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


Anonymous said...

The strength of Prince’s work, in my opinion, clearly lies in his delicate way of activating things. He understands that meaning is to be found not within his own actions, but in the relationship between the materials/images/signs he activates and the museum/American culture at large. With minimal effort, Prince can tap on something and make it come to life or reveal itself in an unexpected way.

Two questions:

First, if Prince is calling for a multiplicity of readings, then how can we critique any particular reading or analysis of his work? By criticizing Heartney, you are implying a privilege of one reading over another, or in other words, a “right” way to understand Prince.

Second, in simply admiring Prince’s craft of thought, in the distant and cool appreciation of the things he does, aren’t we taking part in a type of connoisseurship? Why this cool distance? Isn’t a purely conceptual appreciation of Prince’s magnitude, without interference, quite like the purely aesthetic appreciation of high modernism?


Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Welcome to the show, Tommy.

I would not presume to know if Prince is “calling for a multiplicity of readings.” What I do know is that we are capable of seeing more than Heartney’s binary oppositional reading of it, i.e., is it “sleazy” or socially conscious? We can engage her “particular reading or analysis” when it attaches a retroactive or traditional approach to his work (especially in an institutional site such as a major art world publication). Forgive me, but I fail to see how I am “implying a privilege of one reading over another” by suggesting that there are multiple readings associated with any work of art?

Thus, our “appreciation” of Prince’s work can be both aesthetic and conceptual. Art appreciation, unfortunately or not, begins with our visual perception and always courts “connoisseurship.” However, a conceptual apprehension (I prefer this word over appreciation) of Prince is quite unlike the “purely aesthetic appreciation of high modernism” which was formalist. High modernism read the formal elements first and considered the conceptual support of those objects later.

tackad said...

I've always been attracted to Prince's work on several levels and admired him.
But it's really still quite strange that one person takes a photo and it's insignificant to great - another person photographs their photograph and it's ART and sell for big bucks.
Yes, I completely understand - but it's still weird.

Put another way - what if I photograph one of your paintings and my photo is then declared art and sells for 5 to 10 time what your painting sells for ??

mike said...

"Why?" -Charlie Brown


It's as generic as the not-original statement that Prince makes about originality.
First art imitates nature, then it imitates itself. Naturally.


tackad said...

Your statement - "First art imitates nature, then it imitates itself, . . " is true and concise. Thank you for that reminder.
I do understand and appreciate what's being discussed here and didn't mean to be disruptive.

The NYTimes did a good, straight up piece about the original photographer of the cowboy images and since then, that angle has stuck in my mind. I guess I was wondering if anyone else had paused to consider that and what their thoughts were.

Acumensch said...

The last paragraph is prescriptive. How do you reject judgments of taste exactly? Do you mean no subjective evaluation? (I think not.) Have any model critiques to show?


Mark Cameron Boyd said...

Although I am unsure of what we are in pursuit of here, I will take the bait:

Tackad: Like Marcel says, "Context, context, context." (Welcome to the show, by the way.) The difference is Prince uses existent imagery from ads; my work is still hand-made. Thus, don't copy it or I will sue.

Mike: Have you seen the Family Guy where Charlie Brown is grown-up with tattoos and lip-piercing, and mourns the fact that Snoopy OD'd from the bad heroin he sold him? And you misspelled "boring." (Or are you suggesting that we're 15th Century peasants?)

Acumensch: Criticality ought to involve recognition of our fragile subjective judgments of taste. We need to understand more than just whether we "like it." There is a distinct possibility that we are unable to perceive anything objectively but Husserl tried to pretend otherwise. I prescribe that we must be aware of other information sources (historicity, artist's statements) to make valid critiques. Model critiques here:
R. Krauss
Peter Halley
(And welcome to you, too.)