Skip to main content

The story of Richard Prince and his $100,000 Instagram art

The story of Richard Prince and his $100,000 Instagram art


When does appropriation go too far?

Share this story

Recently, the popular visual artist Richard Prince has been stirring up feelings of agitation and confusion with an art show composed entirely of blown-up photos taken from his Instagram feed. The photos, mostly of young women in seductive or vulnerable poses, come from several accounts: the pin-up community Suicide Girls, sex writer Karley Sciortino, musician Sky Ferreira. The installation, New Portraits, was up in New York's formidable Gagosian Gallery in 2014, but resurfaced in the public consciousness once the photos started selling for as much as $100,000 at this month's Frieze Art Fair New York.

But what Prince is doing isn't new. He's a hugely successful artist who has built his entire career on appropriation. He began his catapult into fame in the 1970s by rephotographing a Sam Abell photograph of a cowboy. His 2011 installation, Covering Pollock, overlaid images onto photographs of Pollock's work taken by Hans Namuth. Prince's legal standing has usually been solidified by his modifications of the original works. But the biggest modifications to the images in New Portraits are the slightly sleazy comments Prince leaves under the photos. Under one of Ferreira in a red car: "Enjoyed the ride today. Let's do it again. Richard."

Fair enough?

Reactions from the Instagram account owners have been varied. "I don't really understand the uproar over it," Sciortino told Business Insider. "Personally I feel like it's an honor to be incorporated in a piece of his artwork." Suicide Girls founder Missy Suicide told The Creator's Project that the installation felt like "a violation by someone who doesn't get it." In retaliation, Missy began selling portraits from the Suicide Girls Instagram account for only $90 in the same size and using the same materials (inkjet on canvas) that Prince used. Prince said it was a "smart" idea.

This kind of retaliation is not unusual when it comes to Prince's work. In 2011, Prince was hit with a lawsuit for using images from Patrick Cariou's book Yes Rasta without permission in a series of collages. One of those collages sold for around $2.5 million, according to The New York Times. Manhattan federal district court judge Deborah A. Batts ruled Prince was breaking fair use laws with his appropriation of Cariou's images. Batts said Prince's work didn't transform or "add value" to the originals. But Prince appealed, and, with the exception of five paintings that needed to be re-evaluated, the ruling was overturned in 2013. In an email to Art in America, NYU art law professor Amy Adler said, "The court decided that artwork does not need to comment on previous work to qualify as fair use."


Prince has managed to come out on top of his legal battles because of the complexity of fair use (and also because he's very rich). Fair use in the art world can be a relatively amorphous thing, because much of contemporary art is built on historical or popular imagery. Fair use requires consideration of the difficult-to-define "purpose" and "nature" of the work, the amount of copyrighted material used, and the effect the appropriation might have on the market value of the original work. Courts evaluate fair use on a case-by-case basis, and the boundaries aren't firmly planted. What Prince is doing with New Portraits, essentially, is testing the limits of copyright law. By divorcing recognizable images from their contexts, if only very slightly, Prince is arguing that he can create new, more valuable art. To be clear: not just anyone can get away with this. People are spending thousands of dollars on these images because they're paying for Prince's name, not because they sincerely want an enlarged Instagram photo.

Patent and copyright attorney John Arsenault told Fstoppers that New Portraits, although it looks like a case of outright plagiarism, might be a little more complex if it were argued in a legal context. "When I first saw it, I thought it was cut and dry," he said. "But then I looked again and saw what was captured specifically, and the commentary under it, then it creates a question. A silly question, especially given that he has sold these for money, but there you go."