by Jess Howard

Artistic appropriation is in no way a new phenomenon. Painters and sculptors have been reproducing their own versions of classic art works for centuries. Picasso for instance, took his own stance in the 1950’s when he appropriated Eugene Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers, by painting the women from behind. And Andy Warhol famously lost a lawsuit in the 1960’s over the design of his Flowers piece. But how does the art world address this kind of appropriation when an image has been sourced directly?

Last month Richard Prince, no stranger to appropriation, caused controversy with his New Portraits exhibition, by displaying a series of images in the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles that he had directly taken off of Instagram. There was no editing, no unique angle, and no form of reproduction. He simply blew the images up, added one last comment, and hung them in gallery. They then proceeded to sell out at the Frieze Art Fair, with the pieces reaching over £56,000 each. This brings into question the idea of possession and identity, both on the internet and within artistic expression. If you place images on a public forum, do they automatically become public property?

(Richard Prince, Gagosian Gallery © Robert McKeever)

There are many people who use Instagram purely for social purposes — to take photos of their pets, children, or social occasions with friends. The app is also used for business purposes, self-promotion for YouTubers or bloggers, and selling products such as crafting items or stickers. Few would consider themselves to actively be artists. But, with smartphones constantly increasing their camera quality with each new upgrade, an artistic and photographic quality is far easier to achieve.

If you have actively chosen to take the image, does this now make it yours?

There have, understandably, been many issues raised with Prince’s exhibition. First of all, he made no effort to alter the images he reproduced. He simply lifted them and hung them in a gallery, claiming that this made this exhibition an example of his own work. Does lifting an image yourself automatically make it your own work? If you have actively chosen to take the image, does this now make it yours? Artist Sherrie Levine caused similar reactions in the 1980’s by taking photos of other people’s images, and claiming the act of photographing the pictures made them her own work. The secondary image was hers. Therefore the art work became her own.

(After Walker Evans: 4 © metmuseum)

This subsequently brings into question what we are really doing when we place images and information onto social media sights. Cases of people’s identity’s being stolen are far from uncommon. Images can be taken and reused without permission, with people claiming to be living the lives of the images owners. Legally, if you place anything onto a public social media site — such as Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook — then it automatically becomes public property. However, this doesn’t stop there being a moral aspect to the issue, bringing into question why someone would wish to take the images and identity of another person in the first place. But this example is arguably far more relevant to images of people posted online, rather than those posted as a method of artistic expression.

Understandably, the main argument against Prince’s exhibition was that he made money out of it. As previously mentioned, the pieces were sold individually, with each reaching over £56,000. We now have to argue, who should this money really be paid to? Is it Prince, who lifted the images and chose to hang them in the gallery himself? Or is it the people who took the photographs and posted them online in the first place?

he is supporting the many gallery visitors, critics, and audience members who disagree with modern art on principle

Despite my obvious interest in the workings of modern artists and the visual arts, in this instance I have to side with the camp who disagree with Prince’s actions. By placing little independent thought into the production of his work, he is supporting the many gallery visitors, critics, and audience members who disagree with modern art on principle, claiming it to have less value in comparison to the masters, historical painters and sculptors.

Far from appropriating art works and making them his own, he hasn’t even made the effort to directly copy the images. This exhibition showed so little independent thought, that in my opinion, visiting it would have been experience more akin to scrolling through Instagram to pass some time or catch up with friends, rather than visiting an actual exhibition.


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