March 23, 2008
Prince of Thieves
It is doubtful that Richard Prince even cares what critic Eleanor Heartney wrote about his Guggenheim Museum retrospective in her Art in America essay. The Prince brand is tried and true in the annals of postmodernist culture and one more fey dismissal of his output is easily deflected by the reams of text in various critical studies, analyses and dissertations devoted to his importance to contemporary art.
That said, I write with the wary recognition that even though Prince is generally regarded as a “Leviathan” in the blue-chip art market his motives are still misunderstood and misrepresented in major art world publications.
As example, I cite Heartney’s approach to the Girlfriends series (appropriated photos from biker magazines purportedly sent in by the biker boyfriends) as an “either/or” proposition that presents Prince as either sleazy shyster or POMO poster boy:
“In their revelation of the squalid side of biker culture, do they offer grist for meditations on the psychology of self-exploitation, or do they allow us to indulge in voyeurism without guilt? Should we enjoy them for their social commentary or for their sleaze?”(1)
This view not only belittles Prince’s work but misses the essence of its postmodernity. The Girlfriends series skirts the high-low culture chasm with such a clear disdain for oppositionality that it seems redundant to address it. Obviously, Prince rejects the easy subjective judgments of art and calls for a multiplicity of readings.(2)
Heartney apparently prefers a simpler time before the insights of Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man and Michel Foucault, that pre-poststructuralist era fraught with simple binary opposites and “judgments of taste.” But we have come out of that “French turn” and are well past views of art and artists as things that can be “pinned down.” This is disappointing to Heartney who would prefer that Prince reflect an American art that is not “a complicated dance between ironic distance and the open embrace of images, social constructions and genres generally deemed retrograde or politically incorrect.”(3)
Prince’s sin seems to be that he does this dance quite well. He is like a chameleon on a sun-baked hood of a GTO, at once enamored and perhaps a little afraid of the sexualized biker girls, sadomasochist nurses and homo-eroticized Marlboro men that he partners with. Sexist? Of course. “Deconstructing the culture’s representations of these attitudes?”(4) Definitely. Why can’t he engage both the codification of desire and critique it in one and the same image?
And Heartney is not content to bash only Prince.(5) She wants to get at the intelligentsia, the “highbrows” who promote this kind of difficult artwork that critiques not only our social construction but our obsolete ways of reviewing it:
“A possible reason for Prince’s ascendancy is that highbrow intellectualism goes down more easily when the subject matter is tinged with kinkiness. An air of coolness and irony, especially marked in the photo-based works, allows audiences to indulge in disreputable imagery while maintaining a certain social and psychic distance.”(6)
Oddly, it is just this kind of “coolness” that Heartney needs to approach an artist of Prince’s magnitude. The critic of contemporary art needs to reject simple binary oppositions, judgments of taste and the “either/or” mind-set and learn to view the art “while maintaining a certain social and psychic distance.”
Image: UNTITLED (GIRLFRIEND), 1993, © Copyright by Richard Prince.
1. Heartney, Eleanor. “The Strategist,” Art in America, March 2008, 151.
2. The Guggenheim’s text referencing Girlfriends inaccurately suggests that the biker models “fall painfully short of the centerfolds they seek to imitate” and fail in “capturing an erotic frisson.” This is certainly not the case as Prince’s “choice” of which biker girls to appropriate clearly accentuates their novice eroticism.
3. Op. cit., 146.
4. Ibid., 146
5. See also Adrian Piper’s Letter to the Editor, Art in America, January 2002. Conceptual artist Adrian Piper, “writing to correct some of the factual mistakes in Eleanor Heartney's review of my work,” criticized “Heartney’s judgment” and further stated: “As a rule, Heartney's reports on my motives for doing my work are mistaken.”
6. Op. cit., 150