The image of the cowboy is immediately recognizable as a symbol of the American west. The wide brimmed hats and spurs are so attractive to American consumers that share a national memory of wide open planes that were the stage for grand battles against savagery to civilize the wild. In order to tap in to this national consciousness, Marlboro appropriated these signifiers of freedom and danger on their cigarette cartons, just as the health implications of smoking were becoming devastatingly apparent. "[Cowboys] represent the country's most undeniable image of itself and as such pass through culture with no friction. They are dismissible generic signifiers, and at the point when Prince chose them, they had ceased even to be employed as ubiquitous ads for Marlboro cigarettes; they had been cut loose and were resting somewhere in the sediment of culture," (R. Brooks, Richard Prince, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1992, pg. 96). Prince foregrounds Marlboro's re-appropriation of the cowboy by cropping the original image, removing any captions, and re-photographing it, creating his own work of art through a similar means of mimesis. This self-conscious act of appropriation exposes the manner in which a potent symbol can become unmoored from what it originally signified--in the case of the cowboy, unbound freedom--by continually being recycled by the advertising industry to sell cheap products. By recapturing this image, Prince exposes how the American cowboy died and the American consumer was born.
In 1890, one hundred years before Prince created this work, the Superintendent of the United States Census declared the western frontier dead, explaining that all of the land had been explored, and much was already settled. Historian Fredrick Jackson Turner immediately recognized that the closure of this free expanse would significantly alter American culture: "American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character," (The Frontier in American History, accessed on http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/turner/).
Though the frontier was closed, the American public was still addicted to its mythic promise of unbound freedom. The growing field of mass advertising harnessed the potency of this myth embodied in the image of the cowboy. By continuing to depict the cowboy on billboards and cigarette cartons, marketers underscored the annihilation of the frontier. "According to (...) [René Girard's theory of 'mimetic rivalry'] and in direct opposition to the Renaissance idea that claims that the original is celebrated by copying it, mimesis--whether of an object or a person--kills that which is being copied. In this sense, rather than the image representing and containing life, it ultimately contains death: the death of the referent" (R. Brooks, "A Prince of Light or Darkness," R. Brooks, J. Rian and L. Sante, eds. Richard Prince, Phaidon, New York, p. 53). The image of the cowboy, which was sanctified in a time when the lifestyle they represented was a possibility, was continually profaned the more it was plastered on empty products promising to fill the void in the American consumer. The positioning of the cowboy and the horse in Prince's photograph directly references the shift by which mimesis moved from an act of veneration to an act of violence.
Unlike the many iterations of the Cowboy series that often depict cowboys riding their horses against beautiful sunsets or sharing cigarettes in an accommodating landscape, this cowboy is actively struggling to tame the wild beast. Unlike the famed Stieglitz photograph Spiritual America, which depicts a domesticated horse as an early commentary on similar themes that Prince explores, this horse evades the domesticating hand of the cowboy. This scene belongs in the canon of paintings depicting man's battle with the wild, a theme as old as art itself.
The myths and religions that are the foundation of society all contain the theme of good battling evil, the righteous conquering armies of darkness. One such myth, Saint George doing battle with the Dragon, has been repainted by generations of artists for centuries, including masters such as Raphael. Saint George, the symbol for Christendom, showcased the strength of god-fearing men against all that was seen as dark and unholy by smiting the dragon. For most of human history, these images have been held up as sanctimonious objects of reverence. They were created in a time where there was still a vast unknown, a potential for good to prevail over a lurking evil in far off lands. With the death of frontiers and their promise of encounters with the unknown, came an emptiness that made such images of heroic battle kitsch.
Prince understands that his artistic practice must reflect the death of this sanctity--a mutually embraced tenant of his fellow artists that came of age in the early 1970s, known as the Pictures Generation. These artists including Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Jack Goldstein among others, came of age when American culture faced a similar identity crisis as it did after 1890--American patriotism was crumbling in the light of Vietnam and Watergate, the nuclear family eroded as the women's and gay liberation movements exposed the repression that this unit was rooted in and French philosophers such as Michel Foucault asserted that identity was not inherent but manufactured through highly refined social constructions, including the mass media and consumer culture that was at an all-time high. These artists abandoned the artistic modes of the past in favor of photography, performance, and video--mediums that best reflected the time. Even as 21stcentury consumer culture has evolved into a globalized digitized juggernaut, Prince's cowboys still tell the tale of how consumerism began. The time-honored image of the cowboy, continually recycled, can never fail to remind the viewer of how images are constructed and more broadly how these visual constructions reflect the social apparatus that controls human desire.