Art In The Age Of Instagram

Peter Schjeldahl scoffs at New Portraits, the new Richard Prince exhibit that consists of Instagram pictures printed onto canvas:

Possible cogent responses to the show include naughty delight and sincere abhorrence. My own was something like a wish to be dead—which, say what you want about it, is the surest defense against assaults of postmodernist attitude. Come to think of it, death provides an apt metaphor for the pictures: memento mori of perishing vanity. Another is celestial: a meteor shower of privacies being burnt to cinders in the atmosphere of publicity. They fall into contemporary fame—a sea that is a millimetre deep and horizon-wide.

You needn’t visit the show to absorb its lessons about the contagion of social networks. But there’s a bonus to viewing the images as material stock in trade, destined for collections in which they will afford chic shocks amid somewhat subtler embodiments of the human spirit. They add a layer of commercial potency to the insatiable itch—to know oneself as known—that has made Instagram a stupefying success.

But Jerry Saltz defends Prince’s “genius trolling”:

With these new works, the protests against him center on three things. First, he’s making money from these things, a lot of money, and given how easy they seem to be to make, that seems like theft, or at least a con; second, he’s using other people’s Instagram feeds without their permission; and most prevalently, he’s a lech for looking at and making art with pictures of young girls. Never mind that all these images shadow us everywhere now and already exist in a public uncopyrighted digital realm. And yes, he’s making money. About $40,000 a pop, to the best of my knowledge. And even though the thought of an artist raking it in at such rates when so many other artists — many of them as well known as he is — can barely get by and sell next to nothing makes me hate our current bifurcated top-versus-everyone-else system even more, the guy is a famous artist in his mid 60s. If anyone deserves it, he does.

As for him “stealing other people’s pictures,” my view of an artist using other people’s Instagram pics is no different than an artist using any other material. By now, we have to agree that images — even digital ones — are materials, and artists use materials to do what they do. Period. In my way of thinking, too many artists are too wed to woefully outmoded copyright notions – laws that go against them in almost every case. … Prince’s new portraits number among the new art burning through the last layers that separate the digital and physical realms. They portend a merging more momentous than we know.

And Rhett Jones appreciates what Prince brings to the images through his comments:

These comments appear to be mostly tongue in cheek, like “I remember this so well (tent emoji) glad we had the tent” under Kate Moss posing with her legs spread. The frequent use of emoji adds an extra graphic layer. The comments themselves create another level of participation in the work. If nothing else, you can’t say Prince didn’t add anything this time. His name’s right there. He’s saying something. …

Your average Instagram comment isn’t, “ah yes post-modern redux meets Warhol celebrity-bacchanal meets Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction flipped back on itself.” You say “I’ve never seen a tat like that.” Then you click like, because you like it, and sometimes that’s enough.

The exhibition runs through October 25th in New York City.