To whom do belong the pictures you post in Internet? According to Facebook’s terms and conditions they can make free use of any image you upload on their social media, although they will not sell it to third parties. Therefore, acknowledging it or not, you are renouncing to the total rights over your own pictures. But what if someone else decided to make use of these pictures? Without a complete control over its copyright, can you really complain about it? Everybody should be aware that everything that goes into the Internet is becoming public property, but at the same time we should find a way to control when someone is making a profit out of it.
Identity theft is probably one of the easiest outcomes of this tendency. While stealing someone else’s persona for your own benefit (or just for fun?) was already a form of fraud long before the invention of Internet, nowadays social media has made it much easier and untraceable. A clear example would be the case of Leah Palmer, a girl who engaged in a long distance on-line relationship all based on the lifestyle showed on her Instagram profile. Too bad she didn’t really existed and the 900 pictures published on her account between 2012 and 2015 really belonged to a married girl living in Dubai. As scary as it can be to discover that someone is pretending to live your life, at least in this case they were not making a profit out of it.
More outrageous would be to find out that one of the pictures you posted in your Instagram was sold at New York’s Frieze Gallery for $90.000. That’s what has been happening with New Portraits, one of the newest exhibitions of Richard Prince’s work. Born in 1949, the American painter and photographer has always been controversially known for his rephotographs: the use and little alteration on someone else’s work to create his artwork, giving a whole new meaning and expression to the original image.
Art Appropriation is nothing new. With Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades as a starting point, big names of Contemporary Art like Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst have used previous artwork to create his own with little or no modification at all; while Jeff Koons court case in 1992 defending his copy of an Art Rogers photography already established a law procedure to face art copyright legal battles. That case also served as a reference when Richard Prince had to defend himself in court for copyright infringement against Patrick Cariou, whose Rastafarian photographies he slightly altered for his exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery. Prince won the case on a second appeal as the work was considered transformative enough.
But when “the rich white man” (as labelled by Anna Collins, one of his Instagram subjects, in an interview with Business Insider) steals the work of those who can barely call themselves artists and have little or no voice to present battle, is there even a reason to engage in a legal battle? On onehand he is making a huge profit out of someone else’s work with a minimal alteration of it, and these people might (most probably) be in more need of the money than him. On the other hand, that’s the exact word: money is the key of the matter. Is the use of a photograph what is insulting or the economic benefit of it?
On today’s social media we are very familiar with the concept of re-post, re-blog, and re-tweet; all of them a consent form of theft in the same way Richard Prince is doing with his new collection. What marks the difference, in this case, is that he is making thousands out of it, but that is the work of a Contemporary artist. He is taking an element that he likes, adapting it to his work style (which is already the art appropriation) and by giving it a new sense and context, thanks to his previous art career, he can be bought at such high prices. Being bought here is different than selling, as in the Art world and artwork is only valuable as much as someone will want to pay for it. SuicideGirls, one of the Instagram accounts from which Prince has stolen a certain amount of pictures, is now taking the opportunity to sell their $90 print versions of the same photographs Prince stole, with all benefits going to charity. The substantial price difference is only a consequence of their differentfame inside the art world, but in a certain way they are both copying each other.
Richard Prince is using their images while SuicideGirls are stealing his style of presentation of said images. In the same way that Prince wouldn’t have an artwork without their Instagram pictures, SuicedeGirls wouldn’t have made a (beneficial) profit without his idea of selling enlarged printed captions.
But what if that happened to you? You might probably feel proud that an artist has considered your picture good enough to be turned into a thousand-dollars selling artwork; or you could be outraged that someone is making money at your expenses.