A Conversation with Richard Prince
This interview is excerpted from a public conversation with Richard Prince, recorded at the Whitney Museum of American Art, May 13, 1992.
BW: I want to ask you about the concept of permission. You have often said that you didn’t require “permission” to do things that in non-art contexts could be termed “illegal” or immoral” say, using copyrighted images without credit. You’ve also called this “practicing without a license.” Do you think of appropriation as something that involves risk?
RP: If I remember correctly, at the time I started doing that, one of the reasons I could give myself permission was that no one was looking. I didn’t even have the idea of an audience, I had no notions about showing the work, it was essentially for myself and my friends. Practicing without a license was a catchphrase.
At the time I started rephotographing images there was the term “pirating”; in contemporary music practice it’s called “sampling.” I think the idea of giving oneself permission is important. Sometimes you’re working in your studio and you come up with something and you look at it and you say, “Gee. I can’t do that.” But all of a sudden you think that if you would have seen another artist do it, it would have made you feel good.
BW: Do you think there’s anger in your work?
RP: I think there’s a certain amount of anger, yeah. Certainly in the jokes. In terms of an ingredient, I think it’s becoming less of a problem. After a number of years, you become aware of it, in terms of dealing with it. The other ingredient in the jokes is a certain amount of tragedy. Still there’s one aspect that I do enjoy – which was a strange experience at first – which is just to hear people laugh in a gallery context, because they thought the joke was simply funny. There was this time when someone actually said, “I don’t like that one.” And I said, “You don’t like the painting or you don’t like the joke?” They said it was the joke, and I asked, “Well, what about the painting?” I suddenly realized that that had to be a very different experience than any other painter had had. So that was a new thing, something not planned.
BW: You’re talking about the humor of the jokes, but a lot of them are incredibly hostile as well.
RP: Yeah. The comedians that I’ve met are certainly not the happiest people in the world. But that’s not really what I’m about, this kind of hostility or anger or tragedy. I’m mostly thinking in a very boring way. It’s really about going into the studio every day and working, so many of my concerns are really formal, straight-out, boring problem solving.
BW: I guess what I’m leading up to is that a lot of women think that your anger is directed at women.
RP: I like women. I have no problem with women. I’ve heard this and it upsets me to a point, but actually I think it’s a rumor. I know lots of women who like my work and understand it, I think that it’s a generalization. There’s nothing directed against women.
BW: Maybe you could talk about the series that enraged a lot of women: the so-called biker chicks.
RP: Well, as far as the biker chicks are concerned, I just wouldn’t mind being one. I’ve never said that before, but I think that’s what I really feel. There’s a certain kind of desire and a certain amount of passion. I like what I think they look like or perhaps what they are. I think many of these pictures have their own egos and they have an imagination of their own. That’s my own particular reaction. I also think the biker chick is perhaps a more realistic representation than the Grace Kelly girl-next-door. I mean, the biker chicks are the girls next door. The title of the series, “Girlfriends”, is a nonfiction title; those girls are girlfriends, the pictures are taken by their boyfriends and published in a magazine. It’s not like a cult or anything. there are four or five of these large-scale, mass-market publications. Maybe I like women like that.
I know that in the real world I’ve gotten a lot of poison-pen letters, threats on my message machine, things like that. And I’ve seen the comment books in the galleries “We love you” or “We hate you.” That’s what happens and that’s why I say that in the end it doesn’t register. I do it for myself and my friends.
BW: What’s interesting in terms of the current political moment, especially with the debate over political correctness is your rather surprising attitude that you take no political responsibility for the types of images you put out into the culture.
RP: The idea of taking no responsibility is a very romantic view of the artist. It just allows you a certain amount of freedom. I see the artist as one of the few people who can get away with certain things. I guess I do associate it with a certain kind of outlaw behavior. It comes from how I grew up in the 50s, from my experiences. It just seems to be something I’m comfortable with. I can play with the other side, but I do tend to divide the world into the hip and the square.
On the other hand, I think I am politically correct. I mean, as far as the “Girlfriends” go, I don’t have any associations with the images; these aren’t my girlfriends. These are images that are already out there, they have been previously published, previously consumed. There’s a relationship going on that I don’t have knowledge about. What I’m interested in is the kind of over-determination or the effect of the image. It’s not unlike a TV image to me or a movie still. Something happens in front of their picture and I think I get turned on. I mean, I feel good in front of it. As I said: I wouldn’t mind being one of them.
BW: You seem to reject the socially constructed model of an “acceptable” masculine persona. For instance, in the androgynous self-portrait you made and in a lot of your writing, you seem to be questioning the whole notion of what it means to be a man, to take on that role.
RP: What I think it means to be a man is difficult. There have been times when it has been very uncomfortable for me, it’s not necessarily been me. Often what I show in the work is my observations of other types of male behavior, and it depresses me. As a male, I possibly associated or included myself in a kind of generalization. But mostly I think it just comes from observation. Doing that portrait and representing myself as a little bit male, a little bit female was perhaps the thing to do at that time.
BW: How does that kind of work relate to the cowboys, where you foreground very stereotypical male roles?
RP: That’s something I couldn’t possibly answer. I very rarely think about the content and what it implies. The cowboy for me is mostly a conceptual image; it’s much more about the formal aspect and the presentation, where it started and where it ends up. It also has essentially to do with the idea of photography and the possibility of photography being dead. I thought mostly about the function of the photograph, the way photographs are made.
BW: Then why select those particular ones?
RP: It goes back to my job. I had a job working in a magazine, and that’s what I would end up with. I used to tear the magazine up page by page and give all the copy to the editors and then I’d end up with all the advertisements. There was a point where I noticed that things had changed in the Marlboro ad. They got rid of the famous guy, a certain model who used to be in all the ads. They took him out and started using other people. That’s when I went after it. That’s when I stole it. I suppose it was an antisocial act. No one was looking. This was a famous campaign. If you’re going to steal something, you know, you go to the bank. It’s recognizing the implications of what surrounds the photograph-the framing and the presentation-but also what’s inside.
BW: But certainly there is a play between the previous presentation of these images and yours. Even for you as the thief, there wouldn’t be the same kick in stealing something that wasn’t recognized as having value in another context, i.e., the Marlboro campaign. That seems like an important prerequisite.
RP: It’s strange for me because I know that within a certain community that image has become a kind of representation for what I do, but, I don’t know. I just sort of did it. I mean I still think it was about how photography and certain media representations are like the Antichrist. It gets me angry, some of these representations, the way that media manipulates and doesn’t tell the whole story. Cowboys don’t tell the whole story at all, so it was sort of perfect. I’m sounding a little bit political right now.
BW: Wasn’t that your intention?
RP: Maybe it was a way of balancing things out. One year it was women. The next year it was men. The next year it was mixing the two. I’ve always said that my work is about men and women, men and men, and women and women, That seems to me to be a political statement. The relationship between men and women is something that I think I have a certain healthy concern for. I think I understand it one day and the next day.. I have absolutely no understanding of what those relationships are about. I constantly try to charge forward and there’s some kind of substance there that never goes away, because I can’t really solve the problems. It’s great subject matter, I suppose.
(© Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)