What Do You Do If Someone Sells Your Instagram Selfie For $90K?
This month, painter and photographer Richard Prince reminded us that what you post is public, and given the flexibility of copyright laws, can be shared — and sold — for anyone to see. As a part of the Frieze Art Fair in New York, Prince displayed giant screenshots of other people’s Instagram photos without warning or permission.
The collection, “New Portraits,” is primarily made up of pictures of women, many in sexually charged poses. They are not paintings, but screenshots that have been enlarged to 6-foot-tall inkjet prints. According to Vulture, nearly every piece sold for $90,000 each.
Ninety thousand is a lot of dollars, especially for an IRL blown up screenshot of someone else’s social media feed self-portrait. I don’t quite get it but then, I don’t really get Art. It’s a failing, I know. I did enjoy a recent Awl-staff field trip to the Whitney! Ordinarily though art museums are a bit opaque to me and not how I prefer to spend my time and pennies.
Here is a screenshot of an Instagram of the screenshot of the Instagram selfie hanging in the gallery, making the point quite clearly about Our Postmodern World:
Richard Prince has been, in the words of Refinery 29, a “contemporary master / reappropriation junkie” since 1975:
According to copyright law, Prince is not actually doing anything wrong. His long-honed technique of “re-photographing” is fair use because of minor changes Prince makes to the original sources. For example, with the New Portraits Instagrams, Prince borrows images but adds his own captions.
Alternative descriptions of the man include “Jerk.”
First, I haven’t read anything that suggests he has the self-awareness and intellectual rigor that is bestowed upon him by fawning critics. The pro-Prince camp suggests that he is purposely stretching the concepts of intellectual property ownership, but I counter that he is intellectually lazy. (And even if he had the mental prowess of Socrates, it would make his “art” all the more inexcusable.)
Second, he is a thief. …
He was a thief when he stole Garry Gross’ image of Brooke Shields in 1983.
He was a thief when he stole 35 images from Patrick Cariou in 2008 (one of them sold for $2.5 million).
A successful thief, at least.
Everything inspires everything. But this isn’t an excuse to blatantly steal. If I plagiarize a column from Saltz and replace his byline with mine, would he consider it genius? If Prince wants to sample, then he should pay for the source material like everyone else, and stop hiding behind some false veil of “genius” and “fair use.”
ArtNews calls Prince sexist: “Here’s what I’ve got by way of reflection: Prince likes images of breasts.” The label feels apt to me: after all, Prince is taking self-portraits by young women and imposing his own male gaze subjectivity over theirs, turning them into objects at which he — and his other rich art friends — can leer, as well as commodities from which they can profit. That’s grim, man.