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20th March 2021

Richard Prince: Social media and copyright

Alienor Bombarde explores the Richard Prince controversy and what it reveals about privacy in our time
Richard Prince: Social media and copyright
Photo: jennbarnesy @Flickr

Richard Prince is not the first artist to make his name famous through re-photography. Appropriation art was popular from the 1970’s. Pioneering artists such as John Baldessari and Robert Heinecken both created art from readymade print photography. Baldessari made photo collages of Hollywood film stills, while Heinecken worked with print pornography and magazine advertisements.

Richard Prince (born 1949) is an appropriation artist. The New York Times called him “one of the most revered artists of his generation”. In 2014, he launched a ‘New Portraits’ series. The exhibition sparked lawsuits and controversy which have continued ever since.


While web entrepreneur @Nightcoregirl loved her portrait and received a print as a gift from Prince after befriending him, this was far from the norm.

Subject Doe Deere was dismayed. She’d posted a picture to support artist friend Joshua David McKennedy, a doll-maker. She has spoken out about Prince’s omission of her credit to McKennedy in the Instagram caption. While Prince made a profit from the portrait, neither she nor McKennedy benefited. New York’s Frieze Art Fair sold the portrait for $90,000, without attributing any credit to McKennedy.

Photo: sixty five @ Flickr

Prince had featured an Instagram portrait of feminist pornography firm SuicideGirls. SuicideGirls chose to print their own version. They sold it for $90, rather than the $90,000 the Gagosian gallery was asking.

Prince also reproduced Donald Graham’s photo of a Rastafarian smoking a joint. Graham sued for copyright infringement. According to the Guardian, Graham sent a cease-and-desist letter to Prince and the Gagosian Gallery, asking that the Gallery stop displaying the image.

Mainly, people reacted with bewilderment. “Imagine my surprise when I saw Richard Prince tweet a 6ft inkjet printed picture of a screenshot of an Instagram post of mine,” Zoë Ligon (@thongria) writes. “I didn’t consent to my face hanging in this art gallery.”

What does the artist say?

Richard Prince has thought outside of the box and learned to make a profit from it. At the time, Prince responded to the criticism surrounding ‘New Portraits’ by arguing he wanted to “reimagine traditional portraiture and bring to a canvas and art gallery a physical representation of the virtual world of social media”.

He adds that these photographers benefitted from the appropriation. The photographer Graham, thanks to Prince, is now more well-known and the price of Graham’s photograph has increased. Larry Gagosian, who bought the work based on Graham and exhibited it in his gallery, says he would neither buy nor show a Graham photograph.

Is it Art?

Critics are largely in favour. “Is it art?” wrote Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker. “Of course it’s art, though by a well-worn Warholian formula: the subjective objectified and the ephemeral iconized, in forms that appear to insult but actually conserve conventions of fine art.”

Dealer Daniel Wolf states Prince’s work “is not in the photographs; the meaning is in the Instagram”. Curator of the Walther Collection in New York, Brian Wallis, argues they “refer to the way these portraits are already transformed by Instagram as a medium of communication”.

Nate Harrison, chairman of the media arts department at Tufts University’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, makes an interesting point. Every day millions of people decontextualise imagery through internet memes. 

Amy Whitaker, meanwhile, an assistant professor of the visual arts administration at New York University, was not supportive. “While I admire the imaginative required to wrest meaning from five words and one emoji” the interpretation “rests solely” on the “brand of the artist”.

Okay, but is it legal?

One might reasonably assume that it shouldn’t be possible for a person to sell photographs of other people without permission. So what are the legal repercussions of what Richard Prince has done? 

Actually, Richard Prince has not infringed on any laws. He found a loophole, a legal practice called “retrophotographing”. Prince’s work therefore falls, though only just, into the category considered “fair use” of other people’s work. If an artist alters an image, the artist is free to reproduce another person’s image.

Additionally, once you’ve posted something on Instagram, you’ve legally agreed to the terms of use. The platform can use and distribute your content. Does that give anyone the moral incentive to take others’ pictures? No, of course not. Is it stealing? Not really.

Technically, Richard Prince was within his legal rights to enlarge any Instagram picture and exhibit it. As are any future artists.

What to think?

Prince wasn’t sensitive. The ‘New Portraits’ series incites a sense of casual cruelty. They also shed light on monetisation and Richard Prince’s brand.

Yet art can, and should, often be subversive and provocative, even without any particular aesthetic innovation. I believe Prince’s controversial works reflect an existing virtual world. In that, they are a valuable, and even necessary, contribution to the contemporary art scene. The fact that they have generated so much interest has value in and of itself.

As writer Ruby Martin highlights in her post on Mary Wollstonecraft, online and public art is now more important than ever. It is such stimulating, thought-provoking pieces as these that keep us coming back for more.

Prince has recently sparked yet more conversation with his Untitled series, featuring paintings of women to whom he has added surgical masks.

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