American artist Richard Prince has made a career out of presenting images from popular culture, minimally altered, as his own. In a 1977 essay, Prince wondered aloud why “certain records sound better when someone on the radio station plays them, than when we’re home alone, and play the same records ourselves.” This observation indicates that Prince’s interests in the popular cultural object is less about authorship and originality as is often claimed, but more about the location of meaning. The most personal relevance a listener takes from a popular song, may in fact be shared by any number of other listeners. Consumed collectively, the popular culture object is both the most individual site of personally specific meaning, and the most generalised and public of all meaningful encounters.
Whether it is a familiar song played by someone else, or another’s words that convey an experience better than anything original we could say, or a public image that captures something uniquely personal, meaning is seen to be not as fixed as we might assume. Nor is it the exclusive property of the individual subject, meaning flows and mutates and is recast anew as passes through subject after subject. The words uttered by Frank Miller’s character Dwight McCarthy expressing regret and a desire to make things better for himself in a high contrast frame from ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’, are tied to that original graphic novel context but are simultaneously removed from it. They are McCarthy’s words, they are Miller’s words, they are Whitlam’s words and they are your words. Who hasn’t screwed up and yearned for the chance to “wipe the slate clean?”