Ceci N’est Pas: Richard Prince, Ivanka Trump, and the Politics of Disavowal

Before Donald Trump was even in office, his archive had already begun to disappear, although perhaps not in the way he might have imagined. On January 11, eight days before Trump’s inauguration, the artist Richard Prince denounced his Instagram portrait of incoming First Daughter Ivanka Trump. Posting a screen capture of an Ivanka Instagram selfie with a comment from his own Instagram account, Prince wrote of the image on Twitter, “This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art.”

Prince’s action—one of denial, denunciation, refusal, cancellation—at once both undoes and tightens a complex knot of authorship, appropriation, ownership, and the politics of aesthetic labor, issues that have long occupied his work and the critical conversation surrounding it. Since his 2014 show New Portraits, Prince has been producing works based on appropriation of social media content: he comments on selected Instagram posts, many but not all of which are selfies or other portraits of young women, screenshots these posts, and emails them to an assistant to be printed as approximately six-by-four-foot portrait-oriented images. Before Donald Trump declared his candidacy for President, Prince produced such an image for Ivanka Trump, which he sold to her for $36,000 in November 2014, as he subsequently tweeted. The image consists of a mirror selfie taken by a robe-clad Ivanka in a hair-and-wardrobe session; below her caption “#Selfie on set! Big shoot today!,” Prince comments “Nurse Trump,” an allusion to his pulp-inspired Nurse Paintings, followed by smiley face, lipstick, and pink bow emoji. Ivanka herself posed with the finished image on Instagram, further intensifying a hall-of-mirrors effect in which identity management, ephemeral stardom, vernacular technology, and high art intermingle and recursively cannibalize one another.

What does it mean, then, to disavow such an image? Prince’s tweets seem not only to reject this object, to disown it, but to cancel it altogether, to undo its already carefully hedged trappings of authorship and authenticity: “SheNowOwnsAfake,” he writes of his now-former patron. In this sense, beyond being a political critique by way of refusal—identification with #resist, as it were—Prince’s action stands in a long line of charged artwork that hinges on erasure (think here of Robert Rauschenberg’s 1953 Erased de Kooning Drawing), or perhaps more pointedly on self-erasure (think here of John Baldessari’s 1970 Cremation Project, in which he incinerated paintings he had made from 1953-1966). Understood in the context of these predecessors, Prince’s politically engaged use of erasure from the digital archive seems an attempt to beat the Trump administration to the punch, not just through ethical denunciation of their platform, but also through the very acts of deletion that would quickly come to characterize Trump’s early days in office: before the new administration had the authority to delete mentions of global warming from government websites, or discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity from the upcoming census, Prince was deleting the Trump family from the public archive of his work, along with himself as artist.

And yet such an action is crucially different from either Rauschenberg’s or Baldessari’s for two reasons, the first of which is Prince’s longstanding use of appropriation and authorial play. After all, there’s something deeply self-aware and tongue-in-cheek about his haltingly punctuated initial comment—“This is not my work. I did not make it. I deny. I denounce. This fake art”—and if we take his words here at face value, we have to acknowledge that many of the claims he makes there could be made about this work (and perhaps his career as a whole) before this denunciation. I don’t mean to suggest here that Prince is not an artist, or that he is not the artist of this work, or that Prince’s work here or elsewhere is not art—indeed, quite the opposite: as Sarah’s post earlier in this series makes clear, in an archival culture in which every image seems up for grabs, urgently in play in aesthetic, authorial, and political terms, the work of appropriation (and erasure along with it) is uniquely able to provide a necessary engagement with the questions of the moment.

Given the archival urgency of this current moment, perhaps Prince, ever in provocateur mode, is being playful about the disavowal of the image itself as well. There’s a kind of deliberate Streisand effect at work in his action, in which the more he rejects and cancels the image, the more he claims it, foregrounds it, and pushes it further into circulation as a tool of critique and resistance. By removing Ivanka Trump from his oeuvre, he simultaneously centralizes her within it, marking her, like so many of his other subjects, as a blank pop icon whose power and mythos rely upon inequity and illusion. The image hanging on Ivanka Trump’s wall both is and is not the selfie she posted on Instagram; while Prince might disavow his finished product, its digital counterpart circulates widely and publicly out of his (or her) control, in part because of this disavowal rather than in spite of it. In a charged political moment in which power hinges, as ever, on access to the archive, Prince’s cancellation of his own work draws our attention to the multiple, complex ways in which deletion, persistence, and resistance both rely upon and support one another.


There is, indeed, a mise-en-abyme quality to all of this, and I think that quality belongs, in all of the cases we have thus discussed, to artistic agency itself, which has only been taken up into the digital to find layers of artists exiting or resisting the digital. Scholarship is a slightly different matter. If the work of art is also a work of scholarship, the stakes are doubled. If the work of scholarship is also conceived as a work of art, then the stakes are perhaps quadrupled. This means maneuvering within the ecosystem becomes part of the work of art and scholarship. I think Thomas Ruff’s recent “Photograms and Negatives” series is instructive. In the case of “Nature Morte,” he used public domain, “found” prints of still-life photography and created a negative in digital space and then printed the negative as negative (making a print out of the non-existent negative but retaining the image of the digital negative in the new “positive”). The result is retro-avantgarde and semi-archaic. This series is diametrically opposed to his earlier super-large, super-saturated chromogenic prints.

In Richard Prince’s case, there is little or no real political agency in his act, even if he did return the $36,000 as the Hyperallergic article below claims. It's all symbolic and a game, in my estimation. No doubt Ivanka could sue him if in fact he rendered her print truly invalid. And no doubt Prince has a stable of lawyers at the ready given his perpetual appropriations. What is political here then returns to artistic agency. I suspect that erasure today is an artistic gesture that is for the most part in response to “too much of everything.” The Prince-Ivanka episode is in many ways the reverse -- "more sensation, more scandal." Post-digital operations in the Arts and Letters have been around for some time. The difference today is that the digital is beginning to resemble a sinister fun house at a traveling circus, and artists and authors have to increasingly find ways to evade appropriation to remain untainted by the negative effects of platform cultures and identity politics.


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