Richard Prince "New Portraits" at Gagosian

Richard Prince: Cycles of spectatorship

If an artist’s work is dependent on popular media, at which point does media outpace the artist’s production? It is easy for Richard Prince to state that Tumblr was “invented for someone like [himself],” except that Tumblr is not really an invention but another reincarnation of existing human methods of exchange.

Most reviews of Prince’s “New Portraits” at Gagosian position the show as a logical step in the progression of appropriation by its most skilled promoter. I happen to disagree with this take on “New Portraits,” because for once, Richard Prince is directly inserting himself onto the works—it is not mere appropriation if Prince includes his performative snarky comments. From the 38 Instagram-based images printed on canvas, not one was shown without his comments as final word.

Here’s the thing: discussions of this show have mostly been based around appropriation and references to painting (the works are printed on canvas), but missing from dialogue is Prince’s willingness to participate (at least verbally) in a type of spectacle.

I can’t really talk about spectacle without referencing both Debord, Lukács, and Benjamin—I do my best to understand their theories, but it’s difficult to read them without experiencing the visual nuances of a world before televised evening news were sequenced between other sequences of adverts. Debord and Lukács have written about causal relationships that my experience confirms without hesitation:

“The time of production, commodity-time, is an infinite accumulation of equivalent intervals.”
—G. Debord

When Debord wrote in 1967 that “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images,” the machinations of immediacy were not the same as those permitted by high-speed internet today.

What has changed is the speed at which visuals travel, not the idea of image reach. With this change in speed comes an inevitable upgrade to levels of engagement: tweets and instagrams are instant—a term on which both spectacle and photography have depended for language.

The passive consumption of print, radio, television, cinema—none of these forms allow for the type of immersion that digital integration facilitates in our daily lives.

Digitally, to consume the medium is to be consumed by it, spatially and temporally—print media never afforded us that level of dialogue. Other forms of media might induce and instigate, but not exactly spatially permeate the real-time exchanges that Twitter and Instagram create.

To “replace rephotographing with screen grabs” as Prince has said, is appropriation, but this act of taking screenshots, make minor alterations (changing the color of the Instagram hearts) and then perform cynical commentary as final verdict—what this creates is not appropriation but initiate a cycle of spectatorship that continues IRL at the gallery.

Visitors are snapping selfies with the selfies, in continuation of the spectacle, showing just how easy it is for online interactivity to permeate every day behavior—are we really ever offline if we filter our actions through the presence of social media?

These reactions to the Prince show are in fact, tame and expected. Is that bad? No. But it’s significant to note that social media can also be used to sculpt far more controversial social spectacles. I use the world “sculpt” quite literally here, because I’m referring to Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014).

Walker’s integration of #karawalkerdomino hashtag into the installation created a platform that revealed the latent but present intimations of a (white) culture. The show exposed the parameters through which an audience defined the dialogue around the subject of the work—the audience’s blatant racism, sexism and historical denial were hard to take for many, including me.

Despite being consistently impressed with Walker’s rigor and mastery, social media interactions at Walker’s A Subtlety left me disturbed and embarrassed. Embarrassed that (mostly) everyone around me could only see a spectacle, not a metaphor that we are still participating in (what is the hidden cost of our consumptions? Physically and metaphorically?) If we can’t see through the spectacle, through art—what information, consolation, solidary, or renewal are we to find through our field of vision?

As with Walker’s show, it’s culturally safer to mock than to acknowledge, easier to sexualize than face our own sexism, and far easier to walk away talking about big boobs than to confront the hidden costs of consumption.

Prince’s show presents another form of consuming the sexualized female image—except Prince can only show us his own untroubled gaze, undisturbed by the hidden cost of this type of image making—what was the role of consent, if any, in some of these works? Despite being public, some of the selfies in the show were from non-celebrity personal image feeds, not adverts.

Prince gained national attention with “Spiritual America” in the early 1980s, the beginnings of his long practice of rephotographing adverts. Today, Lichtenstein, Prince, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Heinecken are the top names associated with rephotographing mass media images. Yet, the very beginnings of photography introduces the retaking and recycling of images (photo montage), and the introduction of mass media inevitably brought image appropriation (Dadaists, most famously).

Usually absent from dialogues of image appropriation are Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Krueger, and Sherrie Levine—each so significant and prolific. Levine began the “After Walker Evans series in late 1979, four years before Prince’s “Spiritual America” in 1983 (and in similar gesture to Levine’s, Prince’s title references a photograph, but in meta form, without Levine’s implication of action).

And just as Levine’s “after” in After Walker Evans points to a moment in photography when ideas of originality and representation were being challenged—what is shaping our current “after”? After tweeting and instragraming, what does it mean to engage photographically with each other, with creativity and representation?

Do contemporary manifestations of the social spectacle require observers to be full participants? Just as Kara Walker’s #karawalkerdomino revealed the pervasiveness of a culture in denial of its own racism and sexism, Prince’s “New Portraits” point to a visual culture rooted in the old spectacle fully dependent on external (male) validation; but through faster cycles of spectatorship that permeate real life, with infectious ease.