Scandal, Shock and Rivalry Can Be an Artist’s Best Friends
Scandal, shock and rivalry all have negative connotations, don’t they? They can be catastrophic to businesses and individual careers. A whiff of scandal can turn a politician into a smoking ruin.
But these potentially disastrous “negatives” can and have spurred the world of fine art to new heights. A look at the history of art tells us that rivalries have, in fact, not only benefited the course of art, from ancient times to the present, but have also helped shape our narrative of art, lending it a sense of drama that it might otherwise lack, and therefore drawing the interest of a public who might not be drawn to the objects alone. There would be no Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo had rival Raphael not tricked the pope into assigning him the commission, certain that Michelangelo, who had never before worked with frescoes, would botch the job and become a laughing stock.
Scandal and shock have proven to be powerful weapons when harnessed and wielded willfully and well. That scandal is good for exposure has been so obviously the case that many artists have courted it intentionally, which we will define as shock: intentionally overturning expectations of the majority in a way that traditionalist find dismaying or upsetting, but which a certain minority avant-garde find exciting. From Damien Hirst presenting the public with a shark embalmed in formaldehyde and entombed in a glass case to Marcel Duchamp trying to convince the art community that a urinal is a great sculpture shock has been a key promotional tool.
The Devil in the Gallery is a guided tour of the history of art through it scandals, rivalries, and shocking acts, each of which resulted in a positive step forward for art in general and, in most cases, for the careers of the artists in question. In addition to telling dozens of stories, lavishly illustrated in full color, of such dramatic moments and arguing how they not only affected the history of art but affected it for the better, we will also examine the proactive role of the recipients of these intentionally dramatic actions: The art historians, the critics and even you, the general public.
The Devil likes to lurk in dark corners of the art world, morphing into many forms.
Let us shed light upon him.
Noah Charney is an internationally best-selling author of more than a dozen books and a professor of art history specializing in art crime. His novel, The Art Thief, was a bestseller in five countries and is translated into 17 languages. His The Art of Forgery, Stealing the Mystic Lamb and Slovenology were international bestsellers. His book Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
He appears occasionally as a television presenter, with shows for BBC, National Geographic, among many others, and is in demand as a speaker, having been a finalist to be a TED Fellow and with recent talks at the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He is currently writing a television series for HBO Europe, and writes regularly for the Guardian, the Washington Post, Salon, the Observer, and many other top magazines and newspapers. Trained in art history at The Courtauld Institute, Cambridge University, and University of Ljubljana, Charney has taught for many years, for Yale and Brown University, and in Cambridge, Florence, Rome, and Ljubljana. Charney is now a professor of art history at the American University of Rome and at University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, where Charney has lived for many years.
Table of Contents
Sympathy for the Devil
Chapter 1: Scandal
Chapter 2: Shock
Chapter 3: Rivalry
When the Best Artists are “Bad”
About the Author
Are the best artists badly behaved? This is the question Charney seeks to answer. He makes the case that rivalries, scandals, and shocking moments seem to have benefited the reputations of some artists. He opens and closes his exploration with stories about Caravaggio, a notorious “bad boy” painter in Renaissance Italy, who was known for threatening people, joining gangs of artists, and even killing a rival. Caravaggio is just one of the many artists detailed here (some from the Western canon, some from outside it). Charney covers a lot of ground in each chapter, with bite-sized but comprehensive coverage of dramatic events in the art world. His theme is artists who have learned how to cleverly rebel against societal norms while raising their notoriety and popularity. In the business world, competition may lead to cheaper goods, but in the art world, competition, rivalry, and scandal can raise one’s net worth. This book offers lots of peeks into the art world throughout history. It’s an in-depth look at varied time periods and artists, which readers interested in gossip, drama, or art history will enjoy.
In this delightful romp, novelist and art history professor Charney makes a thrilling case for how “antagonistic actions, moods, and tendencies... actually helped shape and elevate the course of art.” Charney makes his case in often-irreverent prose (“Caravaggio was a major-league asshole”) and uses vignettes to demonstrate how his themes of scandal, shock, and rivalry have advanced the careers of artists and changed the trajectory of art from classical times through to the present. Notoriety and the risqué testing of society’s boundaries, for example, often accelerated the careers of such painters as Greuze, Manet, and Picasso, while controversy, Charney asserts, is not always bad: Duchamp’s Dadaist urinal created shock waves in its day, but seems tepid when compared to the bizarre performance art practiced by contemporary artists Ulay and Marina Abramovic (who “carved a star into her own stomach”). And rivalries—such as those between Italian painters Duccio and Giotto, sculptors Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, and Roman architects Bernini and Borromini—often pushed artists to new heights, yielding famous designs including Florence’s Gates of Paradise. Like the topics it addresses, this will undoubtedly add spice to conversations about the meaning and purpose of art.
An interesting read with short, bite-size chunks of text on specific artists, their proclivities and the specific affect or origin of a few of their works. It is informative and entertaining for its particular focus on the less discussed or less socially/politically-correct aspects of these artists and their works, drawing connections that one may not have considered when looking superficially at the pieces These non-linear connections on scandal, shock and rivalry are drawn from literature and resources of the time to reinforce points of perspective and historical opinion, an interesting sidebar to the more understood points of an artists life and challenges that succeeds in fleshing out one's own understanding of the nuances of art history. For those of you who are big on notes, they are extensive and would a allow a reader to follow a few rabbit holes, if they so choose.
“In the art world, scandal has almost always been a good thing for the artist and for their art,” writes Charney in his lavishly illustrated new book on rivalry, scandal, and shock over 2,000 years of art history. Each chapter introduces and defines one of these three key terms and then whisks the reader away on a breathless ride through a series of case studies that key in on a specific artwork or art-world intervention. Though the visual analysis is well trodden—for example, the discussion of Caravaggio’s paintings highlights the artist’s unique decisions to dress biblical figures in contemporary garb and show unusual moments in their familiar stories—the framework of controversy invigorates the accounts with new energy and fresh perspectives.
Noah Charney takes the reader on an informed and often irreverent journey through art history that spans centuries and continents from Caravaggio to Koons, Courbet to Hirst. With a brisk narrative and a keen sense of humor, he pulls back the curtain and reveals an original perspective that only a writer with Charney's wide range of scholarship can provide.
Noah Charney has done it again: written a spellbinder that propels the reader through centuries of artists committing shock, scandal and rivalry. Want to know how Caravaggio literally got away with murder? How Damien Hirst gamed the art market? How rivalries between Turner and Constable, Picasso and Matisse moved their art forward? Buy this book. Now.
Noah Charney, among the most insightful and compelling voices in art history today, has written a book about art scandal that is at once hugely entertaining, widely informative, and, most important, profoundly transformative. With Noah as our expert tour guide through the shocking tales behind many of our favorite artists and works – from that murderous crook Caravaggio to Damien Hirst and his shark in formaldehyde – we discover that scandal in the art world has almost always been a good thing for the artist and for their art.
The main task of the artist, it has been said, is to make yourself stand out from all other artists. In the intense rivalry that results, scandalizing the public is a well-trodden path to fame or infamy. Noah Charney's breakneck tour through this long history of shock and scandal shows how artists have exploited these dangerous effects--sometimes with results they hadn’t anticipated.
10/1/21, Booktalk with Diana Korte (KGNU Boulder and distributed by Public Radio Exchange/PRX): Noah Charney was interviewed about the book.
9/9/21, The Art Newspaper: Noah Charney was interviewed for a feature article about the book, which also ran in the print edition.