SuicideGirl Models Retaliate Against Instagram Thief, Artist Richard Prince

Nothing you share on social media really belongs to you. Facebook will sell your information to advertisers. Anything you tweet can end up on a listicle. And your Instagram photos can not only be regrammed, but apparently enlarged, displayed at a gallery and sold for around $90,000.


Richard Prince has done just this at his latest exhibit New Portraits at the Gagosian Gallery, on view to a selective number of people. The 37 inkjet prints were taken without permission from the Instagram feeds of complete strangers and celebrity friends and annotated with comments from the artist.

Prince blows up photos of mostly women in sexually compromising poses and adds comments such as "Nice. Let's hook up next week. Lunch, Smiles R." and “Private Lives, mind if I sneeze on” at the bottom of the images. The comments are, I’m assuming, intentionally out-of-touch and invasive, imitating and trolling the manner digital identities can be commented on and the often nonlinear conversations that occur over the web.

Much of Prince’s past work deals with themes of appropriation and pop culture, leading many critics to wonder, Is this art? But with his latest endeavor, many of us wonder, Is this legal? Prince has been sued in the past for copyright infringement for exhibiting works that were not his own, but has gotten off by arguing that he is within his artistic liberties.

For the New Portraits series, none of the artists or models have sought legal retribution—yet. But the images taken from the SuicideGirls’ Instagram has caused their founder Selena Mooney, known as Missy Suicide, to retaliate by reprinting the appropriated images and selling them for a fraction of the cost. For $90, you can buy a similar jetprinted copy of Prince’s Instagram art on their website. The proceeds will go to EFF.org, a nonprofit organization that fights for digital privacy rights.

Missy Suicide posted this statement on Instagram:

My first thought was I don’t know anyone who can spend $90,000 on anything other than a house. Maybe I know a few people who can spend it on a car. As to the copyright issue? If I had a nickel for every time someone used our images without our permission in a commercial endeavor I’d be able to spend $90,000 on art. I was once really annoyed by Forever 21 selling shirts with our slightly altered images on them, but an artist?

Richard Prince is an artist and he found the images we and our girls publish on instagram as representative of something worth commenting on, part of the zeitgeist, I guess? Thanks Richard! I’m just bummed that his art is out of reach for people like me and the people portrayed in the art he is selling.

By reprinting the images in the exact same manner, save for the SuicideGirls’ comment at the bottom, the alternative girl pinup website reappropriates the images and gives agency to the women whose images were stolen. “Do we have Mr. Prince’s permission to sell these prints? We have the same permission from him that he had from us,” retorts Missy Suicide.

Prince applauded their response. He tweeted, “Much better idea. I started off selling my 'family' tweets for $18 at Karma not too long ago. Missy Suicide is smart.” 

Male artists have depicted nude females for centuries, and the male gaze has become the standard. Prince appropriating eroticized images of women and adding his commentary takes the images the women chose to publish on their own and turns them into something disempowering. When a woman posts a picture of herself on social media, she’s seen as seeking attention, but when Richard Prince publishes the same image, it’s art. By not choosing to obtain permission from the models or pay them, Prince devalues the models and perpetuates the idea that women’s bodies are not their own.

“The thing about Prince’s theft of the images is that it feels like such a violation by someone who doesn’t get it. Instagram is such an expression of our identity and to have an old dude steal them and get paid such a significant fee for them hurt. We wanted to be able to create prints that the people in the images could afford,” Missy Suicide told AlterNet.

In an age when what constitutes digital privacy is legally dubious, people are not able to stake claim to their virtual identities. I speculate this is part of the statement Prince is trying to make, but I cannot know for sure because the artist has not released a formal press release. Instead, he has listed several social media handles where people can respond to his work. 

If Prince’s intention is to challenge copyright issues on images he sees as “public,” why was his Gagosian gallery opening so exclusive? Why sell single prints for $90,000?

Critic Jerry Saltz thinks Prince is a “genius troll” because of all the controversy his work has generated. He says, “But hating often seems like what the Internet does best, especially when it’s got a good troll. And it's done a lot of hating recently in response to Richard Prince's semi-revolutionary, drop-dead simple, often salacious Instagram paintings. For these works, Prince has been called a dirty old man, creepy, twisted, a pervert. All of which may be true — but true in a great way, if that's possible.”

Jerry Saltz has never been a young woman, and neither has Richard Prince. If they had, they might understand why capitalizing off a stranger’s body is a problem.

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