Richard Prince and the American Girlby Sharon L. Butler
I spent Black Friday in the city with my nuclear family. I wanted to see the Richard Prince show at the Guggenheim, but my eight-year-old daughter Lena was not keen on the idea. She’s a clever girl, with a fine instinct for negotiation. My husband and I eventually agreed to take her to FAO Schwartz if she’d go to the Guggenheim. In retrospect, it was like a specially curated double feature for the biggest shopping day of the year, exploring Americans’ mysterious and intimate relationship with desire.
Having navigated swarms of well-heeled people through displays of plush-toy pit bulls, Barbie paraphernalia, larger-than-life stuffed animals with $5,000 price tags, and survived the inevitable Festival of No that accompanies any shopping trip with Lena, we arrived at the museum around 3 PM. We adults were eager to proceed unimpeded to Mr. Prince’s snide riffs on pop culture. But the ticket seller, noticing our small companion, raised an eyebrow and pointed to the sign on the counter warning parents that some of the content may not be appropriate for children. If Lena had been reluctant to see the “Richie Prince” show originally, now she was curious.
We started at the top and wound our way down. When we got out of the elevator, Lena looked over the rail. This was her first visit to the Guggenheim, but she appeared to have divined Mr. Prince’s prankster spirit when she asked what would happen if she spit on the people below.
In Lena’s opinion, however, the nurse paintings were creepy. She interpreted the dripping red paint as blood. She chortled at the full-length figure wearing nothing but her underwear, and feigning boredom, took advantage of the bench to sit and play with the drawing kit she had selected earlier at the toy store. She tends to like tidy artwork that stays within the lines, but responded to the laisser-faire painterliness of Mr. Prince’s work with uncharacteristic abandon.
We continued down the curving ramp until we got to the motorcycle chicks. What eight-year old isn’t fascinated by the sight of adults behaving badly? I explained that the artist hadn’t actually taken the pictures, but had found them in the back of old motorcycle magazines. You could see her mind churning behind her eyes. “Why would men send pictures of their naked girlfriends to a magazine?” she asked. “Do the girls know they sent it? Why would the girlfriends even let them take pictures of them naked in the first place?”
These were all excellent questions, and provided one of those priceless parental opportunities for formative answers. “Well,” I said, “just remember when you have boyfriends, never let them take pictures of you without any clothes on or your picture might end up hanging on the ramp at the Guggenheim.”
“Mom,” she said, “that’s disgusting.”
The joke paintings played to Lena’s new passion for reading. I’ve dragged her to many museums and galleries in her short life, and now I know that there’s nothing like a dirty word printed in child-friendly uppercase letters to make a kid really look at art. I told her Prince was lampooning gestural abstraction, minimalism, and conceptual art in one broad stroke. She looked at me as if I had two heads, then stood for a long time reading. The joke she zoned in on was this gem: “A guy goes to his doctor and says ‘Hey doc, I got this terrible case of discolored penis.’ The doctor had never heard anything like it before and asks about his daily routine... ‘Any prescription medicine? Any unusual athletics?’ ‘Nope,’ says the guy. ‘The only thing I do anymore is lay around eating Cheetos and watching the Playboy Channel.’”
“Mom,” Lena said. “What’s a ‘pen-nis?’”
“Same as a dick or a cock,” I replied, using words about which she had asked, for better or worse, on earlier occasions.
“A penis!” she exclaimed. She was familiar with the word, but since it’s not on the third-grade reading list, she had never seen it in print before. She told her stepfather that she didn’t get the joke and asked him to explain. He suggested that she ask him again in about four years, by which time he was grimly confident that the schoolyard would take care of the answer.
The photos of Marlboro commercial images that put Prince on the map caused Lena a little crypto-feminist consternation. They honored her own love of horses, but clashed with her sense that girls as well as boys (more specifically, Marlboro Men) should be riding them.
“Why aren’t there any girls in those pictures?” she inquired plaintively. I explained that Prince was reprinting photographs that had appeared in magazine ads for cigarettes. I thought perhaps she had understood something about Prince’s determination to undermine and reframe the popular imagery that defines and idealizes what Americans want to become. This fatuous hope, of course, was unfair and unrealistic. Lena’s improbable interpretation was that girls, unlike the boys pictured in the photographs, are too smart to smoke cigarettes. I didn’t have the heart to explain the sexism inherent in America’s iconography, or the notion of latent homoeroticism. That too can wait.
The rest of Prince’s pieces were fairly easy for an eight-year-old to comprehend at least on a basic level, until we got to one of the Norman Rockwell jokes. “I collect rare photographs,” it went. “I got one where Norman Rockwell is fucking a goat.” Coming from a divorced household, Lena has overheard the word “fucking” all too often, but almost exclusively as an adjective modifying a derogatory noun such as “jerk,” “fool,” or “idiot.”
“What is ‘fucking’?” she asked hesitantly.
“Having sex,” I told her.
“Mom, that’s disgusting!” she said, giggling
We slowly made our way to the bottom of the ramp. We looked at the car sculptures and admired the way Prince took his own hotrod obsessions and translated them into objects that inexplicably made us yearn, too. I was reminded of the twelve-foot-tall Santa that greeted us at the FAO Schwartz entrance. Made entirely of little red, white, and blue Lego bricks, this plastic icon instilled the same sense of awe in adults as the idea of Santa did in children. On the ramp, Lena, now fully engaged by the show and charmed by Prince’s naughtiness, made sure people stayed outside the gray squares taped to the floor around the sculptures. Prince’s art had worked its magic. She wanted to prevent everyone else from caving in to the overwhelming urge to touch that she herself found hard to resist.
Energized by the show, Lena regaled us with some of her own jokes on the way home.
“Mom, what do you call a pig doing karate?”
“A pork chop!”
In my family, it’s an old tradition to make copies of our favorite paintings and give them as gifts. “Sweetie,” I said, “Maybe you can use one of your jokes to make me a Richard Prince knock-off for Christmas.” She refused.
“Why not?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes and gave an answer that Richard Prince himself would ruefully admire. “Can’t we just buy something at FAO Schwartz this year?”
About the Author
Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.