Richard Prince, Doug Abraham, Instagram

What’s Appropriate Appropriation?

Put your work out there, and you never know where it’s going to end up. Occasionally, the answer is “on the walls of the Gagosian.”

That’s what happened to SSENSE when we visited artist Richard Prince’s “New Portraits” show at the gallery’s New York outpost in September, and saw a very familiar shot among the 38 reappropriated Instagram images that make up the exhibition: photos sourced from the platform, commented on by Prince, then printed out unchanged. It was a still from Sky Ferreira’s “I Blame Myself,” a music video we filmed last Spring in collaboration with Ferreira, director Grant Singer, and System Magazine. “2 days until I Blame Myself” says @skyferreira, leaning against a low-rider window in a shot she ‘grammed before the video’s release. “Enjoyed the ride today. Let’s do it again. Richard” comments @richardprince4. All of a sudden, an image we produced was a contemporary art piece with a five- or six-figure price tag.

All of a sudden, an image we produced was a contemporary art piece with a five- or six-figure price tag.

We were flattered. Since Prince first “rephotographed” pop culture ephemera in the early 1980s, presenting essentially exact copies of everything from cigarette ads and and actors’ headshots to photos of biker gangs, Rastafarians, and even a verbatim copy of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In the Rye, he’s been questioning the boundaries of appropriation. It was thrilling to be part of it.

We watched the arguments unfold: questions of legality and intellectual property. Philosophical debates over who owns an Instagram image and how much it’s worth (When its author makes it: $0. When Prince copies it: $100,000). Cries of “He can’t do that!” met with responses of “But you put it out there.” After Prince released a new set of Instagram works for Frieze New York this Spring, the controversy flared up again. A Suicide Girls model whose photo he appropriated started selling her own prints of his $90,000 copy of her photo for $90. “Do we have Mr. Prince’s permission to sell these prints?” she asked. “We have the same permission from him that he had from us ;)” Prince retweeted it.

Taking the appropriation debate to Instagram clearly struck a chord. In an age of personal branding and social media monetization, does the idea of a famous artist making money off someone else’s posts cross a line? To get another perspective, we talked to Doug Abraham. The provocateur behind the image recombinator @bessnyc4 is another appropriation artist making the case for Instagram as the moment’s most relevant medium.

The self-described “troublemaker” posts a daily trio of collages that take fashion imagery to a truly subversive place. He might start with a heritage house’s latest campaign and splice it with shots of crime scenes, bleeding body parts, porn screengrabs, or any variety of disturbing tableaux. The shock of seeing luxury logos in X-rated settings draws you in. But once you’re scrolling through Abraham’s feed, it’s his elegant compositions and sharp, subtle humor that stay with you.

Where Prince’s unmanipulated copies become conceptual gestures, Abraham’s collages have a more traditionally tactile approach: like pages from a social media-era punk zine. “Twisting the familiar is something that interests me,” says Abraham, “because you can come away with a different perspective on something your eye and mind are trained to understand without effort.” Brands present images scientifically calculated to entice us. But our constant exposure means we barely process them. “Ironically, I think we are all looking for a different kind of visual experience: a disruption of the status quo.”

In many respects, we’re playing catchup to the vast potential of our personal devices.

Doug Abraham

“Technology is rapidly changing visual media culture,” he continues. “In many respects, we’re playing catchup to the vast potential of our personal devices.” In a climate where brands take to Instagram to catch our attention, pay for sponsored posts, and book models based on their social followings, is it any surprise to see the art world making work about Instagram? The real question is why it hasn’t happened sooner.

What Abraham’s cult fashion industry following and Prince’s controversial works both indicate is that appropriation still gets that most sought-after prize: a reaction. And it raises particularly important questions for the fashion industry, where trends and techniques flow freely between creators, and even the most innovative designs can’t be copyrighted. As for Abraham? His goal is to make us stop and think. “As someone who has always gotten in trouble for not following the rules, I’m interested in where the line is and what the grey areas are.”

Exactly the role an artist needs in a time when images are everything – and they’re all fair game.