"...I thought Bob Dylan was just Prince's giant middle finger to the screwed up art system that doesn't give enough of a damn to look at what it's buying and selling and fawning over. Not just the death of the author, but his murder, and the propping up of the author's corpse, Weekend At Bernie's-style, in order to keep cashing his checks."(1)
As I have often told my art theory students, generating discourse about and around your art practice serves to authenticate and reinforce your position vis a vis the Art Canon. The more print and chatter reviewers, curators, collectors and peers generate about your work, the better. Because it is not just the audience of spectators that you want to impress, but the peripheral legions of those critics, theorists and thinkers who will promote your place in the canon if they cotton to your output. Or, as Duchamp more elegantly and arcanely put it:
In the last analysis, the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Artist History.(2)
Thus, it should surprise no one that that well-traveled and thoroughly ensconced ar(t)biter of all things fashionably artsy, Richard Prince, would upend Ye Old Art World with his latest con(ceptual) art piece, Revisionist Art, currently at Gagosian Gallery (NYC: Mad.Ave.).
First off, no one is admitting - publicly, that is - that the assembled silkscreen paintings are actually Richard Prince's work, and the Gagosian Gallery press release holds to the party line that these works, characterized by some as "jaw-droppingly awful," are indeed created by the iconic and legendary singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan. Dylan showed his Asia Series paintings at Gagosian Gallery last year and Prince wrote about them. But Prince has remained quiet about this series so far, busily Tweeting about his other passions - his "invitation only" bookstore and hanging with the babes from the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. And don't hold your breath for Dylan to comment; the notorious recluse rarely grants interviews. Perhaps that's why Prince "adapted" this current series of works to "represent" Bob, knowing that Dylan would probably not care less.
All this back story is tiresome to slog through and other sites have covered it all in infinite detail. Greg Allen quite smartly gauges all the possibilities on his blog, greg.org. I have Mr. Allen to thank as well for prompting my useful acronym for the concept of "Prince (works) for Dylan (works)," P.F.D. Greg readily admits the P.F.D. conspiracy theory idea was originally floated by GalleristNY's Michael Miller and also shares links to talk that continues on various Dylan fan sites about these putative "paintings" of Bob's.
However, allow me to focus my attention on Richard Prince and engage my anxiety that his art practice may have begun to spin out of control. In order to proceed, of course, one needs to assume that this "Prince for Dylan" theory is factually accurate and that Prince has actually foisted these "Revisionist" silkscreen paintings as Dylan's. Therefore, I must stress that what follows is pure speculation based on the above premise that Prince is representing a current body of work as another person's and thereby upping the ante on his appropriative modus operandi.
Prince's earlier forays into appropriation initiated a discussion that would include semiotics and signification as referenced through the writings of Baudrillard and other critical theorists. Prince's use of appropriation, along with other artists like Sherrie Levine and Jack Goldstein, was able to manifest these theories of the signifier (a photograph) being subject to manipulation through presentation as other signifieds (meanings). A Marlboro man became emptied of meaning when taken from the contextualized world of advertising. The postmodern view has expressed that there is a disconnect between the signifier and the signified. This results in a variability of meaning, wherein signs are "emptied" and transformed into "floating signifiers," never in sync with definitive endpoints. Thus, Deleuze and Guattari would write of this inevitable loss of significance:
"...it [the sign] is thought of as a symbol in a constant movement or referral from sign to sign. The signifier is the sign in redundancy with the sign. All signs are signs of signs. The question is not what a given sign signifies but to which other sign it refers, ... it is this amorphous continuum that for the moment plays the role of the 'signified,' but it continually glides beneath the signifier..."(3)
I have long been a supporter of Prince's work, even stepping in to defend it whenever I felt it maligned inaccurately. Prince's best work challenges the inherent power of images, their meaning and relationship to "truth." He leveled a clear, intelligence at the Spectacle and played havoc with the World of Signs, eliciting a reassessment of the very nature of representation. Along with the other first wave of post-Duchampian appropriationists, he paved the way for a critical analysis of authenticity, originality and the very definition of art.
To what end, then, is Prince's faux-presentation of himself as Bob Dylan? If we are to understand that the essence of this provocation is to extend the vacuum of meaning that surrounds an image, a representation, to include as well the public image of a pop cultural person, then we may further propose that the P.F.D paintings function as props for the staging of the real "work" of the "Revisionist" show: identity theft as art.
If so, then I propose at least two conclusions can be drawn here. First, Prince's expansion of the practice of appropriation to include "impersonation" resurrects the original charge of theft that these acts of "borrowing" provoked. This P.F.D. tactic itself posits a question about "truth" by operating as a fallacy. In this sense, Prince might be seen as returning to address the original attacks on appropriation by traditionalist critics that his work was nothing but falsification. This is perhaps a belated attempt to return to those original talking points and debates about authenticity and the definition of what constitutes art.
It is my second conclusion that gives one pause. When Prince assumes the identity of a living person and presents his own work as another person's work he weakens the substantive theories that were initially behind his previous output. Prince's earliest work was structurally connected to media; the representation of advertising and print ads that he built upon connected his entire oeuvre to semiotics and postmodern theory. As he continues his drift toward a quotidian pop-social media culture, his work deflates and reveals an actual emptiness. Far more stark and repellent than that structuralist signifier "emptied" of meaning, the "Revisionist" show is indicative of the fact that Prince currently runs the risk of his art becoming facile and shallow. Truly, with "no there, there," Prince treads on the thin ice of critical theory as we struggle to keep aloft his once prescient ideas. Now that impersonation and sham have been taken up as his new act, it is as if Prince seeks to remove himself completely from art discourse and excise all critical theorist connection to his work.
1. Allen, Greg. "If He Did It," greg.org, Dec. 5, 2012.
2. Duchamp, Marcel. "The Creative Act," lecture given at Session on the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, TX, 1957.
3. Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 112.