Real Rebels Don’t Take Corporate Cash

The Guggenheim recently closed a fun retrospective of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan. In it, hundreds of odd sculptural items hung from the museum’s ceiling at varying heights, gradually revealing themselves on the trek up the Guggenheim’s classic spiral ramp. From the child-size Hitler to the fake pigeons and animal skeletons, it was a kooky, enjoyable exhibit largely for its silly strangeness.

The artist and the Guggenheim didn’t see it that way, though. Their vision of the work was “bolder” and more “political:” “Cattelan creates unsettlingly veristic sculptures that reveal contradictions at the core of today’s society,” wrote the show’s curators. “While bold and irreverent, the work is also deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power.”

All brought to you by Citibank, Xerox and dozens of other season sponsors.

How exactly is one supposed to take a “scathing critique of authority” seriously when it’s sponsored by cash from global banks and multinational corporations? It’s not that there isn’t an appropriate way to handle sponsorship—artists have had patrons for centuries—but the overwhelmingly vague petulance with which contemporary visual artists shroud their work always positions The Man as the winner, especially when artists call their work political. Nipping the hand that feeds them only highlights who is really calling the shots.

In The Road to Mecca, Roundabout’s Broadway revival of the 1988 Athol Fugard play, Rosemary Harris plays an eccentric South African artist whose bizarre, concrete sculptures have earned her the disdain and irritation of her neighbors. She doesn’t, however, try to justify the strange figures in political or corporate terms, explaining that they come to her, they just come, and she has no choice but to bring them to life. She’d like to have the respect and companionship of those around her, but she’s compelled to make these pieces with or without societal approval. She had no choice.

This woman, then, is far more the rebellious artist than Cattelan and his contemporaries. She doesn’t claim her work is revolutionary or grab at corporate cash, but in following her own idiosyncratic vision, a vision that challenges people to see the world with new eyes, revolution comes along anyways.

Getting caught up in self-proclaimed labels of rebellion, it seems, is just the way to avoid actually impacting the world.

Photo of Rosemary Harris by Joan Marcus



  1. Thanks for your thoughtful response–you raise some valid points, and I’m appreciative you took the time to lay them out.

    Here are some quick thoughts in reaction:

    You’re right–it is unfair to compare a real artist to a fictional one. But part of the fun of theater-words is in making unexpected or odd connections between disparate cultural objects. Yes, sometimes that attempt at comparison is somewhat strained or doesn’t entirely pan out, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. (It is worth noting, however, that Miss Helen is actually based on a real artist–you can read about her here:

    Secondly, while much of what you say about artists and funding is true, I believe it’s also true that any alliance between art and commerce is at least a little bit uneasy, and the more anti-establishment the art, the more problematic the relationship. No, Cattelan didn’t make his art with Guggenheim sponsors in mind, but that fact doesn’t erase the dissonance between Cattelan’s rebelliousness and the establishment ethos that comes from a major exhibit like this one.

    Just a few thoughts. Thanks for reading!

  2. JonMoreWater says:

    I find the comparison you’re trying to make here a little faulty. You can’t fairly compare an actual artist to the fictional character of an artist. That’s like saying, “You know who was better at fighting crime than the police? Batman!” The sponsors mentioned at Guggenheim give the Guggenheim money to show exhibits. The artists, like Cattelan, receive money for allowing their work to be displayed (as well they should – how else could they make a living?) The Guggenheim is obligated to acknowledge the sponsors that made the work possible – hence they list the sponsors whose money was used to pay the artist. Cattelan made the art without knowing which sponsers’ money would be used to pay him, and the Guggenheim does not accept input from sponsors when deciding what to display. Could a sponsor express disapproval to the Guggenheim by refusing to fund further exhibitions? Theoretically. But the Guggenheim has never pulled a piece of art from exhibition due to lack of funding, and even so, what indication do we have that that would change the art Cattelan makes?
    There just seem to be a lot of assumptions being made that aren’t backed up. Perhaps the most problematic: the suggestion at the end that “getting caught up in . . . labels of rebellion” (which I guess means saying that your work is political or offering any analysis at all, as your point of comparison, the fictional character from a play, apparently does not) means “avoid[ing] actually impacting the world.” George Orwell famously wrote, “no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Andy Warhol received extensive corporate sponsorship. Did they not make an impact on the world? Were they simply caught up in labels of rebellion? Some artists operate largely outside the economic system, and others work within it; I think we should judge an artist on the merits of their art, not where their paychecks come from.

... Any thoughts?... C'mon!

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