Richard Prince, Instagram 'ripoff artist,' has own art appropriated

Art imitates art: It appears the appropriator of internet culture has himself become the subject of appropriation. Is that appropriate?

Controversial appropriation artist sold strangers' Instagram pics printed on canvas for $90K

The alternative pin-up group Suicide Girls is selling reproductions of Richard Prince's artwork, which appropriates images from the collective's Instagram feed, for $90. Prince sold his artwork using the group's images for $90,000. (Courtesy Missy Suicide)

Whether he's a lazy hack, a true artist or an infringer of digital copyrights, even Richard Prince needs security to protect his work.

In New York's Gagosian Gallery, stony-faced guards watch over his latest exhibit — 28 canvases painted by others but presented under Prince's name as part of his Originals series.

Theft is a concern at the Upper East Side gallery. But it's also arguably crucial to Prince's career as a notorious re-appropriator of pop culture and social-media images.
Controversial New York artist Richard Prince poses in front of his art work Hands at Austria's Kunsthaus Bregenz museum. (Gian Ehrenzeller/Associated Press)

The 65-year-old, who has been called a "ripoff artist" and "Instagram hijacker," recently made a fortune in New York by selling screenshots taken without consent from Instagram feeds and blown up to canvas size. The prints, many featuring young women's personal accounts, were tweaked slightly with the addition of cryptic comments from Prince.

Some fetched as much as $90,000.

Now, it appears the appropriator of internet culture has himself become the subject of appropriation.

In a case of art imitating art, Prince's works from his Instagram show are being repurposed by others, modified to satisfy fair use and copyright provisions, then put up for sale.

"I imagine Richard Prince is getting a kick out of it," said Michael Plater, a Memphis artist who came to the Gagosian to view Prince's new collection.

"I just can't imagine that he cares. If he did sue [his imitators], he'd be the biggest hypocrite."

Prince did not respond to requests for comment.

But the new Instagram copies apparently apply Prince's interpretation of authorship.

Among his emulators is Lucas Levitan, a Brazilian conceptual artist living in England.
Richard Prince's New Portraits exhibit showed at New York's Gagosian Gallery last year, featuring blown-up screengrabs of other people's Instagram photos. Some of the canvases sold to private collectors for up to $90,000. (Courtesy Paddy Johnson)

"I stole from Richard Prince," Levitan tweeted recently, while promoting a series he calls "Lucas Levitan Invades Richard Prince."

Levitan is selling reproductions of Prince's enlarged Instagram screenshots for $90,537 US. To meet the fair use test, Levitan added cartoons to his duplicates.

As with Prince's admirers, he argues that in today's remix culture, small modifications to an image can make it something entirely new.

"I'm just creating another conversation on top of his art," Levitan said from London. "I'm validating his intervention in that work, and creating a third layer. We created a third version together."

Ownership of the original Instagram photos is thorny matter, however.

Levitan's piggybacking of Prince's work effectively means the original Instagram photographer's work was used twice without approval.

Levitan never sought the Instagram account holder's consent, although he contacted the photographer, who now uses the handle @PrettyPukeFool, afterwards.

"I just tagged the original photographer on my picture, and @PrettyPukeFool replied with some emojis, apparently in a really positive way," Levitan said.

Missy Suicide, founder of the tattooed pin-up site Suicide Girls, responded very differently to Prince's unauthorized use of her modelling group's Instagram feed. She started a pricing war.

"It was a violation. He took from us. Now we're taking from him, too," she said from Los Angeles.

Suicide Girls began selling copies of Prince's screen shots for just $90 US, donating the profits to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which fights for digital copyrights. The Instagram comment "true art" sits below Prince's original comment on the inkjet prints.
More pieces from Richard Prince's "New Portraits" exhibit in New York last year. (Courtesy Paddy Johnson)

Reproducing the photos on their own terms was about retaking control of their digital images, Missy Suicide said.

"By making these available, we're showing we still have power. We still own our images," she said.

"I understand the conversation [Prince] is trying to start about how once you put your image out there, it's public. But that's a conversation we're having every day anyway and it didn't need to be brought up this way."

Until recently, Irina Tarsis, the Brooklyn-based director of the Center for Art Law, had never heard of an appropriation artist's work being appropriated again and resold by another.

U.S. copyright laws prohibit a person from "making derivative" the work of another, unless they can meet the fair use defence test — the provision that limits the copyright holder's ability to suppress legitimate expression.

Tarsis said courts use four factors to determine whether copying constitutes a fair use: the purpose and character of the use, the nature of the underlying copyrighted work, how much content from the original was taken, and the effect of the use upon the potential market.

Another nonlegislative factor might be how "transformative" a work becomes, particularly if it's altered in such a way that it presents a new meaning.

If that's the standard, though, photographer Mark Meyer isn't sure the Suicide Girls copies pass fair use.

"That's the bizarre thing," says Meyer, who blogs about copyright infringement of images. "What Prince is bringing with his artwork is so strange, this change of context. Maybe nobody else can copy that."
A security guard watches over Richard Prince's "Originals" exhibit at New York's Gagosian Gallery. All 28 of the works, which were painted by other artists and sold under Prince's name, have been sold to private collectors, according to gallery staff. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Prince could argue the Suicide Girls reproductions embody the same meaning as his re-appropriation, Meyer said, but it's often not enough to simply "supersede" a prior work.

If a court saw Prince's take on the Suicide Girls Instagrams as transformative, that's something that can be copyrighted, Meyer said.

"In which case, maybe [Missy Suicide] could be guilty of copyright infringement," he said.

For her part, Tarsis doesn't subscribe to the camp that says appropriation always transforms original creation.

She believes Suicide Girls to be the original copyright holders of their Instagram images, anyway.

"And under copyright law, if they're the original creators, they have the right to create derivative works of their own copyright-protected art," she says.

Whatever the case, Tarsis hopes Prince can appreciate the irony of his situation.

"Appropriation artists being appropriated is very appropriate," she says.