PRINT May 1992


My father is a psychopath . . . psychopaths never go out of fashion.

—Richard Prince

THE IMAGES ARE COMMONPLACE, trivially haunting, though far from innocent fantasies of the collective American mind––today’s sordid version of the American Scene. Women, some haughty and sophisticated, some crude and crass, some proudly naked and others dressed with understated grandeur, exhibit, indeed flaunt themselves, expecting us to share their narcissistic delight in their femaleness. And men—some riding horses across the Marlboro range, others mounted on even more powerfully phallic motorcycles, still others beefcake hunks filling the frame with their overwhelming bodies, their muscles like boulders on an erotic mountain too steep to scale—display their tough-guy invincibility, imperturbability, density of being. Some works zero in on the male crotch and penis, others hurl unbound breasts at us—equally imperious images of aggressive libido (or is it libidinized aggression?). These eroticized images, rephotographed from magazines and advertising, conform to a very American ideal of sexual liberation. But the appearance is fraudulent: can display of the body be “free” and unself-conscious when it is this exhibitionistic?

The one type of image epitomizes male machismo, the other female machismo. “Don’t tangle with me,” say both the men and the women of Richard Prince’s America, “or you’ll get hurt.” But Prince tangles with them, showing the dark, antisocial side of their good-natured all-American come-on. These characters are more aggressive than sexual; in fact it is their guiltless aggression—the sense that they can get away with aggression without paying any social or psychological price—that seduces us, and that makes them all-American heroes. Prince shows their virility as a media invention. Destroying their somnambulist opaqueness and inevitability by presenting them as social texts, he exposes them for the manipulative representations they are. Reduced to gamey symptoms of a corrupt system of social difference, they lose their power to intimidate.

Prince again thematizes men and women in his joke works, canvases printed with often blue stories of the kind that got laughs in high school. Yet the jokes Prince selects tend to be explicitly psychological in import. (Many allude specifically to psychiatrists.) Indeed, they deal with sex, aggression, even death; and they confirm D. H. Lawrence’s sense of the American as at heart a cold-blooded killer, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sense of the exploitive indifference that prevails between the sexes in America, under a veneer of romantic illusion. These cheap texts neatly printed on expensive-looking monochromatic canvases, graffiti on a color field, dirty the pristineness of “pure” art—another nasty joke, this time at art’s expense. The monochrome is no longer a tabula rasa, its blankness supposedly full of mystery, but a page from a comic book. (In his book Spiritual America, 1989, Prince takes many pokes at artists, such as “He was a great artist. Small human being.”)

This is Prince’s typical mixture of bad and good taste, what I call his gray humor, his sinister, offhand blend of black wit and good fun. Equal parts of the grimly transcendental and the hilariously vulgar, the transparently artificial and the seemingly natural, come seamlessly together, if with an emotional jolt. Prince nihilistically levels their difference. With a low blow, the cheap joke of kitsch culture hits the high-art monochrome in the gut, winning the fight between them by a TKO. But in revenge the monochrome diffuses the joke’s punchline, makes it a thin mirage in the wasteland of the blank painting—which becomes an emblem of American society’s search for homogeneity. The pictures of products make the point with epigrammatic brevity: they package the banal so that it looks transcendentally serious—the best way to be seductive and “sell.”

The media, Prince tells us, don’t work on the superficial levels we think they do. They want to work in depth—to control not just matter but mind. Prince exposes the grandiose wishfulness of the illusions that the media typically create, the wishfulness by which they control our needs. He accomplishes this disillusionment by subtly editing media images. We expect that these images will always look predictable, the same, which is a good part of the reason we come to believe in them and feel comforted by them. Prince does plastic surgery on them, barely noticeable but ruthless. Nipping them here and tucking them there, he makes us uneasy—we begin to feel an unconscious anxiety, the beginnings of distrust. Though they look unchanged at first glance, the images soon seem weird, less believable. Something about them is wrong, “off”—but we don’t know what.

It is enough to disturb the syntax of the image to make it seem disturbing, make it seem incomplete and inadequate. It hops around in our minds like a lame duck, ripe for the kill: the revelation of what it is really about. Prince’s editing, or editorializing, makes the media image self-ironic, even suicidal, for it now lets us in on the joke that it is itself only a representation, not a reality, and so has no necessity. Yet it still signals something strongly felt, however elusive, “out there.” Stripping away the protective media glossiness that kept these images’ contents on ice, Prince reveals a startling, raw, very real heat. His works are not so much appropriations of media images as sardonic re-originations of them, exposing the concept of the human they implicitly propose.

This nasty operation of peeling back American society’s skin, revealing an incurably cancerous condition, Prince also performs on “pure” art. Ostensibly the antithesis of materialistic mass-media imagery, pure art actually signifies American spirituality in all its bankruptcy. It encodes an eager desire for utopian purity, that is, for a world without instinct, but it is also crudely “driven,” though the packaging in which it conceals its raw drives amounts to a subliminally puritan defanging of them. Prince destroys the “naturalness” of both “pure” and media images, and above all suggests that they signify more than they think. They are not as user-friendly as they seem: they are psychopathic signs.

The psychopath is a misfit—fundamentally antisocial. D. W. Winnicott thinks that psychopaths are people trying to deal with the depression induced by deprivation, and seeking the necessary compensatory emotional attention through exhibitionistic, arbitrary violence. (The slick-surfaced voids of Prince’s monochromes suggest this sensory deprivation, which, to the psychopath, justifies any cruel action.) Psychopaths are slick, cold, and isolated—like virtually all the characters in Prince’s all-American cast. I want to suggest that these characters, male and female, are surrogates for Prince’s father. For this man, as Prince has acknowledged, was the original psychopath in his life. He seems to have been a gunrunner, among other quasi-military activities at the edge of the law. Prince describes him as “one of those imaginative criminals who wakes up in the morning and almost makes a resolution to perform some sort of deviant or antisocial act, even if it’s just sort of kicking the dog. He says he does this to establish his own freedom.”1

In an ingenious act of ultimate antisociality, Prince’s father invaded “people’s lives with the very products they produce.” He knew “how to undermine your situation with what you think you already own and what you think you might control.” He could “thus destabilize what was expected to be everyday pedestrian reality.”2 This man—a semimythical creature in Prince’s eyes?—exerted power over people by showing them that they actually had no power over what they took for granted as their own. He is clearly Prince’s role model. But the artist uses his father’s subversiveness to expose the cold-blooded antisociality in American-type heroes and heroines, and above all to convey the sense of deprivation that makes them range America alone.

Perhaps Prince thinks he is suggesting the hidden dementia of which these characters are themselves unaware. Yet his images often seem, however perversely, to idolize them in all their fascism, confirming the reverence American society has for their mystique. The strong silent Marlboro Man and the high-fashion model and slut, the fancy products and the comic-strip characters, are, after all, more than entertaining. They are ingrained in the American psyche—which is why it is so difficult to debunk them, and the cruelty they represent in American life.

Donald Kuspit is Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Andrew Dixon White Professor at Large at Cornell University. His forthcoming book is entitled The Dialectic of Decadence.



1. Richard Prince, Spiritual America, New York: Aperture, and Valencia: IVAM, 1989, p. 10.

2. Ibid.