Richard Prince

Informing Contexts: Week 10 Reflection

This week’s work was inevitably overshadowed by looming deadlines and other work stresses. The topic however was an interesting one, trying to answer the question of ‘what is art’ and ‘who decides what is good art’? Clearly, they’d decided to leave the easy topics to the end of the module!! 

The work of Rirkrit Tiravanija was introduced, in particular his work ‘Untitled (Free)’, which was originally created in 1992. This work essentially consisted of Tiravanija turning a gallery into a kitchen from which he served free food to visitors. Watching this, my first reactions were ‘Can this be considered art? Why is it art? What’s the idea?’. As I pondered these questions, the video went on to show clips of interviews with patrons who had visited this exhibition and partaken of the food on offer. To my surprise, the reactions from visitors were universally positive, with smiles on faces and people feeling happy and challenged by the new experience they had just had. They had clearly found it memorable. My takeaway from that was that it’s not right to dismiss artistic activity just because one doesn’t understand it, or think it has particular merit. The stance of Marcel Duchamp then, that things were art simply because he declared them to be so, suddenly felt less like a pretentious indulgence and more like the statement of an artist’s manifesto that deserved respect. 

Sam Abell was introduced as the photographer who took the original cowboy photographs that were subsequently ‘appropriated’ by Richard Prince. He discussed his reaction to seeing what amounted to a direct copy of his work being put forward by another practitioner, who attracted both commercial and critical success with an image that Abell had originally created. Most gallingly of all, Prince achieved a level of success that had not been available to Abell in the first place. 

He was amazingly sanguine about it all (much more so than I would have been!), but he raised some really interesting questions about the nature of the art world and how they assign value to certain works over others. He made the point that his original photograph, which had been shot for an advertisement, would never have been welcome in an art context, nor been eligible to be sold at high value, as it was considered ‘only’ an ad image and thus of no real creative or artistic merit. On the other hand, Prince’s facsimile was hailed as a great work of art and sold for millions. Abell calmly questioned the rationale for this. 

To me this example highlights the ridiculous opacity of the ‘art world’ and hints at the idea of a closed and somewhat irrational cabal that holds a disproportionate degree of power over the fortunes of practitioners everywhere. Because the answer to the question ‘who decides what is art, or what is good art’ seems to be a small number of curators/museums/critics whose opinions are not open to challenge or scrutiny and who literally hold the power to bestow success upon someone, or prevent a practitioner from ever rising out of obscurity. This state of affairs is elitist, conspiratorial and self-serving, particularly when you consider the demographics of this group and consider too those who remain perpetually under-represented when these decisions are being made and the prizes handed out. For example, female practitioners and issues relevant to women, people of colour, working class people or their concerns, perspectives from developing nations or cultures with traditions or ideas that do not conform to Western norms, have long been grossly under-represented by the art world.

Lewis Bush recently wrote passionately about the lack of transparency in the circles where these decisions are made, arguing that the opacity surrounding decisions about whose work has merit, who gets to win the prizes and whose careers shall be catapulted forward can hide alarming conflicts of interest that not only threaten the integrity of such awards but also call into question the idea of prize-giving at all in art. 

Lewis Bush's   recent blog   about his concerns surrounding the judging criteria for the Deutsche Börse prize

Lewis Bush's recent blog about his concerns surrounding the judging criteria for the Deutsche Börse prize

The art establishment is a conservative place stuck in its way of doing things, it is unresponsive to change and operated by people who are predominantly from a very narrow section of society, and yet who somehow retain the responsibility for all of culture and for all aesthetic concerns in our societies. They decide what we should look at and experience and tell us what’s good and what’s not. They get to bestow the title of art on an item and decide if it has value as a commodity, if it can be worth a lot of money or nothing at all. 

Like with most things, the people with power get to decide.

If you’re not in the club, or lack influence, you don’t get a say. You don’t get to decide if something is art or not, you don’t get to decide if something is museum-worthy or not. Your opinion is unimportant, your aesthetic preferences are irrelevant. It’s easy then to see how closely the ‘art world’ mirrors wider society, with inequality of influence, under-representation of minority groups and preservation of power within a small minority of society, to their benefit and the disadvantage of all others.

Art cannot be separated from society. Its influence and importance has long been understood by powerful people, hence the desire to retain control of decisions around what can be valued or acknowledged as art and the prevention, or at least regulation, of true freedom of artistic expression. It’s interesting to note that the degree of regulation of free creative expression rises directly in proportion to the authoritarian nature of the ruling regime. It’s no coincidence that Hitler sought to control the way his subjects viewed art for example, and the Nazi regime systematically stole and destroyed culturally important works. The more recent persecution of Ai Weiwei in China could also be considered in a similar light. We are of course lucky in the UK that things aren’t quite as extreme but that shouldn’t lull us into believing that there isn’t a subconscious agenda at play that might not be working to our advantage as practitioners. Reluctantly, I can’t escape the impression that the British art establishment is a white middle class preserve, and work that originates from a different perspective begins at a disadvantage, though that is not to state that there’s no room for alternative viewpoints.

Reflecting on how this relates to me and my practice, I am ambivalent. I don’t think anything I’ve stated above is outlandish or particularly controversial. I also don’t believe that the prevailing conditions prevent work that doesn’t fit the mould from necessarily being seen or championed by the establishment. In all things, I’m inclined to return to an old maxim, which is that ultimately the primary objective of all practitioners is to make good work and stay as true to oneself as one can while doing so. Any further good that may come as a result is gravy. 

References:

FRIEDMAN, Martin. 2014. ‘“It’s Art If I Say So”: Martin Friedman on Marcel Duchamp’s 1965 Visit to Minneapolis’.Walker Art Center[online]. Available at:  https://walkerart.org/magazine/martin-friedman-duchamp-minneapolis[accessed 22 April 2018].

ROTH, Michael S. 2017. ‘How Nazis destroyed books in a quest to destroy European culture’. The Washington Post [online]. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-nazis-destroyed-books-in-a-quest-to-destroy-european-culture/2017/02/24/244aee94-cdf3-11e6-a87f-b917067331bb_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.664bdadf95f2[accessed 23 April 2018].

Informing Contexts: Week 3 Reflection

“I like to take the reality of the world and use it as a springboard for the imagination.”

Alec Soth, 2015

This week’s work explored the idea of ‘constructed realities’ and the practice of making rather than taking photographs. The question was asked whether we considered ourselves as ‘hunters’ or ‘farmers’, the idea being that the farmer cultivates and nurtures images into being while the hunter stalks the perfect shot, waiting for the moment to strike a la Cartier-Bresson.

In my own practice, particularly prior to commencing this MA, I was certainly a ‘hunter’ in that my practice largely consisted of roaming the streets at night, just hoping to find something of interest to shoot. As my awareness of wider photographic conventions has grown however, I have been challenged to be more thoughtful in my selection of scenes and the approach to composition while shooting. One thing that hasn’t changed, is my openness to altering the information originally captured by my camera, in order to get closer to a visual position that I perceived in my mind or adhere more closely to a desired reading of the image. So a ‘hunter-farmer’ of sorts!

As I’ve stated before, my general position is that all photographs are constructed to some extent. The idea that photographers simply walk around catching images that fall from the sky into their hands is something of a falsehood to my mind. 

An image that for me illustrates this idea perfectly is from the work of Vibeke Tandber whose Line series consists of portraits of one of the artist’s friends. 

Line 1   by Vibeke Tandberg

Line 1 by Vibeke Tandberg

On the face of it these images appear to be straightforward yet intimate portraits of a young woman in a domestic setting. Actually though, they are digital composites of elements of the artist’s features and those of her subject, illustrating as Cotton (2014) states

“how a photographic portrait, no matter how guileless it may seem, is partly the photographer’s projection of herself onto her subject.”

Firstly, the ‘artifice’ in these images would probably not have been apparent to the viewer, had it not been explicitly declared by the author. This, again, challenges the idea that photography is ever anything other than a construction of sorts. I am happy to concede that there is a spectrum of construction on which all practitioners may find themselves but I would argue that everyone can be placed on that spectrum somewhere. 

Another issue that these images raise, is the idea that constructed images are more powerful or more easily able to communicate, if their referents are well-known. In this case, we may not be familiar with the appearance of either Tandberg or her subject, and thus the constructed nature of the image is more difficult to discern and possibly carries less significance for having been altered in this way.

In the case of much of Richard Prince’s work, his references are easily identifiable. This allows an easier dialogue between the author and the viewer about what the potential wider significance of the image might be or what it may be commenting on. 

Untitled (Cowboy)   by Richard Prince

Untitled (Cowboy) by Richard Prince

As in any conversation, if you’re able to start from a point of common knowledge it’s much easier to go from there, safe in the shared vocabulary and mutual reference points you hold in common, rather than awkwardly trying to establish what, if anything, you both might understand, from which to build an exchange of views.

So the point then possibly is, that while construction of an image is, I believe, fundamental to all photographic practice, it would be wise for the image-maker to consider what context the image will be viewed in, or what reference points you may share with your intended viewers, because these elements are likely to influence the extent to which a heavily constructed image (i.e. One that widely diverges from the original scene, or from a depiction of a reality that will be familiar to the viewer) can be received in the way its author intended.

For all of us who hope to reach others with our work, we must consider how the way we create images can hinder or help our connection with the viewer.

References:

BUBICH, Olga. 2015. ‘Alec Soth: “Photography is a unique pursuit with its own mix of variables” ‘. Bleek Magazine [online]. Available at: http://bleek-magazine.com/interviews/alec-soth/ [accessed 12 February 2018].

HENRY, Karen. 2006. ‘The Artful Disposition: Theatricality Cinema and Social Context in Contemporary Photography’. In Lori PAULI (ed.). Acting the part: photography as theatre. London: Merrell, 133-161.

BANG LARSEN, Lars. 2000. ‘Vibeke Tandberg’. Frieze.com [online]. Available at: https://frieze.com/article/vibeke-tandberg [accessed 18 February 2018].

COTTON, Charlotte. 2014. The Photograph As Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

 

Surfaces and Strategies: Week 2 Reflection

This week’s topic, Remediation, has been possibly the one I’ve most struggled to get my head around since we started this course. Remediation is the refashioning or incorporation of one medium into another medium. The concept introduces and formalises the idea that all art is based, in some way, on a repurposing of something else, something that has gone before.
 
Other concepts introduced this week, appropriation and remixing, are closely related to the practice of remediation and I would argue exist under its overarching umbrella.
 
Accepting this idea has a number of interesting and possibly unintended consequences. For example, if what one creates is merely a refashioned view of some preceding thing, then who ‘owns’ that thing? And how can one claim to be solely creatively responsible or the author of something ‘original’? 

Jan Verwoert in 2007 argued thus:
 
‘Who owns a recurring style, a collective symbol or a haunted house? Even if you appropriate them, they can never be entirely your private property. Dead objects can circulate in space and change owners. Things that live throughout time cannot, in any unambiguous sense, pass into anyone’s possession. For this reason they must be approached in a different way. Tactically speaking, the one who seeks to appropriate such temporally layered objects with critical intent – that is with an attitude that differs significantly from the blunt revisionism of neo-(or ‘turbo’-)folkloristic exploitations of the past - must be prepared to relinquish the claim to full possession, loosen the grip on the object and call it forth, invoke it rather than seize it.’ 1
 
If one completely accepts this premise, then it’s very difficult to argue for strict ownership/authorship of any piece of art by any single person, as we would all be obliged to credit our predecessors whose work has either directly or indirectly contributed to our own. But how far should the obligation to reference, credit and acknowledge our influences extend? 

In reflecting on this week’s presentations and the accompanying reading, I’m uncomfortable with the strict differentiation between terms used. The three key terms that were introduced - remediation, appropriation and remixing - to my mind describe a single practice, that of taking something from someone else and using it for your own purposes in your own work.
 
This could be for a range of reasons, from homage, to pastiche, to mutation into something entirely (on the face of it) unrelated to the original piece. In this way, it’s possible to consider appropriation and remixing as existing on a spectrum, with one end being where the act (remixing) results in something very different from the original piece, while at the other end the output may be more easily ‘traceable’ back to its source (appropriation). 

The challenge then comes from acknowledging where one is placed on this spectrum and what obligations this position imposes upon one’s practice. For example, it could be argued that cropping a small corner out of someone else’s photograph to be used in my new work doesn’t require permission or attribution, because of the unidentifiable and relatively small contribution that this segment makes to my work or detracts from the original. On the other hand, printing large screenshots of someone else's work which I subsequently hang and pass off as my own, entirely new work may be sailing a little too close to the remediation wind (see the work of Richard Prince for examples of the latter).

To some degree, where one feels comfortable on the spectrum is a decision for each individual practitioner. I don’t feel that my references are always explicit in my own practice (where indeed I am aware of there being any references!), yet neither am I actively trying to obscure the fact that certain artists or works have been influential in my vision and the way I work.

This week we were all asked the most cutting of questions… ‘what is your original contribution to the conversation in which your images participate?’
 
Maybe the ultimate answer to all of this lies in accepting that, in this world of ever-proliferating imagery, it’s a nonsense to proclaim any form of originality. If we're all merely ‘reshuffling a basic set of cultural terms’2, then we are liberated from the futility of grasping for the mirage of originality and are free to create and appropriate at will, and the implications be damned!

References:
. Verwoert, J. (2007) 'Apropos Appropriation: Why stealing images today feels different', Art & Research[Electronic],vol. 1, no. 2, Available at: http://www.artandresearch.org.uk/v1n2/verwoert.html, [Accessed 12 June 2017].

2. ‘Instead they advanced the paradigm of appropriation as a materialist model that describes art production as the gradual re-shuffling of a basic set of cultural terms through their strategical re-use and eventual transformation.’ From Verwoert, 2007.