Privacy and the Prirate Prince.

I don’t know if you’ve met it yet, but there’s this thing called Instagram. It’s where ‘ordinary’ people tell the story of their life through pictures. Pictures of their food, their pets, their friends – and more often than not, themselves.

It’s fascinating. They snap, they share and they solicit comments that seem to shape their emotional journey, “Nice dress, Kaitlyn…so hot right now.” Then one day an evil pirate stole some of these pictures and sold them to his friends.

Introducing the pirate: Prince.

Somewhere in New York, a no-longer struggling artist was inspired by Instagram. He collected some of his favourite pictures, added some nonsensical emoji-laden commentary and hung them in a gallery in front of a whole new audience. People came. They bought pictures. The world got cross

 

Everyone says it’s stealing.

A quick Google of Richard Prince and you’ll find 10 million results from blog posts, news stories and comments questioning the ‘ethics’ of an ‘artist’ who ‘steals someone else’s work and sells it’. On the face of it, this seems like a fair argument. But is Prince’s work the work itself? Or is the work really in the questions he asks – questions about ownership, about privacy, about piracy and about life? More importantly, was the work ‘worth anything’ of itself – or was the idea of taking from the internet and putting pictures on the wall the artistic value that Prince added?

A shark in a tank on Instagram.

Art is a funny thing. It’s constructed, personal and very subjective. Done properly, it’s also disruptive. The “value” of art is created and destroyed by money. If I pay $100 for a picture, it’s worth $100 for me. If someone wants to buy it for $1000, suddenly it’s gone up in value. Same picture. Then add a few zeros for a shark suspended in formaldehyde and everyone starts questioning the integrity of the artist – it’s only a shark in tank, anyone could do that. But they didn’t.

The art of re-photography.

I know nothing more about Prince than the headlines I’ve read and the comments I’ve seen. I’ve magpied the internet, stolen thoughts that work for me and formed my own opinion. But my understanding is: that’s exactly what Richard Prince calls art. He is known and respected for seeing stuff he likes and recreating it – often without changing much at all. Some call it theft. I disagree.

Happy Birthday to the Eiffel Tower.

Who owns what? A famous composer once wrote a ditty called Happy Birthday. Theoretically we should pay every time we sing it. A famous architect built a good-looking building in France. Should we also pay him every time we take holiday snaps? Hundreds of thousands of people put pictures of themselves on Instagram. They’re up there to be shared and they’re free. But if you take one, put it on a wall and charge a hundred grand? That’s theft on a grand scale. Apparently.

The envious value of art.

High-art is elitist. Mostly that’s because of money. Many people like art for the sake of art. Other people buy expensive art to show how much money they have. Their sense of self-worth is in some way defined by the money they spend on paintings. It’s how some people are. Just as the self-worth of Instagrammers might be defined or reinforced by the things people say when they post pictures on the internet.

But when big dollars get spent, some people question the value, others spend the money – and so the ‘value’ is defined. And that’s the rub. If I put a picture on Instagram, it has no value to anyone but me. If a famous artist ‘steals it’ and puts it in a gallery with a $100,000 price tag – the only person who created value was him.

Digital Theft is theft of ideas.

This is the other construction that’s new for all of us. Nobody “owns” the pixels that move to make digital movies. No one owns the ‘zeros and ones’ that bounce through computers to make music. The only thing that’s owned is ideas. We accept that someone spent money to create music and movies, so we buy them (or we steal them). Either way, we get them. We also get the exact same output as everyone else – that’s how digital stuff works. By taking pixels from one place and putting them in another, Prince has ‘stolen’ nothing. Or has he? And that’s the primary question that I think his art is asking.

Art is about asking questions.

Bottom line, art is about asking questions. Who is that woman with the mysterious smile? In doing what he does, Prince asks questions that run deeper than most of us feel comfortable with. He asks questions of ownership, of identity, of piracy and plagiarism and ultimately, what is art?

Better yet, he’s done it in a populist medium and created an extraordinary (and angry) megaphone. It’s only a conversation because he created it. And people are asking questions about it. Everywhere.

In my book, that’s art. Personally I wouldn’t buy one, I don’t have the cash. I might steal something for Instagram and make one of my own. But that wouldn’t be my idea – so it’s stealing.

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

Michael Goldthorpe