The Controversies That Inflamed the Art World in 2011

The Controversies That Inflamed the Art World in 2011
A woman holds up a protest sign at the Vancouver Art Gallery as thousands of people participate in the Occupy Vancouver protest on October 15, 2011.
(Getty Images)

By now, it’s fairly clear that the protester is the figure who truly defined the year (even Time magazine and Shepard Fairey agree), and it’s as true in the realm of culture as it is in politics. Even beyond the images produced by and of the Occupy Wall Street protesters — and there were many — we saw individuals blur the line between art and dissent. From his art to his Twitter feed to his interviews, artist Ai Weiweidetained by the Chinese government in April and released after 80 days under “house arrest” — became an icon of dissent. In Russia, art collective Voina shut down a bridge with a police-baiting phallic graffiti, repeatedly evaded capture, and created a new mythology of the outlaw artist. But beyond these individual figures, broader issues with which the art world has wrestled for years only became more complex in 2011. Below, ARTINFO reflects on and revists the four problems that most captivated, concerned, and outraged you this year.


Concerns about artistic copyright rippled through all corners of the art world in 2011, from the pristine walls of Gagosian Gallery to the wild realm of animal art. Not long after Gagosian artist Richard Prince filed to appeal a 2010 Manhattan district court ruling that found his “Canal Zone” series to have inappropriately borrowed from Patrick Cariou’s photographs of Jamaican Rastafarians, the gallery found itself in the midst of another copyright controversy. This time, it concerned music legend Bob Dylan, whose paintings, supposedly inspired by his own travels in Asia, turned out to be copies of several images from a photo collector’s public Flickr as well as a handful of copyrighted photographs. While the controversy was more embarrassing than it was illegal — no court papers were ever filed — other artists found themselves tied up in more costly disputes. Janine “Jah Jah” Gordon filed and lost a suit alleging photographer Ryan McGinley had relied too heavily on her proprietary photographs of hipster teens, while Jeff Koons’s lawyers sent a cease and desist letter to a San Francisco bookstore selling bookends that resembled the artists’s inflatable dog sculptures (Koons lost that quixotic battle as well). But it wasn't just balloon animals that got dragged into the scrum — a  particularly creative monkey who snatched a photographer's camera on an Indonesian animal preserve and began snapping self-portraits inspired a discussion about just who can own copyright, and under what circumstances.

Looking ahead to 2012, all this litigiousness may have a chilling effect (on human artists, that is). New York art lawyer Virginia Rutledge, who co-authored an amicus brief supporting Richard Prince’s appeal, said the suit has raised “a disturbing number of questions” from art-world figures over the legality of the appropriation art they buy, collect, or display, and that such anxieties are only becoming more and more common. Self-censorship, she told ARTINFO, is becoming “rampant.”


What difference a year can make: in 2010, David Wojnarowicz’s film “A Fire in My Belly” — with its fleeting ants-on-a-crucifix scene — was pulled from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery under pressure from congressional Republicans and religious Catholic groups. This year, when the same video (and, in fact, several more versions of it) were included in the same show at the Brooklyn Museum, dissent from the Brooklyn's Catholic Diocese was largely ignored. But acts of censorship — both high and low profile, online and off — remained a central concern in culture this year, and, like “A Fire in My Belly,” all of the offending works seemed to include at least one of the big three: sex, religion, politics.

Nudity riled up the execs at Facebook, who continued to censor images of paintings and drawings posted to the social networking site that left too little to the imagination — including Gustave Courbet’s famous provocation “The Origin of the World.” Overexposure also caused a rift in a Lower East Side neighborhood, home to both a community of Orthodox Jews as well as up-and-coming galleries. (A group of local Orthodox Jews called police on obscenity charges after Allegra LaViola Gallery mounted a show called “Pornucopia.”) Irreverent religious art led to the ousting of the founding director of the Sharjah Biennial and the removal of two works of art by Aidan Salakhova from the Azerbaijan pavilion at the Venice Biennale because of concern about their treatment of Islam. And, of course, anxiety over offensive politics led to the termination of the Lacoste art prize as well as the whitewashing of street artist Blu’s mural (depicting coffins draped with dollar bills) commissioned for MOCA’s “Art in the Streets” exhibition.


Occupy Wall Street and its various cultural offshoots weren’t the only manifestation of class tension in 2011. In fact, the art world, so often a playground for the rich, became in many ways a symbol of the larger economic inequalities that outraged so many. A profoundly explicit illustration of this dynamic came this fall when Sotheby’s — and the office buildings and residences of Sotheby’s board members and major customers — were picketed by the auction house’s union art handlers, who have been locked out of their jobs since August in a protracted labor dispute.

The rise of museums devoted to private collections also reinforced the notion that art has become a symbol of the chasm between the richer-than-rich and the rest of the world. In March, Carlos Slim, the world’s wealthiest man, unveiled his Fernando Romero-designed Museo Soumaya in Mexico City (a region with an even more gaping gulf between rich and poor than New York City). Back inside the United States, Alice Walton, one of the nation’s richest women and heiress to the Walmart fortune, opened her polarizing Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas. The billion-dollar institution, funded with money from the Walton Family Foundation, drew impassioned criticism from writers including the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and ARTINFO’s Ben Davis. (Walmart employees weren’t particularly thrilled with the development, either.) Others, however, like Felix Salmon and Judith Dobrzynski, defended Walton, arguing that many — if not most — great American museums were built by donations from  people who made their fortunes in low-wage businesses.

Even luxurious galas reserved for the inner-circle of art-world elite weren’t insulated from dialogue about economic inequality. Who could forget the ruckus surrounding Marina Abramovic’s plans for MOCA’s annual gala, which evolved into a larger discussion about the exploitation of performers?


Arts funding may come from local governments, but this year the issue proved profoundly international. The global financial crisis forced lawmakers the world over to trim their budgets to a fraction of their pre-2008 sizes. In turn, arts professionals and enthusiasts responded quickly and creatively: in the Netherlands, where arts funding was slashed by 25 percent, thousands marched across Amsterdam in protest. A group called Dutch Artists 2011 even placed a dramatic ad in the New York Times that read, “Do not enter the Netherlands — Cultural meltdown in progress.” England’s historically well-funded arts community was left reeling after a series of budget cuts eliminated funding for over 200 previously subsidized groups; a coalition of eight unions created a Web site to keep constant track of the cuts and what they mean for the country.

The United States was certainly not immune to cultural defunding, although most of it took place on the state and local level. Most notoriously, Kansas governor Sam Brownback entirely eliminated the state’s arts budget. But while the E.U. stands to benefit from the world’s largest-ever cultural funding program — if approved, it would flood European cultural organizations with €1.8 billion — the fate of arts funding in the U.S. remains an open question: If elected, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney pledged to cut the federal arts budget by half