richard prince's misogynistic track record

When appropriation, supposedly in the name of art, involves stealing and manipulating images of women’s bodies, something beyond creative license is going on.

by i-D Staff and Courtney Iseman
02 June 2015, 10:05pm

It's been a while since Richard Prince last created an uproar with one of his signature appropriated works. Past examples of him "creating" or "stealing" (depending on how you see it) existing imagery haven't often broken past the art world into mainstream media. So this recent Instagram-portrait business feels like this generation's rude introduction to Prince, an artist who has been pissing people off since the late 1970s. In the fall of 2014, he covered the walls of the Gagosian Gallery with blown-up images taken from multiple Instagram accounts, modified only by the addition of his own (creepy) comments below the pictures. The controversy reached fever pitch this past month when the images were trotted out again at the Frieze art fair in New York — and sold for upwards of $90,000.

The internet nearly broke with think pieces about whether Prince was stealing from Instagram users like Sky Ferreira and the LA-based model and burlesque collective SuicideGirls.

While you can argue for or against Prince based on the parameters of how you view "art" — his entire approach to art revolves around "rephotography" (also used by Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman), in which he takes other people's pre-existing imagery and then he modifies it to make it his own — there's another trend at work here. Another theme has woven its ugly way through Prince's creations over the past four decades, and that's the way he objectifies women.

Prince's appropriation usurps the meaning of the original work he has stolen and changes it. If a woman posts an image of herself on Instagram because it's her body, of which she is the proud owner, then a guy adds a sleazy comment to it and sells it for $90,000, that pulls the ownership and original intent of that picture right out from under that woman. This Instagram show is not the first time Prince has taken imagery of women and manipulated it to express his own woman-as-object-of-desire perspective.

Brooke Shields, Spiritual America
Whether Prince hijacked the intent of this photograph seems besides the point in this case, considering it's a plainly provocative image of a nude, ten-year-old girl (Brooke Shields) wearing makeup. But he did unearth this photo, and he objectified a female, a child, by making an already disturbing image some kind of symbol. Apparently, the meaning of the work, titled Spiritual America by Prince, is to criticize the American pursuit of fame at any cost (Shields's mother commissioned the photo, by Gary Gross, to place in a softcore porn mag called Sugar n' Spice to launch Brooke's career). But to pin that weighty argument on the suggestive image of a child feels like an invasion. Yes, that image was already out there, but it should have been allowed to die. Instead, Prince has heralded it, showing his own failure to see the female in the picture as anything more than an object.

In 2003, Prince was one of the artists commissioned by W magazine to photograph Kate Moss however they saw fit, and Prince saw her as a naughty nurse. It turned out that the shot was a preview for a series he was about to reveal, Nurses, in which he transferred pulp novel covers onto canvas and modified them with paint. At the time, Slate wondered of the paintings, "are they what we expect from Richard Prince, an artist best known for his sophisticated critiques of the insidious myths of American consumer culture?...Or has an element of sheer pleasure snuck into the irony?" That article also points out the unsettling feeling you get when you see someone is still perpetuating the whole naughty nurse thing. Looking at Prince's paintings, you see the fetishization of a woman who exists to serve her patient's every need; or, in this case, the needs of her creator, Prince.

Biker Girlfriends
In the 1980s, Prince turned his attention to the idea of gangs and tightly knit subcultures in America. Of all the intriguing themes he found among fringe groups with common obsessions, though, he focused on the girlfriends of bikers. The best-known and most prolific pieces from this period are appropriated and collaged images of nearly-naked women on their boyfriends' bikes — hood ornaments, if you will. Compilations like this one on Prince's own site or this one on Christie's don't reveal much about biker culture in America. Instead they show us women draped over motorcycles, a man's perception of a female's decorative-only purpose.

After Dark
Prince's After Dark series came about, he told Russh magazine, after collaborating with Marc Jacobs in 2007 on a collection of Louis Vuitton bags that would explore the idea of "Louis Vuitton after dark." But for his own collection of work, the artist added a pornographic element to these "after dark" paintings. Each painting is a different city — "New York after dark," "Moscow after dark" — spliced with hazy peeks of nude, faceless women. Again, Prince decorates his statements with the pornographic value of unidentifiable, undressed women. They don't tell us anything about his message or connect with the theme of the paintings. Instead, these images drive home the sneaking suspicion that an artist like Prince sees women as objects to be manipulated in his work.

Women as decoration, or as sexed-up subservients, has been a constant theme in Prince's work, one that has come to a head in his latest Instagram series — in which his appropriation feels especially twisted and unjust. As artist Audrey Wollen told i-D after Prince redistributed her work, a photo of herself posed like Velázquez's "The Rokeby Venus," "he completely erased my authorship and identity. I really was just a photograph of a naked girl, up for grabs." It's not about appropriation as an art form, it's about the problem of appropriation meeting the male gaze. "Selecting specific bodies from a sea of images," Wollen continued, "And amputating them from their context, and then naming yourself the owner of those bodies: that isn't just boring art, that verges on predatory and violent behavior."


Text Courtney Iseman

Richard Prince
audrey wollen
sad girl theory