"Spiritual America offers [commentary about] the power of images in our society and the freedom we have, ultimately, to decide for ourselves what their agendas might be, provided that we take the opportunity to look beneath the surface." - Nancy Spector
Spiritual America is arguably Richard Prince's best-known and most audacious act of appropriation. Alongside his early re-photographed magazine advertisements, this image did much to establish Prince's reputation as an agent provocateur of the art world, whose practice examines notions of artistic subjectivity and originality while casting doubt on the authority of photographic images. Both the suggestive image of a young Brooke Shields and the work's title have been taken from the public domain and re-presented to the viewer as an object for contemplation and critique. Prince has, in Marcel Duchamp's words, "created a new thought for that object" by dislocating the image from its original context and enlisting it into his own conceptual program.
The title Spiritual America comes from Alfred Stieglitz's 1923 photograph of a gelded horse's hindquarters--a famously ironic commentary on America's culturally repressed society. Stieglitz, the father of modernist photography, would likely have been outraged by Prince's appropriation of the present image as he believed in the purity of high culture and claimed a value for photography as a revealer of truths. But Prince belongs to a generation of artists including Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Cindy Sherman, among others, who began using photographic procedures to undermine the modernist myths of authenticity, authorship, and the antipathy between so-called high and low art. Dubbed the 'Pictures Generation' after an exhibition and essay produced by art historian Douglas Crimp, their various practices promoted a radical interrogation into the very nature of representation and its reliability. "We are not in search of the sources or origins," wrote Crimp, "but of structures of signification: underneath every picture is another picture," (D. Crimp, 'Pictures', October, no. 8, spring 1979, p. 87). As a leading light of this group, Prince turned his lens on the products of popular culture to address the way images mediate our experiences and desires, and define our sense of reality.
The genesis of Prince's Spiritual America is well-documented as the circumstances surrounding its production provide an important contextual framework for the artist's intent, as well as the image's subsequent critical reception. In 1977, Prince had begun the simple yet controversial act of photographing advertisements he came across during his job in the tear-sheet department of Time/Life publications. By isolating images of models and luxury goods from their accompanying copy, he revealed a succession of highly codified visual clichés laden with cultural, social and political meaning. His aim was to expose their inherent artifice: "Most of what's passing for information right now is total fiction," Prince observed. "I try to turn the lie back on itself," (R. Prince, quoted in K. McKenna, 'On Photography: Looking for Truth Between the Lies', Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1985, p. 91). Being schooled in the strategies of 1960s Pop Art, Prince sought to convey the way photographs manipulate viewers via insinuated desire, and it was this fixation that drew him to his most contentious subject.
In the spring of 1983, newspapers were extensively reporting on the legal battle over a series of Brooke Shields photos taken in 1976, when the actress was ten years old. Shields' mother Teri was contesting the rights of the commercial photographer, Gary Gross, to publish the images as posters although she had signed a release form giving him unlimited rights (for a fee of $450) at the time of the shoot. Gross had photographed Brooke when she was still an unknown child model, using the images in a self-published booklet entitled Little Women and in the Playboy Press book Sugar & Spice: Surprising and Sensuous Images of Women. Two years later, Shields was catapulted to fame for her role as a child prostitute in the film Pretty Baby, followed by the sensuous film Blue Lagoon in 1980, and the provocative advertising campaign for Calvin Klein Jeans in which the then-15-year-old asks: "You know what comes between me and my Calvin's? Nothing!" Gross's lawyers argued that his photographs could not damage Shields' reputation because she had since established a lucrative career based on her profile as a sex symbol. The judge concurred and ruled that children cannot break a contract signed by a parent or guardian. That decision was overturned by an appeals court, but in 1983 the original verdict in Gross' favour was upheld.
Prince was drawn to the controversy surrounding the ownership of these images and, as they were never reproduced in the reportage, he set out to find out what the fuss was about. "Without a visual reference I had no way of telling who was right, who was wrong...everything seemed clandestine. Cold war. Paranoid. Skeletons in a closet. Bad penny. I needed a picture instead of words. I needed visual proof," he recently wrote on his blog (R. Prince, 'Birdtalk', March 27, 2014, accessed via www.richardprince.com, April 6, 2014). He managed to borrow a copy of the Little Women booklet from a friend working at a photography agency and was astounded by what he found: "There was Brooke standing in a tub completely naked with her arms outstretched like she was Jesus on the cross...her boy body oiled and shiny, with just the tiniest bit of make-up on her cheeks and rouge on her lips. The image hit me. It was "alive." Where did it come from? Who was its maker? It wasn't born. It was fully formed. There was no history to the image, no future. Independent and on its own...free from any and all authorship [...] This was what all the 'hub-bub' was about. I got it. And of course I agreed. This was a 'complicated' photograph. This no longer had anything to do with money or censorship or even embarrassment. For me this photograph had to do with the medium and how the medium can get out of hand," (R. Prince, ibid.).
In keeping with his existing process for the advertisement-based photographs, Prince shot the reproduced image on slide film, documenting the picture as if it were an object, a cultural artifact or a still life. Within a few days he blew the slightly cropped picture up into an 8 x 10 inch print and decided that it would be the centerpiece for his next show. The work would not be fully realized, however, until the image was bestowed with its title, which he discovered at a photography exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum around the same time. Prince then presented the gold-framed work alone in a store-front gallery space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which he also named 'Spiritual America.'
The installation of the invite-only show almost took on the shape of a performance as it deliberately compromised the supposed neutrality of the gallery space and put normally passive art observers in the position of voyeurs. As Rosetta Brookes remembers: "Visitors were made to feel complicit in a crime. As a result of the hearsay or art world gossip and staged controversy, the very act of visiting the show forced every viewer to overstep the normal threshold of indifference (the gallery), denying us the objectivity we are usually allowed to adopt [...] Prince's action was criminally simple: by exhibiting the photo he made it an overt cover for a range of non-aesthetic responses, from mild curiosity to scopophilia. By opening the gallery for the sole reason of showing this one photo, Prince ensured that there was no other reason for visiting the gallery other than to see a picture of the naked Brooke Shields as a child," (R. Brooks, 'Spiritual America: No Holds Barred', Richard Prince, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, 1992, pp. 88-90).
For the duration of the exhibition, Prince was conspicuously absent, leaving only a receptionist to deal with the profusion of rumors, innuendo, and largely unsubstantiated reports that swirled around it. The event incited a cause clbre amongst New York's art scene and the debate over what the artwork means, what is suggests and what it may or may not represent continues to this day. Of course the representation of sexualized young girls has long been the stuff of art, theatre, literature and film. Paul Gauguin's Polynesian muses, Edvard Munch's anxious pubescent girls, and the boundary-pushing poses rendered by Balthus are just a few examples of painterly erotic allusions thinly disguised by a veneer of over-sentimental innocence. Yet the aesthetic removal necessitated by painting is largely dissolved in the realm of photography as the reality of the sitter is undeniable; hence the outrage over such varied works as Lewis Carroll's 1858 portrait of Alice Liddell, the family portraits of American photographer Sally Mann, and Annie Leibovitz's 2008 portrait of Miley Cyrus for Vanity Fair. Perhaps the girls' seemingly come hither gazes-more than any exposed -is what viewers find so alluring and unsettling in these images. They are scandalized by being forced to engage with the subject like the first viewers of Manet's knowing Olympia were.
The difference between these images and Spiritual America is Prince's decentered position as the author of the artwork. Teri Shields had, after all, been the one to offer her daughter's sexuality as commodity to the American public, and Garry Gross obliged with some artfully composed shots. Prince would almost certainly have avoided the photograph had it not depicted a celebrity at the height of her fame, as evidenced by his subsequent representation of stars-as-products in the Publicity Stills photo-assemblages. But the very act of rephotographing this particular image enabled Prince to not only draw attention to the implied intentions and desires of the photographer, but also to implicate the viewer in the consumption of such pictures.
Part of the quandary surrounding this artwork lies in Prince's lack of an explicit political stand on the content of the photo. Having established a deconstructive mode of practice typical of postmodern artists, Prince's modus operandi replaced the traditional heroic and subjective authority of the artist with an ambiguous and unstable anti-heroic presence. He assumes the role of an editor or funnel of mass culture's often-tawdry imagery but is reticent in hitting the viewer over the head about what it signifies. His preference is to raise consciousness rather than selling us solutions. Therefore, when it comes to representing the more troubling aspects of our culture-such as the exploitation, commodification and fetishization that drives the consumer-entertainment complex-Prince points the way to image literacy but does not attempt to deliver us. His work, Nancy Spector notes, "continually jettisons the safety net of good taste and political correctness to show the underlying facts of our most cherished fictions. Sure, Gross's photograph can be reduced to little more than a heavily art-directed example of child pornography and Prince's appropriation of it just an exercise in voyeurism, a highbrow excuse for titillation. But that would miss the commentary Spiritual America offers about the power of images in our society and the freedom we have, ultimately, to decide for ourselves what their agendas might be, provided that we take the opportunity to look beneath the surface," (N. Spector, "Nowhere Man", Richard Prince, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2007, p. 48).
Prince has faced a great deal of fallout from those unable or unwilling to understand his motivation in re-purposing this picture. Like Stieglitz, Prince's reference to spirituality offers an appraisal on stifling nature of this moralizing tendency while simultaneously denoting society's bankrupt virtues. But is he deconstructing the regressive sociosexual stereotype of the 'nymphet' or is he playing up to it? The answer can perhaps be found by examining his overall body of work, and even his avid collecting habits, both of which can be seen as a form of cultural anthropology. His interest in cowboys, biker chicks, naughty nurses, Play Boy jokes, and muscle car paraphernalia all play with standardizations of femininity and masculinity, while his photos of long-haired 1980s rockers, self-portraits in full make-up, and recent hermaphroditic de Kooning paintings suggest a much more fluid conception of gender. The androgynous body and painted face of Brooke Shields clearly belongs amongst the latter group.
Perhaps Prince's extremely varied oeuvre communicates a struggle to uncover the socially determined definition of what it means to be a man. Masculinity is certainly embedded in this image, both in terms of the audience it was originally intended for and in the young Shields' as yet unformed body. Stieglitz also pointed to masculinity (or a lack thereof) in his own version of Spiritual America. When asked if he rejected the socially constructed model of an 'acceptable' masculine persona, Prince replied: "What it means to be a man is difficult. There have been times when it's been very uncomfortable for me. It's not necessarily been me. Often what I show in the works is my observations of other types of male behavior, and it depresses me. As a male, I possibly associated or included myself in a kind of generalization. But mostly I think it comes from observation," (R. Prince, quoted in R. Wallis, 'Conversation with Richard Prince', Art in America, vol. 81, no. 11, November 1993, p. 117).