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Richard Prince: Is the joke on us?


I remember so vividly taking a math test in ninth grade and watching my classmates cheat as soon as the teacher left the room. I, the goody two-shoes who did not participate in the act, received a B+ on the test, and they all got A+s. I never reported them – that’s never been my style. But I learned a real life lesson back then: cheating is so unfair, but if it’s part of your makeup, it will get you far in life. A sad truth, but a fact nonetheless.

I’ve been paying close attention to Richard Prince’s latest appropriation art scheme this past week, watching it unfold in the press, on social media and blogs. If you’re unfamiliar with the current issue in the news, read this and this at DIY Photography to catch up so you can follow my thinking.

To sum it up, Richard Prince is an appropriation artist who, since the late ‘70s, has been copying other artists’ works, calling them his own and selling them. For decades now, he has pushed the law to its limit and so far, for the most part, gotten away with stealing other artists’ works and profiting.

His latest New Portraits series consists of other photographers’ images. He commented on each photo on Instagram, took screenshots, blew them up and has been selling them for $90,000 – $100,000. I won’t pretend to be an armchair attorney, but for what it’s worth, and from what I understand about “Fair Use” law in the US, he can legally do this.



People around the globe are up in arms now, calling him all sorts of names and wondering how this can possibly be allowed to continue. Check out his Twitter feed, for instance. You’ll get the drift.

Ok. So we’re all angry. Hell yes, we’re angry! And we should be. Stealing and cheating the system goes against every grain in our bodies.

But brace yourself because I now have to ask you point blank: So what? What exactly gets you so riled up about this?

Are you angry because a guy has found a loophole in the legal system? Well, of course you are. What Richard Prince is doing is wrong, according to your moral compass and mine. It has been wrong for decades, which is why he has been sued in the past. It doesn’t fit our belief system of what is right and wrong.

Still, I ask you… so what? He doesn’t care what you think. He’s making money off us, as a collective unit. He has grand, multimillion dollar homes in New York City, Upstate New York, Southampton. Does that bother you? Yes? Well, why?



Our problem, as artists, is not the Richard Princes of the world. Bad seeds exist everywhere. They find ways to abuse the system, commit immoral acts, maybe even break the law. So what? They aren’t the ones calling the shots – they’re just figuring out how to break the rules and profit. Maybe they’re just inherently devious; maybe they take more risks than we do; maybe they simply need the accolades and acknowledgement more than we do, and they’ll do whatever it takes to be recognized and rewarded.

Our gripe, and the real problem at hand, is not with the misguided Richard Princes of the world. Richard Prince knows this, and that’s why he is successful and we’re frustrated.

Instead, the legal system, for starters, needs a well-overdue overhaul. The media needs to stop inciting the public (flat-out ignoring the issue would help tremendously... a tall order, I realize). And we artists need to stop talking about how irate this makes us – we’re just fueling the fire. You do realize that Richard Prince and his ilk intentionally prey on us, and then rely on us and the media to react, which in turn promotes their “art.” How else could his work become so popular, so desirable and, in turn, worth so much money?

Let me put it to you another way:

If I told you today that you could and should copy someone’s work and sell it for $100,000, would you do it?

I discovered where I stand on this issue long ago when I was 14 and taking a math test. How about you?


Andre, Ralf and Gerry, thank you for your thoughts. We are definitely on the same page here. Gerry, thanks for that link and video. The ripple effect should be documented, and I'm so glad you posted this. I wish other people on 1x could see this blog discussion instantly because this is exactly the issue we all could run into when we post our photos online. We are sitting ducks. And the law is not working for us. That is the entire problem here: the law is too grey on this issue. Everything else would fall into place if the law was transparent: galleries wouldn't sell this stuff; impulsive, (reactionary?), wealthy art buyers wouldn't have a clue it was for sale; appropriation artists would have no place in the world; and we photographers could get on in the world… and battle our next opponents who want to steal our work :) An endless scenario, maybe. But let's at least eradicate the Princes from the equation, legally.
Not sure this can be accessed by all but here is a complimentary 3min video about this subject. Does it add anything? Well maybe not but worth a view as it gives an opinion of one of the guys who had his image stolen.
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The big question I don't understand is why someone is buying this stuff? Very interesting discussion for me since my background is in law. There is obviously a serious flaw in the legal system here. That someone can get so rich by stealing from others is very unfair.
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I don't know if I am more annoyed at him or at the people that buy his stuff. I guess this just re-affirms the fact that 'sensationalism' is inherently commercial. So much more when driven by the kind of negative PR that goes with this despicable form of art (stolen). Interesting ... look at the winners and runners-up of the last two years of the Deutsche Borse Photographic prize - there one can see where this glut of digital era images is leading to, and how the ones that experiment on the fringes are becoming the new commercial investments. Everything is telling us to take our rule of thirds, our conventional sense of composition, and our puristic ideas, and feed that to the pigs. Maybe he is simply more switched on than us. Or maybe he is simply an arsehole. Either way, I could care less, for he will leave no legacy that others will learn from. Then again, I might just be wrong ...:)
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My answer to your question. No.