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Can Richard Prince really disown his own art?

As the controversial artist publicly denies ownership of a portrait he created of Ivanka Trump, we question the value of art in the post-truth era

As we prepare for Donald Trump’s inauguration into The White House on Friday, it’s hard not to feel a pang of helplessness if you’re someone who opposes sexism, racism, fascism, and/or anti-intellectualism. The uncertainty of a Trump presidency has left many artists and creatives worrying about the future of free expression and liberalism as a rapid rise of the far-right takes hold. In an unprecedented political move, American photographer and painter Richard Prince has disavowed an Instagram ‘portrait’ he painted of Ivanka Trump back in 2014, calling it “fake art” and returning $36k to the first daughter for its original sale. The artist took to Twitter last week to announce the decision, writing: “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art.” For many, Prince’s protest against the President-elect and his family was a welcome fuck-you to the art world’s capitalist structures, but I, for one, can’t decide whether I admire him or see this as a petulant act, particularly as the artist has been widely criticised for ripping off other people’s work over the years. But, one question hangs in the balance: can this art trump Trump?

The six-by-four feet canvas of Ivanka, which was first exhibited at Gagosian Gallery in New York as part of Prince’s controversial collection, New Portraits, depicts her in a dressing room having her hair and makeup done in a white robe, while taking a selfie. This piece has attracted a huge backlash for its blatant use of “borrowed” or “stolen” imagery; an aesthetic which gave Prince his name as an appropriation artist. There has been a long dispute in the art world about the ownership of Prince’s works, and his decision to denounce his portrait of the first daughter has thrown this issue into even messier territory, with huge implications for contemporary artists. In many ways, Ivanka’s photograph was never Prince’s to use, and it was only through both of their power and fame that the piece has its value in the first place. By branding the painting as “fake”, he uses Trump’s own rhetoric to essentially render the artwork null, while simultaneously recognising the tension between his authorial control and Ivanka’s social media personhood. Who really owns the image? And whose is it to sell or buy?

“By branding the painting as ‘fake’, Prince uses Trump’s own rhetoric to essentially render the artwork null”

Consumerism and art have enjoyed a very complex relationship, made even more so by the act of buying vs. the desired buyer. While most artists will have little to no say in who purchases their work, Prince has taken momentous steps to shift the capitalist drive of art culture and return the power to its creators, vis-à-vis himself, by rejecting responsibility for the piece’s creation. Although this decision is fraught with contradictions because of the nature of the image, it does feel poignant at a time when progressive thinkers and visionaries are needed more than ever as we enter into a tumultuous political climate. Ivanka and her husband, the President-elect’s senior advisor, Jared Kushner, were recently ‘outed’ as contemporary art collectors, propelling this issue about value and ownership into even murkier waters. What if artists could completely control who their work was sold to? Could disowning their work act as a domino effect protest? Will more people follow in Prince’s footsteps? What seems pivotal is a reversal of the dominant order, a structural collapse of money-motivated exchanges, and a refusal to say nothing in the face of Trump’s blistering public discourse. “Redacting Ivanka's portrait was an honest choice between right and wrong,” Prince wrote on Twitter, “right is art. Wrong is no art. The Trumps are no art.”

One of the biggest questions raised over Prince’s fist-punching action is trying to define what art, particularly contemporary art, actually is, and how its value is measured. Painters, photographers, sculptors, performance artists and the like are increasingly pulling influence from popular culture and social media and the artistic canon has never felt so diverse. Like many people, there are times when I find myself questioning the credibility, and ‘art-worthiness’, of certain works, and it does prompt questions about who and what determines the merit of someone’s creativity. I’m still somewhat unconvinced about the ease and willingness of Prince to surrender his ‘portrait’ of Ivanka, especially since the large canvas wouldn’t exist without his motivation to create it. At what point does something become ‘art’? And, can creative control be relinquished with a simple tweet? Language, more so than ever, is shaping the concept of art and an artist’s ability to contextualise their work can mean the difference between MoMA and a coffee shop residency. In this case, Prince’s words, rather than the painting itself, have emphasised its significance and will arguably increase its aesthetic legacy, rather than diminish it.

When we speak of value in terms of art, there are a number of factors to consider. Value can refer to monetary worth, social critique, skill level, or most likely a combination of all three. Ironically, Manhattan art adviser Joshua Holdeman theorises that Prince’s Ivanka ‘portrait’ will still be treated as his work in the future, and that it will likely increase in value as a “culturally rich object”. He says: “If an artist says a work isn’t by him, but it’s clear that he made it and presented it as his work, well it kind of is what it is. My intuition about this is that when history plays out, this will probably end up being a more culturally rich object than if this whole episode hadn’t happened.” While it appears to be Prince’s mission to undermine his artwork and mark it as “fake”, this disavowal doesn’t quite sit well if the results produce more prestige and financial gain for Ivanka and her family, as well as the artist himself. However, this notion of “fakery” draws direct parallels with the angry, ‘post-truth’ ramblings of the demagogue Trump, and it could also signify a new era for artistic protest. If politics is freewheeling towards the absurd and facts no longer hold the power, why not play the President-elect at his own game and use Twitter as a platform for hot-headed takedowns. At this point, there’s nothing to lose.