In early 2014, renowned painter and photographer Richard Prince picked up his iPhone and began scrolling through other people’s photos on Instagram.
When the 66-year-old would find a picture to his liking — usually a selfie taken by a young, scantily-clad female — he’d leave a comment (something like, “Don’t du anything. Just B Urself © ®”) then save a screenshot to his phone. Eventually, the artist hand-picked 37 of these screenshots, ink jetted them, unmodified, onto 6-by-4 foot canvases, and titled the series “New Portraits.”
Several months later, Prince’s collection of others’ Instagram photos adorned the pristine, white walls of a Madison Avenue art gallery. On opening night, art critics and New York socialites debated the complexities of contemporary art between toasts of expensive champagne. The images went on to sell at auction for $90,000 a piece.
For Prince, this maneuver was nothing new: the artist has spent the better part of four decades taking photographs of other people’s photographs without permission, then selling his version, sometimes for millions of dollars. In the past 15 years alone, auction records show more than $300 million in sales of Richard Prince works — the vast majority of which are either “re-photographs” or adaptations of pre-existing photographs. He is routinely denounced as a thief, a marauder, and a “cheap hack”, yet he has become, far and away, the world’s highest-grossing “photographer”.
But Prince’s artwork raises several interesting questions: How is what he’s doing legal? Where is the line drawn between art and plagiarism? And ultimately, what does his work say about the changing nature of authorship on the Internet?
A (Very) Brief History of Appropriation Art
One of the coolest people within a radius of 100 yards.A recent Catholic convert, but longtime witness and believer.