Richard Prince, Roland Barthes, & Remythologizing the Myth of the Cowboy

Richard Prince came to the attention of the art world in the 1980s for appropriating the Marlboro Man advertisements into his own photographs. Eventually one of his Cowboy photographs would become the first photo sold for more than $1 million, but is...

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Nov 14 2013, 5:02pm

Image by Courtney Nicholas

Richard Prince came to the attention of the art world in the 1980s for appropriating the Marlboro Man advertisements into his own photographs. When he started appropriating images he was working at Time-Life in the tear-sheet department. “At the end of the day, all I was left with was the advertising images, and it became my subject.” He would rephotograph the advertisementsand then crop them to remove the text and most references to the cigarettes they were selling. Eventually one of his Cowboy photographs would become the first photo sold for more than $1 million. In 2007 he reset the record price for a photograph by selling “Untitled (Cowboy)” for $3,401,000 at an auction.

Richard’s use of Malboro men is a particularly unique situation because it reverses the usual direction of artistic appropriation. Where advertisements usually assimilate a range of cultural references, from high art to lowbrow humor, it wasn’t until Warhol that artists turned on advertising and began appropriating right back. Richard’s work is an extreme example of this appropriation, and thus a great locus for studying the art world’s re-mythologization of myth—a subject Roland Barthes famously deconstructed in his series essays on pop culture as modern-day myths, collected in Mythologies.  Richard has expressed his contempt for Barthian analysis of his work—the notion that he is simply “stealing” from the ads and calling it “appropriation”—but this seems like a lowbrow stance against highbrow criticism as a defensive measure. It is not that Barthes shouldn’t be applied to his work; it is more like Richard is making a preemptive strike against such criticism because it could categorize his work very well.

The original Marlboro advertisements that he uses are examples of Barthes’s definition of myth creation. The ads work because of their utilization of the images of the cowboy and the American West. In the essay “Myth Today,” Barthes expands the Saussurian model for signification of language into a two-tiered system for mythic signification. In this system, the third component of the first tier, the sign, becomes the signifier or form for the second tier.  Thus the original advertisements are playing with the signification that results from the image of the cowboy on the range. Because we are dealing with aprimarily visual image the impact is almost immediate. There is nothing equivocal about the motivation behind the image of the cowboy. Cowboys are rugged, they work in nature in a masculine profession, and they possess an aura of self-reliant individualism. In our present age, most of this refers to myths derived from film and television depictions. These aspects of the cowboy form have been cut off from their original context and implications and only the most attractive aspects implied by cowboys are present—there are no traces of saddle sores, cold nights, or American Indian genocide. 

Richard’s appropriation becomes effacement because Richard adds a layer of meaning: he is able to reexamine the ideology woven into the original advertisements and what this says about predominant myths of America. There are two major periods for the cowboy series—one from the 80s and one from the 90s—and they differ in execution and implication. In the first series, he has done nothing to the original images except rephotograph them and then crop so that the Marlboro text is omitted. The reproduction process in this early series is cruder and the images are made grainier. In addition, the original images are more obscure, since smaller portions of the advertisement are framed. All of these aspects serve to defamiliarize the image, while still maintaining the connection to the original context. The viewer is able to see the cowboys with just enough displacement to jar him into noticing what the artist wants to convey. 

However, the ultimate level of signification and motivation of his pieces are uncertain because this Cowboy series recontextualizes advertisement images, which already heavily depend on myth. In the Barthian sense of myth, the advertising images, like the Marlboro Man Richard draws on, are already mythologized versions of American cowboy myths, which have been reconfigured to sell cigarettes. The  artwork strips away the advertising connotations of the original, but they never fully lose their context as they are so ingrained in American culture, focusing the pieces on the basic manipulations of form through photographic techniques. Thus the Cowboy series is not a critique of the cigarette advertising, it is a manipulation of mythic ideologies that originally informed the advertisements, specifically highlighting American myths and the pervasive power of advertising—all by deconstructing cigarette ads.

Richard chooses to make an overt nod to the cowboy ads by inserting the Marlboro name and cigarette-box icon, which makes the final link to Barthes’s argument by highlighting the relationship between the idealized cowboy state and smoking—suggesting that if one smokes this type of cigarette, he will make immediately be living this lifestyle. This promise of a connection through a cigarette is especially ironic because the lifestyle depicted has never existed except in myth. In some of Richard’s photographs, the cowboys aren’t even smoking, but the icon and bold stentorian, quasi-Old English script function as a clear caption, which establishes the cigarettes as the connection between viewer and image. 

The original composition is still as striking as it was designed to be, but some of the patina has been dulled. By breaking just enough of the formal elements of the original, Richard reveals something of the cowboys underneath the glossy compositions. What he reveals can never be “real” cowboys, or cowboys in the experiential sense of what it means to be a cowboy, whethernow or in the past two centuries.. Butthe signifiers in the Marlboro advertisements are supercharged with a particular type of signification: behind this there is a very conscious motivation of capturing theindividuality and masculinity ofthe cowboy. 

He is perhaps the most important artist working in reappropriation and was the subject of a retrospective show, Spiritual America, at the Guggenheim in 2007, the valence of his motivation is not as easy to categorize as a simple criticism of American an ideology.  In an article on his work, Eleanor Heartley questions his intention to critique the myths of his appropriated images. She sees a progression from less formalized pieces, such as the cowboys of the 80s, to much more structured and expressive pieces, like the cowboys of the 90s. The later cowboy series involves much more polished images. This series is dominated by vivid sprawling landscapes reproduced with considerably less grain than the series from the 80s. And the cowboys themselves have been moved to the background.  The result is a much closer relationship to the original advertisements. The glossiness of the execution makes the image just as seductive as the original. In fact, the only thing that cues one into it as a critique is the heightened, unnatural glossiness. The boundary between advertisement and life is blurred, and for Heartley, Richard's intentions are blurred. She wonders if his work is in fact to be taken for a critique of masculine American ideology or if it is a celebration of it. Richard gets away with both. He gets the sexiness and allure of the advertisements while criticizing the content that he has taken.

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