Forget the rich and powerful — they’re predictable. We’re more interested in the powerless. That’s where the real stories are, where the future is decided, where creativity starts.
Continuing our tradition of shining a light on the people many would rather overlook — probably because they’re too busy waiting for champagne in the art fair VIP room or squeezing into a seat at a fancy gallery dinner — here is our annual list of the art world’s most powerless.
1 – Archaeologists: Some of the richest historical sites are currently in some of the most vulnerable and dangerous parts of the world, often war zones, and this year the murder of Khaled al-Asaad, the 82-year-old archaeologist and longtime former director general of the Palmyra Directorate of Antiquities and Museums, by ISIS shocked everyone. After refusing to give the group any information about the whereabouts of hidden antiquities, he was beheaded. As the Archaeological Institute of America said when al-Asaad’s death was first reported: “The world of archaeology has lost a scholar of distinction, grace, and humility.” His fate is a bone-chilling reminder that archeologists are threatened the world over.
2 – Ashraf Fayadh: The curator and poet has been sentenced to death by the Saudi Arabian government for supposedly renouncing Islam. Thankfully his case has attracted international attention, and recently his lawyers said he will be appealing his sentence (fingers crossed), but in a country known for severely punishing anyone who challenges Saudi orthodoxy, this situation is very precarious.
3 – Cartoonists: Comic artists probably wish 2015 would go away. It’s been a tough year for people who process and distill ideas into images that in turn capture the public’s imagination: a massacre in France, an arrest in Iran, and a murder in Syria are all part of their reality. We want to make sure they know we support them. Please continue doing your thing, because it’s important!
4 – Pierre-Auguste Renoir: It’s obnoxious enough that our art history books are filled with dead, straight, white, European men — now one has crawled onto our Powerless list. This wasn’t a good year for the Impressionist, who probably thought he was safely in the pantheon and that people would eternally throw roses on his grave. Satirical protesters in Boston and New York may have been poking fun at Renoir, but it struck a nerve with many, and the painter was soon the butt of jokes across the land. The (temporary?) fall of Renoir reminds us that nothing is forever.
5 – Mehmet Aksoy: The sculptor may have scored a victory earlier this year, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was fined about $3,800 for calling his unfinished “Monument to Humanity” a “monstrosity,” but now the artist is facing 56 months in prison for supposedly insulting the leader. The reality is that the the aspiring sultan known as Erdoğan wasn’t a fan of Aksoy’s monument to Turkish-Armenian friendship, which goes against his whole genocide-denial thing.
6 – Performing Artists: Critic Claudia La Rocco drew attention to the plight of dancers today when she told the story of Eleanor Hullihan, who hurt herself in a performance at the 2012 Whitney Biennial and was forced to undergo years of rehab with little support. But that’s not the worst of it, as performance artist Afghani Kubra Khademi was forced to go into hiding after a February 26 piece in Kabul about violence against women. The bottom line is there is little support for performance artists anywhere.
7 – Native Americans: The decolonization of museums has been an irritatingly slow process involving fights to reclaim sacred objects from auction sellers and human remains from museums, and sometimes indigenous groups have had to settle for digital repatriation rather than the real thing. Even the Whitney Museum’s inaugural exhibition — as excellent as it was in other ways — gave little attention to Native American artists, which was particularly odd for a show that worked to “reexamine the history of art in the United States.” Native Americans should never be overlooked. Their voices are not just important but crucial.
8 – Cheryl LaPorte: This Virginia teacher asked her class to copy an Islamic statement of faith, or shahada, in order to understand firsthand the artistic complexity of calligraphy. The simple assignment sparked “security concerns” as parents complained and the county closed all schools. It was the most bizarre overreaction to a simple lesson that ideally would have encouraged understanding, but instead resulted in proof positive of the high-pitched Islamophobia in conservative areas of the United States. Allah, help us!
9 – King Tut: It’s hard to imagine how this happened, but the world’s most beautiful funerary mask of the most famous Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh was damaged by some idiot clumsily trying to fix it. The result was a disaster but eventually the museum was able to rectify it — though probably not without causing permanent damage to one of the world’s most famous art objects. We would say Tut must be rolling in his grave at this news, but we’re pretty sure some archeologists dug it up already.
10 – Antonio Ramos: 27-year-old artist Antonio Ramos was murdered while painting an anti-violence mural in northwestern Oakland, which has one of the highest violent crime rates in the United States. We share the sentiment of one of the mural project organizers: “It is unacceptable that our artists must have to watch their back and feel unsafe while they bring youth images of hope and beauty to the neighborhood.”
11 – Anti-Gentrification Activists: We all want to think that the protests organized during the Brooklyn Real Estate Summit at the Brooklyn Museum were a success, but there was a deep flaw in the fact that the two main organizing groups (artists and everyone else) couldn’t pull together for one event. Add the fact that one of the protest items is going on view at the museum next month as part of the Agitprop! show, and it all feels like the opposite of disruptive and more like business as usual in the art world. And don’t get us started about the encroaching gentrification in Gowanus and the South Bronx, not to mention Boyle Heights in LA, most of San Francisco, and countless other places. The fight isn’t over.
12 – Uncredited Artists: James Turrell has to deal with Drake, Richard Prince used the work of several artists in his Instagram series, archivists are trying to keep track of all those uncredited social media accounts, and hell, even Ulay is suing Marina for the credit (and money) he says he deserves. Cite your sources, people, or appropriate better!
13 – Gazing Ball Manufacturers: What the hell did you do?! You were clearly powerless at preventing Jeff Koons from using your work to dress up his crappy paintings and create some of the worst objects of his career (tall order, so congrats on that). But really, what.the.hell.happened.
14 – Loved Ones of Art Bloggers and the Social Media–Addicted: We know you’re addicted to us, but we’re addicted to our phones. We’ll unplug, we promise … just after this, er, last post. It’s a real addiction, but few know how to break its chains. BTW, please share this post.
15 – Art Handlers: You fell off this list last year, but you’re back, lucky you. Thankless job, ain’t it? You’re an essential part of the art community, but you’re expected to not only move art but also move out of the way.
16 – Fact checkers: If you’re going to write a takedown, at least make sure your facts are right, especially the big ones on which you’re hinging your argument. Artnet blogger Christian Viveros-Fauné’s tragic attempt to slam curator Klaus Biesenbach was a low point this year. For instance, Viveros-Fauné appears to have made up facts about the Museum of Modern Art’s Marina Abramović retrospective to prove his point. But this wasn’t the only truthiness problem in the arts media. The New York Times profile of Phong Bui and The Brooklyn Rail was also flawed — Bui did not found the Rail, as the paper of record claimed. There’s enough bullshit in the art world, and we don’t need more.
17 – Black Lives Matter: Black Lives Matter (including its artists) has been instrumental in drawing attention to the realities of white supremacy today, particularly the systematic cover-ups of police killings and the celebration of racist figures in the form of prominent Confederate monuments. The systematic oppression may feel insurmountable, as in the recent cases of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and many others, but we’re hopeful. We believe in BLM and suspect they will prevail, but we want to acknowledge that many in the movement may feel powerless at the moment.
18 – Paddle8: It should have been a PR coup, but when Martin Shrekli bought the only copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin… (2015) through Paddle8 for $2 million, no one could’ve predicted the ensuing disaster. He already looked like a douchebag for jacking the price of an HIV drug from $13.50 a pill to $750, and then he was arrested by the Feds for shady business transactions. We know that Wu-Tang wanted us to talk about their project as a “pioneering work-of-art, rather than an album,” but it all just feels gross. The musicians and online auction service both got slimed by someone whom the Bernie Sanders campaign has called the “poster boy for drug company greed.”
19 – Brian McCarty: Imagine waking up one day and realizing that the world’s biggest terrorist organization has swiped your image, photoshopped it, and is now using it to promote its ugly agenda. That was Brian McCarty’s situation when he discovered that ISIS had stolen his photograph to use it as a propaganda image. “They took a little girl’s very real fear of war and turned it into something promoting extremist beliefs — ones at the core of unspeakable amounts of death and suffering,” he told Hyperallergic. McCarty doesn’t want money from ISIS (he wouldn’t accept it if they offered), but it can’t be a good feeling.
20 – Cyber-Pet Owners: This may be a strange item to find on the list, but it caught our attention when Sony announced this year it would no longer be making replacement parts for its robot dog Aibo, which was introduced in 1999. These electronic pets not only respond to external stimuli, but are able to learn and express themselves. No longer. Owners are now having funerals for their robot pets, which will eventually be extinct (the first corporation-induced extinction event?). One of the lessons here is the danger of relying on corporations to make and maintain products that feed our emotional or artistic needs. Remember all those art projects that were done on Friendster? Didn’t think so.
The 12-Year-Old Taiwanese Painting Puncher: It’s a bad way to get in the news, but the soda-swilling kid in Taiwan who tripped into a painting (and into our hearts) will probably need some time — and therapy — before he sets foot in an art museum again.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
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