Top Ten Art Scandals and Controversies of 2018

The events that scandalized, or at least amused, the art world in 2018

  1. Basquiat’s drug dealer profits at Art Basel

Lonny Lichtenberg aka Neptune, King of the C (cocaine) emerged as an original owner of a series of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s pencil-and-crayon sketches offered at Art Basel 2018. While Basquiat’s estate has distanced itself from the works created in the East Village apartment of his friend and drug dealer, likely in exchange for drugs, it seems that very provenance of these works, given Basquiat’s history, served as an authentication enough for The Bishop Gallery to bring them to Basel.

  1. From France to Uzbekistan, museums turn out to be full of fakes

In this particular annual category of art scandals, there is competition between the Etienne Terrus Museum and Tashkent State Arts Museum. While the museum in the south of France dedicated to 19th century painter has discovered that more than half of its collection – 82 out of 140 works – are “crude fakes,” the Uzbekistani authorities have spoken only of “dozens” of works by prominent Soviet artists having turned out to be forgeries.  The Tashkent museum probably wins on the account of the criminal ingenuity of its senior employees, including the head curator (9 years and 3 month prison sentence), who sold off museum holdings to unknown buyers and replaced them with counterfeits. When it comes to the Etienne Terrus paintings, it seems that the quantity of the counterfeits was not matched by their quality – “On one painting, the ink signature was wiped away when I passed my white glove over it.”, said the art historian who discovered the forgeries. Sacré Bleu! indeed.

  1. Turner Prize DOESN’T ignite controversy

This year’s winner of the prestigious Turner Prize, Charlotte Prodger, has attracted universal acclaim for subtlety, quality and relevance of her work, igniting no controversy at all, and most definitely no tabloid reactions such as ones that accompanied Damien Hirst’s shark tankTracy Emin’s unmade bed, or Martin Creed’s winning installation, which consists of an empty room with lights on a time switch flicking on and off.  It remains to be seen what winning of the Turner Prize does for Ms. Prodger’s career.

  1. Star artist authenticates poor forgeries of his work

In an unusual case, South Korean art star Lee Ufan claimed 13 suspected forgeries as his own original work, even after South Korean art dealer named Hyeon admitted they were counterfeits. Seoul police began investigating the case in February, and indicated that there were as many as 50 fake works at hand when Hyeon was indicted in June. Nevertheless, Ufan was unswayed by the evidence, insisting that “an artist can recognize his own piece at a glance.”

  1. Dana Shutz’s Open Casket Protest, the sequel

Public protests in front of Dana Shutz’s painting of Emmet Till’s open casket at Whitney Biennial become one of most talked about controversies of 2017,  with the successful white artist being accused of appropriation and exploitation apropos her painting of famous image of the lynched teenager. While Shutz immediately responded by renounced the profits from her artwork, the creative protests continued, ranging from the Somali-Australian artist Hamishi Farah exhibiting at Basel a portrait of Dana Shutz’s own child, to artist Parker Bright – one of the faces of original Whitney protest – traveling to Paris to protest an artwork at Palais de Tokyo showing an image of himself protesting the Dana Shutz’s work wearing the “Black Death Spectacle” t-shirt.

  1. French artist Orlan sues Lady Gaga for plagiarizing her face

Body modification artist Orlan has already attempted to sue pop start Lady Gaga for plagiarism and in 2018 she did not give up, now taking her case to American courts, for, basically, stealing her face.  Known for undergoing multiple sessions of plastic surgery in the name of art, Orlan is claiming that Gaga ripped off two specific pieces, echoing the same alien-like aesthetic the French artist supposedly controls, and her lawyers were seeking response from the creative team responsible for Lady Gaga’s mega-hit and award-winning video Born This Way.  The proverbial jury is still out on this one, even if the actual court case hasn’t advanced as of yet.

Portrait of Edmond de Belamy(courtesy of CBS News)
  1. AI painting sells at Christie

Russian dissident artist Komar and Melamid have created in the 90’s their People’s Choice paintings by conducting a survey – through a professional marketing firm – to determine what Americans prefer in a painting. In 2018, a similar outsourcing strategy has been employed by a French art collective named Obvious, who have used an artificial intelligence computer program to create a whole series of portraits of fictitious Bellamy family, most successful being the Portrait of Edward Bellamy, which has sold at Christie’s for a whopping $432,500.   Consequently the signature of the artist, which can be seen on Christie’s site, is a very complicated-looking mathematical equation.  The members of the Obvious collective simply “fed the system with a data set of 15,000 portraits painted between the 14th century to the 20th.”, while downloading the AI program from the Internet for free from the Twitter account of 19-yr old artist Robbie Barret aka Dr Beef.  Barrat is upset and claims that Obvious “really just used my network and are selling the results.”

  1. New ethical dilemmas roil museums and galleries

In the wake of #MeToo movement, a whole series of controversies emerged in 2018, most prominent of which was probably the decision by the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC to cancel the exhibition by Chuck Close in the wake of accusations of sexual harassment.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art also found itself under pressure to remove painting of a young girl by Balthus, Thérèse Dreaming(1938) that has been targeted by a mass online petition for its voyeuristic depiction of a child, but the Met ultimately resisted it in the interest of “continuing evolution of existing culture.” The #MeToo movement however managed to leave its imprint within the hallowed walls of The Met in the form of guerrilla action by the artist Michelle Hartley who has placed her own feminist-inspired placards next to works by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Paul Gaugin, whose relationships with women are increasingly deemed morally dubious by today’s standards.

  1. David Hockney’s pool painting sells for record $90M

‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures)”is considered one of brilliant David Hockney’s premier works, as has been described as “the holy grail of his paintings, from both the historical and the market perspectives“, so it having sold for a lot of money is not really a scandal or a to speak of.  But 90 million dollars IS a lot of money, by far most ever for a contemporary artist, previous record being comparatively measly $58M for Jeff Koons’ Baloon Dog.  Perhaps the true scandal lies in the art having become just another investment vehicle, a phenomenon most recently explored from all sides in very good HBO documentary Price Of Everything, which has had even a very successful theatrical run in New York, a center of both art and financial worlds.  In the words of Jefrrey Saltz, a prominent protagonist of the film and one most universally beloved New York art critics, “How Does the Art World Live With Itself?”

  1. Banksy Painting Self-Destructs at Sotheby’s

Infamous street artist Banksy pulled off one of his most spectacular pranks in 2018, when his “Girl With Balloon” painting appeared to self-destruct at Sotheby’s in London after selling for $1.4 million at auction. Sotheby’s apparently wasn’t in on the prank, leading them to exclaim “We’ve been Banksy-ed,” and add a new verb to lexicon of modern art, as well as Fine Art Globe’s editor Marianna Rosen to question “Who Was Really ‘Banksy-ed’ at Sotheby’s?” Regardless of the moral of the Banksy’s story, the transfixing spectacle of self-destructing painting accompanied by uh’s and ah’s of Sotheby’s customers remains of one of the defining images illustrating a paradoxical convergence of art and commerce that seems to have marked the AD 2018.

Ognjen Simic

Ognjen Simic is a research psychologist and a lover of arts and sciences from Croatia, based for the last two decades in Williamsburg, NY, where he reports on the cultural landscape.

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