10 Artists Who Rebelled against the Patrons and Institutions That Supported Their Work
On the December 17, 1977, edition of Saturday Night Live, guest musician Elvis Costello cut short his performance of the label-approved single “Less Than Zero,” launching his band into a scorching rendition of “Radio, Radio,” a diatribe against corporate-controlled broadcasting. “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me,” he wailed, “I wanna bite that hand so badly….” Costello, then at the cusp of international stardom, wasn’t invited back to the show until 1989. Of course, his career didn’t ultimately suffer; in fact, his act of defiance had the opposite effect, cementing his status as a provocative showman.
Costello belongs to a long tradition of artists biting the hands that feed them, even though their livelihoods and successes so frequently depend on the positive opinions and good graces of their patrons, critics, and dealers. Perhaps such rebelliousness stems from a natural inclination, one that contributed to their creative careers in the first place. Maybe it’s the knowledge that dissenters often make the history books; unaccepting of prevailing dogmas, they shift perspectives in novel ways.
No matter the motivation, over the centuries, artists have devised many methods to question—and in some cases, undermine—the individuals and institutions that support their work. The 10 artists detailed below have made unforgettable statements against pushy collectors, patrons with checkered political careers, and institutions perpetrating social injustice. They offer models for how artists might engage an art world increasingly tangled up in private interests and ethical concerns.
Since the very start of his career in the 1960s, Hans Haacke has taken aim at seemingly untouchable organizations with rigorous, journalistic projects examining their economic and social underpinnings. In the early 1970s, two major New York museums found themselves in the artist’s crosshairs. For “Information,” a group show curated by Kynaston McShine at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970, Haacke presented the deceptively simple MoMA Poll. Visitors to the exhibition were posed with the question: “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November?” They were then invited to drop their answers into two Plexiglas ballot boxes. (Viewers voted “yes” twice as often as “no.”) The participatory work singled out the New York governor, who happened to be a member of MoMA’s board of trustees in the midst of planning a run for president. To their credit, the museum and McShine did not make any alterations to the work or censor it in any way.
A project planned for the artist’s doomed 1971 Guggenheim Museum retrospective met a different fate. Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971) systematically detailed the New York real estate empire’s prolific assets (and corresponding shell corporations). Six weeks before the opening, museum director Thomas Messer, wary of the work’s political overtones, demanded Haacke remove it. When he refused, Messer fired the curator and cancelled the exhibition. The incident only bolstered Haacke’s rabble-rousing reputation, especially after more than 100 prominent colleagues refused to show at the Guggenheim in solidarity.
French artist Jacques Louis-David, a pioneer of the predominant
Alas, the Revolution was brewing, and the exorbitantly expensive painting was denied public display at the 1789 Paris Salon in fear that it would provoke anti-aristocratic sentiment. As a tax collector for the crown, Lavoisier belonged to a class of financiers whose ever-increasing wealth precipitated their downfall. When the war did come, David, a favorite of the royal family and a champion of the Enlightenment’s humanist values, cannily sided with Robespierre. He ended up voting for Lavoisier’s execution, who was guillotined in 1794.
A hostile legal battle that raged between collector Bert Kreuk and artist Danh Vō from 2013 to 2015 exemplifies the fragility—and contentiousness—of the artist-patron relationship. The Dutch collector sued Vō for €898,000 (approximately $1.2 million), alleging that the Danish-Vietnamese artist had neglected to deliver artwork he had commissioned for an exhibition of his collection at The Hague’s Gemeentemuseum. Vō denied the claim entirely, asserting that a formal agreement to produce the work had never been reached.
When the Rotterdam judge initially ruled in Kreuk’s favor, ordering Vō to produce a new work within a year, the artist agreed to fulfill the terms of the verdict, proposing in a letter to Kreuk:
“I will have my father Phung Vo execute a site specific wall work, in which he writes out the following sentence indicated below; it is a line delivered by the demon from the film ‘The Exorcist’, which – as you may know – constitutes a source of inspiration for my latest body of work. You may voice your preferences with regard to its design (as far as a selection of fonts and colors are concerned) and manifestation to the extent it will become as impressive and large as you find fitting for the amount of $350,000: SHOVE IT UP YOUR ASS, YOU FAGGOT”
Unsurprisingly, Kreuk passed on this offer and the case continued.
Although all parties ultimately agreed to withdraw their claims, the fallout from the lawsuit continued into the next year, when the prestigious Vincent van Gogh Biennial Award for Contemporary Art in Europe, to be hosted by the Gemeentemuseum, was suspended. Two of the 2016 nominees for the award—
Peering through the dingy window of an abandoned storefront in New York’s East Village in April 1967, passersby witnessed roughly modeled sculptures of everyday objects—a lumpy pie, a folded men’s shirt—and a giant ice cream cone suspended from space’s ceiling. Whether they realized it or not, the installation was a near-perfect copy of “The Store by Claes Oldenburg,” a project that had debuted six years prior just a few blocks away. In fact, this was, as a poster stated, “The Store of Claes Oldenburg” by a young female artist who went by a single name: Sturtevant.
Sturtevant had already begun to establish herself among the avant-garde for her exhibitions that appropriated works by better-known male peers like
Industrialist tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. commissioned Diego Rivera to paint a mural in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center in 1932. Aware of the Mexican artist’s radical, leftist politics, the Rockefellers provided Rivera with a contract that detailed exactly the scene they wanted: a man at a crossroads, looking with uncertainty but hope towards a new and better future. Rivera’s original sketch, and what he agreed to paint, seemed to follow this theme.
Left-wing organizations and Communist groups, however, challenged Rivera for accepting the commission. Whether buoyed by that provocation or his own dissatisfaction with the assignment, Rivera altered his design. Instead of a futuristic paeon to technology and the brotherhood of man, Man at the Crossroads (1932–34) teemed with hundreds of characters illustrating the day’s dominant political ideologies. But the inclusion of Vladimir Lenin caused the most debate (and, to his patron’s intense dissatisfaction, a likeness of John Jr. sipping martinis with a prostitute flanking Lenin’s other side).
After the New YorkWorld-Telegram ran the headline “Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. Jr. Foots the Bill,” the Rockefellers pleaded with Rivera to redo the mural, but the artist declared that he’d rather see the work destroyed than mutilated. “If someone buys the Sistine Chapel,” he wrote in a letter, “does he have the authority to destroy it?” Rivera was paid and dismissed, the frescoed mural covered up and later chiseled off. In 1934, he made a new version entitled Man, Controller of the Universe, which is still on display in Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes.
Neck-craning visitors to the Sistine Chapel may not readily spot one of the most charged moments in Michelangelo’s masterpiece (and no, it’s not the infinitesimal space between God and Adam’s outstretched hands).
On the ceiling over the chapel’s east entrance sits Zechariah, a late prophet who foretold the entry into Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah. Zechariah dutifully reads a book as two young angels peer over his shoulder. As a tribute to Pope Julius II, Michelangelo painted his patron’s face on the prophet’s body. This conventional, deferential gesture, however, is not what it seems.
Nicknamed the “Warrior Pope,” Julius was openly referred to as Il Papa Terribile. Over the four arduous years Michelangelo spent painting the Pope’s private chapel, the artist couldn’t hold back his disdain for the church’s corruption. If one looks closely at the innocent cherubs, a loaded message is revealed. One figure, his arm draped around his companion’s shoulder, offers a delicate hand gesture: a thumb stuck between index and middle fingers. Called “the fig,” this old-world sign essentially means “fuck you.”
How did Michelangelo get away with it? A build up of soot and the height of the painting prevented it from being easily noticed. Three decades later, the artist was invited back to paint the Last Judgment. Apparently not satisfied with his previous prank, he chose to depict the gaping mouth of hell on the wall directly behind the altar.
The bevy of attempts today by major institutions to address their own (often racist) histories and to correct gaps in their programming may stem from one culture-jamming curatorial intervention: Fred Wilson’s watershed exhibition “Mining the Museum,” presented at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992. The artist reshuffled artifacts in the museum’s collection to highlight the noticeably absent history of African-Americans in its permanent display. To render the invisible visible, Wilson mimicked the usual methods of museum displays, but suggested alternative narratives through the strategic juxtaposition of objects in the museum’s holdings, unearthing rarely displayed pieces relating to racially charged moments in Maryland’s history.
“What they put on view says a lot about a museum,” Wilson said in an interview, “but what they don’t put on view says even more.” Unlike other instances of institutional critique, Wilson’s presentation was suggestive rather than didactic, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions. For example, the section titled “Metalwork 1793–1880” paired ornate silver tableware with iron slave shackles, creating a visual link between the two to imply how the production of silver was enabled by forced slave labor. Another section, “Modes of Transport,” featured a vintage pram in which Wilson had substituted a Ku Klux Klan hood for bedding. Next to the carriage hung a photograph depicting black nannies with white babies.
Wilson’s intervention created awareness of the biases that often underlie historical exhibitions. He asked a simple question: Who are museums for? Appropriately, he introduced the exhibition with a large sign on the façade of the Historical Society heralding “another” history now being told inside.
The question of what constitutes a work of art, and who ultimately ascribes its meaning, has been in flux for decades, if not centuries. In 1961, enfant terrible Robert Rauschenberg was faced with such a question. The up-and-coming artist was invited to take part in the inaugural exhibition at Galerie Iris Clert in Paris, for which 41 artists were asked to contribute a portrait of the titular dealer. Calvin Tomkins reported that Rauschenberg, then in Sweden installing another exhibition, forgot to produce the portrait he had promised. To make up for his error, he sent a telegram that simply read “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so” for inclusion in the show.
Rauschenberg’s conceptual portrait upended the conventions of the medium, eschewing mimesis for the authority of the artist’s subjective point of view. This gesture marked a midpoint in the 20th-century evolution of symbolic, abstract, and conceptual portraiture that extends from
Clad only in black Gucci underwear and heels, Andrea Fraser declares: “Today I’m not a person. I’m an object in a work of art.” It’s 2001, and the artist is in the middle of enacting her latest work, Official Welcome. Commissioned by the MICA Foundation, the performance was first staged at a private reception held at the New York home of collectors Howard and Barbara Morse (the foundation’s president).
Fraser, still fully clothed, stood behind a podium and welcomed the audience of wealthy collectors to a ceremony to award a fictional prize to a fictional artist. Alternating between the roles of effusive presenter and falsely modest artist, Fraser spouted every cliché in the book. The parody became more grotesque; mid-speech, she stripped down to her underwear, a suggestion of both the exhibitionism inherent to presenting art, as well as women’s frequent objectification. She disrobed completely as the performance unraveled further. Fraser fearlessly reached her conclusion stark naked, addressing the tersely symbiotic relationship between artist and patron—and delivering her critique right in her benefactor’s face.
In 2007, the fledgling Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art sued Christoph Büchel over an uncompleted commission. The Swiss artist’s installation, entitled Training Ground for Democracy, was conceived as a dense, sprawling configuration of objects and materials that would satirize the U.S. military training that helped soldiers adapt to unfamiliar cultures and other politically-charged themes.
Almost immediately, the relationship soured. Büchel, the museum contended in court, was difficult to work with, making so many demands and changes to the project as it was being built that its initial budget nearly doubled, from $160,000 to $300,000. Right from the beginning, the museum was worried. A dominant element of the work—in which a two-story Cape Cod–style house was cut into pieces, then reassembled in the museum—had set Mass MOCA back about $100,000. It refused to procure the additional materials Büchel requested, among them the fuselage of a 727 jetliner and several full-size shipping containers.
Mass MOCA described the artist as a control freak who fretted over small details like the placement of a dirty rag hanging near a jail-cell sink, or the look of an old bag of sunflower seeds set on top of a television, and began to suspect that there might not be an end to Büchel’s vision for the space. Yet Mass MOCA felt a responsibility to deliver a show to its public, and—despite the artist’s opposition—decided to exhibit the incomplete work, partially obscured by tarps. Seeking authorization to remove the tarps led the museum to court. While the ruling went in the museum’s favor, public outrage prompted Mass MOCA to dismantle Training Ground for Democracy. But this wasn’t the end of the saga: Following the debacle, Büchel began a new body of work based on the thousands of pages of correspondence and documents made public during the lawsuit.
Julia Wolkoff is Artsy’s Editor, Art History.