A Few Words on the Returned Prince

First, a pithy quote that I’d like to just let sit here for minute: “There’s probably a lot more Republicans buying art than there are making it.”

I get it—It’s uncouth to talk about the market anymore, because it’s just how the system works. But I’m young and missed the fun the first time around, so I’m going to take a shot. Art advisors are trained to spot the artists who are on the up, and they use their influence with galleries and publications to curry more surveys and reviews, all to help ensure their picks perform well on the market. In every other industry, it’s called speculation. You become aware of it as a writer, because every piece you publish affects the value of some rich person’s holdings. One former teacher of mine, a writer and editor, never allows a photo of a work to appear on the cover of a book if the work is held in a private collection. That said, I do try not to be cynical about it, because there really is a lot of good work out there, and a lot to say on all of it, and once you start thinking in terms of value and assets you start to become one of them.

Then, there are moments where the system reveals its mechanisms and it would be irresponsible not to call them out. The New York Times ran a piece yesterday on Richard Prince returning payment for a work from his “New Portraits” series commissioned (he insists it wasn’t a commission, but it was) by Ivanka Trump. “New Portraits” was a controversial series ever since its exhibition in late 2014, but the controversy has finally gotten to Prince, who denounced Ivanka’s painting as “fake” and not really his at all. He plays for laughs, but it’s not the first time Prince has tried to bury his own work. It’s a bit harder to do so now that he’s a good deal more famous, and that the work in question has been exhibited in front of Ivanka’s 2.1 million Instagram followers.

Nor is Prince the first artist to express outrage at a piece of his appearing in Trump’s collection. That quote up top comes from a recent article in Bloomberg about a group of artists who, after the election, all of a sudden became perturbed by who exactly buys their art. Again, I’m trying not to be cynical here, because there really is a sense that the rise of the Trumps has awoken a lot of people to just how twisted “the system” (any system, whatever system) really is, and their own complicity within it. But as they say, “Where there’s one…” If Ivanka Trump owns one of your paintings, you can expect to count many more insidious bastards among your patrons, but the Halt Action Group formed in response names only a singular target on their website, DearIvanka.info.

One should hope that for most of the artists sympathetic with HAG (I have no idea who or how many, as the site hasn’t been updated since November 18), the shock over seeing their art displayed in the home of a demagogue’s daughter might make them more suspicious of the advisory system that they’ve been a commodity of until now. Indeed, Bloomberg quotes artist and founder of HAG, Alison Gingeras, “It’s a moment of reckoning. Going forward, we need to think more carefully about how our work gets brought to the world, and who it’s sold to.” Gingeras, for one, sounds genuine, and I wouldn’t want to imply that any of these artists are operating solely in PR mode. But you don’t find any such awareness from Prince, who parrots Trump-speak (presumably with irony) in his denouncing of the work in question as “fake” and not real art.

Prince, like Trump, is most recognizable to the public by his über-persona cultivated on social media, and his tweets likewise have the power to move markets. The New York Times gets at as much at the end of their article. Quoting Joshua Holdeman, a prominent art advisor, on the Prince-Trump debacle, “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 hasn’t happened.” One has to wonder, then: Is Prince disowning the system, or making a move from Trump’s own book, playing liberal outrage like the devil’s fiddle?

Okay, so I guess I am a bit cynical.