Walk with me through the layers of vanity.
A Celebrity Took a Selfie
In this case, Ivanka Trump took a picture of herself getting ready for an event. She is pictured in front of a mirror in a robe, with curlers in her hair as her stylists tend to her look. She posted this picture to her Instagram account, which has 2.1 million followers. I do this with inferior results all the time; no judgment beyond the mild judgment we all deserve for our selfies.
A Modern Artist Copied This Selfie
Richard Prince is a modern artist who works in something called “appropriation art.” At its best, I suppose appropriation art is meant to elevate otherwise invisible works or make some sort of comment on highly visible ones, but that’s being more charitable than the artist’s many opponents in copyright suits would be. Prince hosted a controversial show in 2014, which was composed almost entirely of enlarged replicas of other people’s Instagram photos.
In this case, however, the printed canvas of the Instagram photo was commissioned by Ivanka herself, an avid art collector, who paid Prince $36,000 for it. The patron then posed with the copy of her own self-portrait— wait for it— on Instagram. Oh Lord, there is post-modern and poster-modern, and then there’s postest-modern.
The Celebrity Bought An Enlarged Photo Of Herself
Stick with me. Ivanka bought the art, which was an enlarged canvas printing of her photograph, the original version of which was probably still sitting on her phone. They’ve got the money, and this is a pretty traditional patron-and-artist relationship if you strip away the selfie-ism of it all. Ivanka chose to support this artist, there was a transaction, and Prince accepted Trump family money for his art.
The Artist Then Disowned His Art
Upon the election of Ivanka’s father Donald Trump as president of the United States, Prince declared his appropriation art of Ivanka’s selfie officially unappropriated due to his disagreement with Trump’s views. So he tweeted this, which is yet another picture, on another social media account, of the picture he copied from Ivanka’s original Instagram account. Yeesh.
This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art. pic.twitter.com/ouHJmVeF8C
— Richard Prince (@RichardPrince4) January 11, 2017
Prince isn’t the first to pull something similar with Ivanka, who owns many artists’ pieces.
The Artist Claims This Art Is Now Fake Art
This implies it just now became fake. Art is subjective, and far be it from me to suggest commenting on pop culture and news isn’t a worthy endeavor in and of itself, but may I suggest the gulf between coastal elites and everyone else in America is perfectly illumined by the fact that any of the elites thought any of this was real at any point along the way.
Some modern art is moving. Some modern art is rightly met with bemusement and confusion by everyone not paying thousands for it. The term “fake art” is unmistakably a comment on the term de rigueur “fake news,” and the tweet a comment on Trump’s Twitter habit, which makes Prince’s denunciation a comment on a comment on a comment? It’s hard to keep track.
Fake Because He Decided He Doesn’t Like His Customer
Prince was fine with Trump money when he received it, but says he has now given it back, offended as he is that the original photographer owns his copy of her photograph.
But I guess if this were to have some material effect, it would be to retroactively make Ivanka’s art investment worthless? My guess is she’s not that concerned, and I would enjoy it very much if Prince’s disowning added to the value. If the value of his art is its meta-commentary on modernity and pop culture, then didn’t he just add another layer of art by commenting yet again in the context of the biggest confluence of pop culture and politics the country has ever seen?
You Can’t Kid a Kidder
Prince appears to be using the news cycle as part political act and part performance art. My, who does that remind me of? Vulture tied itself in knots to explain why this is a very powerful rebuke to Donald Trump and a model for the art community in protesting his presidency, but I am…doubtful. This is Trump turf, whether Prince knows it or not, and the Trumps will likely use it to their advantage.
In the past, Prince hasn’t gone as far as to disown works, but he has George-Lucas-style declared his 1970s work outside the canon of Prince work, and the art world has mostly abided by his declaration. His early works are shown, but galleries keep them out of their announcements to avoid copyright entanglements with an artist whose oeuvre is a web of intentional copyright entanglements. My head hurts.
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a buyer acquired some of those 1970s pieces and hosted a very high-profile showing of Richard Prince Works That Annoy Richard Prince with Ivanka’s portrait as its anchor. But someone would have to have access to hip Manhattan digs to host such a thing, a lot of money, and a dedication to vengeful trolling necessary to spend it on this. I can’t for the life of me think of anyone like that.
It all feels very through-the-looking glass, which of course was the object of the postmodernists, who celebrated loss of absolute truth and the rise of a now seemingly endless loop of self-reference, irony, and performance art (The 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity fell victim to this.). This is a tale of a celebrity selfie, which became an artist’s copy of a selfie, which became a valuable piece of art before it became an artist’s political comment on the copy of a selfie of a celebrity who is now a political figure, who has yet to comment on his comment. And we are asked to believe this is all very important and powerful. Who can blame the American public for having trouble knowing real from fake anymore?
In the end, this thoroughly modern story feels very old. A society that gazes at its own selfies for too long is sure to lose the will to live.