Matthew Beaman
Matthew Beaman 29 July 2015

The (Re)Death Of The Author

Can authorship and ownership really exist in the age of Instagram?

Our Photography Director Matthew Beaman applies the questions Roland Barthes first asked almost 50 years ago to the internet age.

The artist Richard Prince has spent the past thirty years questioning and challenging the idea of authorship. He famously appropriates imagery created by other people, adds small details of his own, and sells the ‘new’ pieces for vast sums of money. The most renowned – his Cowboys series, an appropriation of the original 1980s Marlboro Man campaign – became the first photograph to sell for more than $1 million, at a Christie’s auction in 2005.

The concept of appropriation in modern art is nothing new; talking about his readymade works, Marcel Duchamp famously said, “It’s the artist’s choice. He chooses what is art.” Many artists since have explored this philosophy, notably Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg, but despite Duchamp making this statement nearly a century ago, current works by artists such as Prince are still provocative – and his most recent piece is no exception.

His new body of work is called New Portraits, and consists of screenshots of Instagram posts taken from others’ accounts – including usernames and comments (to which he’s added his own). Blown up and printed on large format Inkjet paper, the prints were exhibited at Gagosian Gallery, priced at $90,000. They were promptly snapped up.

As digital publishing platforms continue to grow and shift and change, so too must copyright laws and parameters concerning image ownership. Prince’s new work is fascinating because of the questions it raises about copyright infringement and ownership in today’s world of social media sharing websites.

To what extent do we unwittingly collude with the likes of Prince when we voluntarily post our images on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook?

Easy access to imagery on the internet enables anyone to copy, edit and distribute images as they wish. As such, the link between the originator and their image is ever more weakened by technology. The role of the author becomes negligible, the power shifting to Prince, say, as the curator and interpreter of this overwhelming mass of imagery.

In this work, Richard Prince has tested the limits of ‘fair use’ copyright law, and asks important questions surrounding image ownership and the authorship of an artwork, so the work certainly succeeds art. Whether or not the prints are worth $90,000 a pop though, well, that’s another discussion altogether…

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