Richard Prince, the very famous 64-year-old artist, loved Instagram. He’d joined it in the middle of last year, when he’d gotten a new iPhone. “It’s almost like it was invented for someone like myself,” he says. “It’s like carrying around a gallery in your pocket ... Everything became easy. It was enjoyable. It reminded me of a free concert.” Prince is a member of the “pictures generation” — the group that, in the '70s, began making art out of appropriated and rephotographed mass-culture images — so the idea of being able to conveniently dip in and out of this endless river of photos, and get instant feedback on his own, enthralled him.
But Instagram is more like Disneyland than it is Soho in the ’70s, and cosmopolitan, or, for that matter, legal notions of what is obscenity do not apply in this for-profit online forum. (Instagram has been owned by Facebook since 2012.) Which is why, on the afternoon of March 5, when he pulled out his iPhone to show a friend an image while the two were having lunch near his townhouse on the Upper East Side, he was shocked. “The thing goes black on your phone, and they have a little graphic username login,” he told me the next day. “I could not, through my phone, reenter the world of Disney. It’s like Walt is behind me.”
He’d been evicted because, the day before, he’d posted a picture he’d taken of Spiritual America, his signature work from 1983. It shows 10-year-old Brooke Shields standing naked in a tub, shrouded in steam, her hair and face made up like a worldly disco-era woman’s. It’s jarring and weird and also a comment on itself, because Prince didn’t take the picture of Shields per se; a photographer named Gary Gross did, at Shields’s mother’s behest. Prince photographed the original, put it in a gilt frame, and gave it a new name, and voilà: new art. He became known for his appropriations like this, where a preexisting image was transformed, heightened, or given a new meaning after passing through the artist’s eye. Digital technology has made it almost commonplace today. “You replace rephotographing with screen grabs,” Prince notes. His pieces were the first rephotographs to top $1 million at auction.
Instagram can seem more like an ungoverned realm like the internet as a whole, not overseen by people at all, but rather by bots, or some sort of algorithm in which the only people present are the users themselves. But it’s an app, and its community guidelines are designed to keep everything civilized and orderly. On its community-guidelines page, Instagram inveighs against manipulative self-promotion because “it makes users feel sad inside." The company calls its app “a friendly place where everyone should feel safe and comfortable sharing their lives through photos and videos.” By which they actually mean that anyone should feel safe and comfortable viewing what other users put up, and by “anyone” they mean the people at Apple and Google who regulate apps and their availability. And so: “While we respect the artistic integrity of photos and videos, we have to keep our product and the content within it in line with our App Store’s rating for nudity and mature content. In other words, please do not post nudity or mature content of any kind.” When you sign up, you have to check a box to that effect.
So as it turns out, Instagram was not made for Prince after all. Or for many other people: Instagram allows anyone who comes across something he or she finds offensive to tag that post, which is then, according to Instagram, reviewed by a “trained” staff member, who can remove the image. The user then receives a form email saying, “We’ve removed something you posted on Instagram for violating our Community Guidelines,” and asking you to “remove any other content on your profile which may be in violation.” (This happened to me once, when I posted a photo of a holiday card featuring a picture by Ryan McGinley, because there was a woman’s nipple visible.) Instagram prefers to invite you towards self-censorship, so they don’t have to.
Jane Harmon, Prince’s assistant who runs his social-media accounts, says she’s been banished, too. “I guess all my stuff is a bit borderline, a bit sexual,” she says. When her shutdown happened, she says that Prince told her, “Oh, that’s so cool you got kicked off. I don’t really care.” Prince himself was similarly defiant, saying it wasn’t fun anymore.
But Instagram doesn’t want to be uncool. The young photographer Petra Collins became a kind of cause de ladyblogs last October, after her account was deleted over a picture in which a sliver of pubic hair peeked over the top of her bikini bottoms. As she told the Cut, “I try to bring in taboo topics of puberty, because I want people to have to deal with it and look at it.” She later rejoined Instagram (which blocks not only your account but your device itself, so you can’t change your name), and her new account reads: “Petra Collins account was deleted but I'm baaaaaack with a new one,” followed by an emoji of a smiling pile of poop. She has more than 28,000 followers.
Prince had been warned multiple times before he got axed: Last June, he tweeted that he’d been told “remove all naked pictures of people I’ve been posting. Praise the Fucking Lord.” Followed by: “Is Instagram some kind of religion? What do you mean 'no nudes'? That fucks up half my shit.” Oh, and a photo of his wife, topless, captioned: “My wife says Fuck You to Instagram.”
Can you blame Instagram? It’s a company in a weird spot. With millions of users, it wants to be a completely neutral, sadness-inside-free space, not a place for porn or darkness. The last thing it wants is the same old culture wars, or deciding whether someone is a “real” artist like Prince and therefore entitled to special dispensation. Instagram’s religion is ease of expression, not freedom of it, and functionality and scalability, not taboo-breaking and avant-gardism. It’s also worth noting that Prince knew he was doing something borderline: After all, Spiritual America was preemptively removed from a show at the Tate Modern in 2009 by the police, who explained they wanted the museum to “not inadvertently break the law or cause any offence to their visitors.”
“I understand the whole PG- and X-rated idea,” Prince says. “It’s not rocket science.” But, “I felt that Spritual America was an artwork, and if I crossed the line they would tell me and I could take it down. I got emails in the past.” But Instagram eventually does make good on its threat that multiple violations will shut you down. It’s hard to get in touch with someone there if you’ve been banned, and there is no discernible appeals process.
Other than, of course, being a famous artist. A couple of hours after I got in touch with someone at Instagram on the evening of March 6 to ask about Prince, he got an email:
You may have recently had trouble accessing your Instagram account. We’re sorry for the inconvenience, and you should be able to log in now. The issue we were having hasn’t affected your photos.
The Instagram Team
Their point was that the image had been removed as a violation but that the entire account should not have been shut down. Though of course it might be, if he continues his antics. The next day, an Instagram spokesperson — who was not particularly familiar with Prince or his work — told me this: “When our team processes reports, we occasionally make a mistake. In this case, we suspended this account and worked to rectify the error as soon as we were notified.” Presumably by me.
After that, Prince’s assistant, Harmon, emailed me to ask how she could get in touch with someone over there. “I would like to contact them about my own account (out of curiosity) and see what they have to say.” Prince is more sanguine: After three decades’ worth of controversies around his art and appropriation itself, he says, "Maybe I'm getting my comeuppance." And adds that he prefers to just use Twitter.