What is art? That is arguably a question asked ever since the first Stone Age bison was drawn on a rock. Is a drawing art? Is a drawing of a drawing art? A painting of a painting? A photo of a photo? Most people will argue that a reproduction is not art, as it does not require a creative, inventive spark. But what if the photo of the photo would be retouched? Given another title? Would it then be art?

These are some of the thorny questions triggered by the work of american artist richard prince, a photographer and painter, who “mines” images in the world of media, advertisement and entertainment to re-photograph and re-produce them, thereby opening up a can of worms in terms of authorship and copyright. for decades, prince’s work, which today fetches top-top dollar, has been subject to endless debate, criticism, and law suits.

Following earlier “reproductive dialogues” with pikasso, cowboys, brooke Shields, biker girls, and pulp fiction naughty nurses, prince in 2008 produced “Canal zone.” With photographs, cut- outs and at times paint he created a weirdly modern and mythical world named after panama, the land he was born, once upon a time, in 1948. prince’s imaginary homeland is inhabited by dreadlocked rastafarians, sexy topless black girls and electric guitars. Some faces are painted on, as if given a mask.

While, i think, “Canal zone” is somehow intriguing, clever and funny at times, the brochure of new york’s gagosian gallery goes overboard, by defining it as “an orgiastic post- nuclear new order for civilization as we once knew it, which takes its place among other great modern visions of the apocalypse, from Joseph Conrad’s “heart of darkness” and pablo picasso’s “guernica,” to the beatles’ “helter Skelter” and michel houllebecq’s prophetic “platform.”

now that’s a mouthful! Surely french photographer patrick Cariou would think that an exaggeration, as it is his photos prince used to create “Canal zone.” Cariou claims prince made unauthorized use of some thirty photos published in his book “yes rasta,” photos he took during ten years of research in the Jamaican highlands. he demands damages. prince’ lawyers counter that the legal doctrine of fair use allows for the limited reproduction of copyright material in order to create something new.

prince photographed Cariou’s photos and printed most of them on canvas as part of a bigger collage. however, on one portrait of two rastafarians he only covered their faces with three tiny dots of paint. When prince once dismissively said that Cariou’s work was “not strikingly original” or “distinctive in nature,” Cariou laughed: “I could be a really bad photographer, but in that case, why did you use 30 of my pictures?”

Cariou claims he already received a settlement proposal. a “big number” apparently, which should not come as a surprise, as gagosian gallery is selling prince’s “Canal zone” for some $1.5 to $3 million a piece.

Brooke Shields vs. Marlboro Man

Educated as a figurative painter, prince worked at life magazine before rising to fame in the early 1980s with his re-photographs of the marlboro man, the former archetype of the (smoking) all-american man set against a dramatic backdrop of mountains and nature. prince used the image in his series “Cowboys,” which featured such other Wild West symbols as hats, horses, lassos, and spurred boots, yet set in an arid, rocky landscape dotted with cacti. a dead landscape to hint at a (false) image? marlboro sued prince, who in 2005 happily sold one Cowboy for $1 million.

prince’s most famous work is no doubt “Spiritual america” (1983). this image is prince in a nutshell and stirred up a heated debate over authenticity, authorship, art and copyright in the united States. originally, “Spiritual america” is the title of an alfred Stieglitz photographic close-up of a horse gleaming with sweat. prince used the title for his retouched re- photograph of brooke Shields as a 10-year-old wearing full make up and standing naked in a red-lit bathroom. by altering the title and colors, prince claims he created something new.

prince’ “Spiritual america” is a confronting and disturbing work, no doubt, that even today causes controversy. following a public outcry, british police removed it from a 2009 pop art exhibition at the london tate modern. Children’s rights campaigners such as michele elliott said: “brooke Shields was 10 years old when this picture was taken. She could not have given informed consent to it being used. it must be bordering on child pornography. it is certainly not art.”

photographer garry Cross agreed, albeit for other reasons. he took the original image and sued prince for copyright violations. the sad thing is that he took the photo for the playboy publication “Sugar ’n Spice” and paid brooke’s mother $450 for the rights. in the early 1980s, brooke, unsuccessfully, tried to buy back the rights to suppress distribution, which prompted prince to produce his version.

prince constantly searches for the thin legal line between art and reproduction. his aim is to deconstruct the archetypes created by the mass media and replace them with his bitterly ironic view. Cowboys no longer live in the Colorado mountains but in a stony desert; Spiritual america is not a pony, a symbol of american liberty, but a seductive little lolita living in a society obsessed with sex and celebrity.

“Spiritual america,” is also the title of a book on prince, which not only contains his work, but also the media and advertisement images his work is based on. like his work, the book is a big blend of straight-up reproductions, collages, cut-outs, jokes, prince’s writings, random copy-pasted phrases, and other people’s writings about prince.

following his take on brooke Shields and the marlboro man, prince went on to produce similar mixed-media works, such as “gangs,” which includes the famous biker girls series. in “Celebrities,” he would reproduce headshots of famous actors and actresses and sign them to himself. another lovely ironic series shows canceled checks of famous people, often with their image next to them. a celebrity is a celebrity, regardless of his or her bouncing checks!

in the mid-1980s, prince started “mining” and put to canvas old jokes, jokes that have been told so many times that they have become clichés and are no longer funny. finally, in 2003 he produced his series of 43 nurse paintings. entitled Surfer nurse, naughty nurse, millionaire nurse or dude ranch nurse, these mixed-media works are based on the covers of cheap pulp novels.

prince scanned the covers, printed them on canvas and added paint to produce an “air of mystique.” While at first they were not very popular, today one nurse will set you back at least $5 million.

Whatever one may think of prince’s work, if it is good or not, art or not, honesty demands to say that prince himself is refreshingly down to earth about the whole discussion, and is willing to play according to his own game.

“the problem with art is that it’s not like the game of golf, where you put the ball in the hole or you don’t put the ball in the hole,” he once said. “there’s no empire. there’s no judge. there are no rules. it’s one of the problems, but it’s also one of the great things about art: it becomes a question of what lasts.”

What if someone would reproduce one of prince’s works? Would that be art or would that upset him? “it would be strange for me to think i’m being ripped off, because that’s what i do!” he said. “in those days, it was called “pirating.” now they call it “sampling.” there’s a guy on the street who paints copies of my “nurse” paintings. i think it’s funny. i actually bought one; i thought it was pretty close.”


ArtEli Rezkallah