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.