perhaps it is time to step back a couple of paces and see what this whole appropriation thing can mean to the practicing photographer who is simply trying to make good art. The trail to and from appropriation has quite a few twists and turns. It is not a simple topic that can be covered in a paragraph or two, or even in a blog posting or two. Random Radiance will try to delve into the subject at some depth. This means that you can expect a few chapters of the story spread out over a period of time. Follow along as long as it remains interesting to you. Let’s start with the first installment.

Untitled (Cowboy), 1989
Richard Prince (1)
Some of us first stumbled across the appropriation issue not through some subtle reference, but by being hit directly in the eye by perhaps the top-ranking example. How could you avoid, in 2005, seeing that Christies sold the first photograph to go for a cool $1 million-plus?

Turning the clock back to 2005, you might have wondered if it was an early Steichen, or perhaps a previously unidentified Le Gray that garnered that price. To great surprise, it was a just picture of a rugged guy galloping out of the picture on a horse. It certainly didn’t resemble what you might think a headline-leading photo would look like. It was by someone named Richard Prince, who you likely had never heard of before. If you were a little curious you might have read a few sentences about the photograph. Then, as you read, the next words that may have tumbled out of your own mouth may have been “Say what? The million dollar picture is simply a photograph of a 20-year-old magazine ad for Marlboros?” Coming back to today, you may still be wondering how on earth this could be. If so, you are trapped by the allure of appropriation. It’s confusing, fascinating to some, and deliciously controversial to all. Prince’s Untitled  (Cowboy) is the poster child for appropriation.

Untitled (four single men with interchangeable
background looking to the right), 1977
Richard Prince (2)
We’ll use the Richard Prince example to learn something about how a superficially simple image can sometimes be said to represent a whole world of cultural behavior. But first we will see how an artist can rely on controversy as his primary business plan.

Those of you who follow the New York art scene will be familiar with Richard Prince. The rest of you can find more than you ever wanted to know in a dozen places on the Web, including a somewhat comprehensive article on Wikipedia. But if you are too busy to read up on the artist, the Reader’s Digest version relates that Prince first began by making collages from magazine ads, like the one seen here. His next step after cut-and-paste was to simply photograph the ads without the ad copy. He took the film to his corner photo store and had them blow the prints up to wall-filling sizes. Prince initially struggled to sell his work but time has its virtues. The rest is million dollar history.

Who on earth would photograph an ad and try to pass it off as art? Or, a larger question may be, “Who would pay big bucks for one of these art pieces when you could easily do the same thing yourself?” What the Reader’s Digest version of the Richard Prince story leaves out is motivation. When an artist states that one of the leading influences in his life is his own act of carving a four-letter word on his desk in the fifth grade (3), you know that attention-getting things are to come.

Prince, in a 2003 interview, said this in response to a question of how he fell into photography, “I didn't exactly ‘fall’ as much as steal.” (4) This sets the stage for Richard Prince’s art. It is intentionally in-your-face, “I can, so I will” art, with a patent disregard for civility and the artful tradition of quietly looking a pretty pictures on a wall. His whole career has been built on controversy. A collector might think, “This guy is gutsy, brash, and I need to own one just to show how hip I am.”
Untitled (Cowboy), 2001-2002
Richard Prince (5)
Those digging deeper into the descriptions of Prince’s work will note that nearly all his re-photographed pieces are in editions of two. You would be forgiven if you believe that he does this to drive the prices skyward. The calculus is simple: after some benefactor buys one to give to MOMA as a tax write-off, a hedge-fund principal buys the other so he can flip it the following year at a 30% gain. Whatever is behind Prince’s motivation and editioning practice, one must admit that it works for him. An artistic work that you could easily mistake for first year BFA student’s “D-minus” project sells for over a million. This is not the last word though. Another of Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy) series sold for well over $3M at Sotheby’s in 2007. This one, from an edition of two again, is actually the artist’s proof for the edition. Now you know why artist’s proofs exist. As an aside, you might want to go here to find out what happened to those astronomical prices just two years later.
So, we have seen that Richard Prince has built a business – a very profitable business – on controversy. He lives on controversial appropriation practices coupled with controversial images. The Tate in London learned the hard way about the outfall of controversy when it had to trash half a million dollars worth of catalogs it has printed for its 2009 “Pop Life: Art in a Material World” exhibit. It turned out that Scotland Yard made the Tate remove a well-known Prince image of a nude 10-year-old Brooke Shield from the exhibit because of obscenity issues, rendering the catalog worthless (while generating more publicity for Prince than he could have bought at almost any price.) If you need more cases of Prince-driven bad behavior, just point your search engine to “Richard Prince Canal Zone” for an example of Prince using not just controversy, but apparent provocation, as a business plan.
You must be thinking that, with all the copying Prince has done of someone else’s photographs without permission, there must be quite a few lawsuits floating around. You are right of course. Some have been settled in favor of the plaintiff, others against. But the publicity surrounding the legal issues is likely to be just part of the intended business plan. One could predict that the publicity value of lawsuits more than defrays the attorney fees and unfavorable judgment costs. We will encounter what the law says about what Prince is doing in a minute.
So, is there anything more to Prince’s work other than provocation? Some would say that the answer is a very definitive ‘yes’. Much of his work could be considered to use parody of others’ artwork to illustrate a greater principle. Let’s look at the Cowboy (Untitled) series of images that were appropriated from Marlboro ads. The photographs in the ads were removed from their original context and placed it in a situation that mocked their original purpose. Prince could be interpreted to be poking fun of the practice of Phillip Morris, owners of the Marlboro brand, of associating the implied bravado of guys in cowboy hats with the imaginary machismo of smoking cigarettes.
Expanding upon this train of thought, the Marlboro ads are in themselves a marketing-powered parody of the American icon of the Cowboy-as-Hero that has been popularized by hundreds of Western movies and Zane Grey novels. And this ubiquitous Hollywood image, too, is a parody of massive proportions. It is no more an accurate representation of the true cattle herders that did and still do ride the range of the American West than Prince’s appropriated Untitled (Cowboy) images.
So in Richard Prince we have a parody of a parody of a parody. While this is interesting from a cultural point of view, it is somewhat off of the main track of this discussion. Why parody, after all? The answer is straightforward. Parody is protected under federal Fair Use copyright laws, allowing artists free reign to use the artwork of others if the intent can be convincingly shown in a court of law to be mockery. Fair Use is a topic we will cover in the next chapter of this discussion so we can understand at least an overview of the legal issues at stake here. For right now though, we can state that Richard Price appears to be quite adept at using the law to his favor.
The final question that comes to mind when considering Richard Prince is, as New York intellectual rights attorney Ray Dowd asks, “Is Prince … a genius or a fraud?” Art critics fall emphatically either to one side of this question or to the other. What do you think?

1.    Untitled (Cowboy), 1989. Richard Prince. Chromogenic print, 50 x 70 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel and Jennifer and Joseph Duke Gift, 2000 (2000.272) © Richard Prince. Source.
2.   Untitled (four single men with interchangeable backgrounds looking to the right), 1977. Richard Prince. Mixed media on paper. 23 x 19 in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2000 (2000.123) © Richard Prince.
Source.
3.   Interview with Richard Prince, “Like a Beautiful Scar on your Head,” Modern Painters, Special American Issue, Autumn 2002, Volume 15, Number 3, pp. 68 –75. (N.B.: no longer published). Source.
4.   “Richard Prince talks to Steve Lafreniere - '80s Then – Interview.”Art Forum, March, 2003. Source.
5.   Untitled (Cowboy), 2001-2002. Richard Prince. Inscribed AP on the reverse, from an edition of two plus one AP, Ektachrome print, 100 by 66 inches. Lot #6, Sotheby’s, New York, Nov 14, 2007. Illustration courtesy Sotheby’s New York. Source.

Text other than direct quotations copyright 2010 by Richard Ediger.
All images are published within the author’s understanding of the Fair Use policies of their source.

1 comment:

  1. Richard,
    My problem with "appropriation", originally a postmodernist term, is how the idea has now mutated into the appropriation of ideas by other artists. Prince (and Levine) at least had an innovative take/theory on what was original. These days I am so tired of seeing artists take someone else's ideas and sell it as their own (let me know if you want a few examples). It all begins to cause me to think the postmodernists were right - we may be at a deadend in originality. That said, I hope not.

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