Let's say you're working on a project, and it's the worst experience of your life. The only silver lining is your name not being attached to the thing. Wouldn't you want to stick it to your bosses and be sneakily subversive? Of course you would. And as it turns out, you're not the first person with that impulse. It only takes the slightest offense for creative types to turn paranoid, vindictive, and spiteful — and history is full of examples.
Say you're Francisco Goya, already godfather of modern painting and well on your way to "mad genius" status, but you can't make much money with overtly political canvases and must take commissions for royal portraits. A large swath of the monarchy you work for is bound to get on your nerves — but how can you express your disgust without committing treason? Well, when Goya wasn't depicting his subject facing the wrong way like a total idiot, he hid clues in his canines. If a dog in one of his works is scraggly, snoozing, ill-behaved, or annoyed to be there, it's a decent bet he didn't have much respect for its master.
Occasionally, despite all efforts to avoid it, artists are met with approval, commended, even nominated for a totally pointless prize. And sometimes, when they win, they make a show of condemning the instinct for self-congratulation. Austrian cynic Thomas Bernhard always delivered cutting acceptance speeches, now collected in a vicious book. A year after publishing an attack on award culture, author Julien Gracq refused the Prix Goncourt altogether, as Sartre would his Nobel Prize in 1964. David Bowie, meanwhile, even turned down British knighthood, saying, "I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don't know what it's for."
The tradition of a movie director amending his or her credit to read "Alan Smithee" when they wanted to disown a project was formally discontinued in 2000, with Kiefer Sutherland's Woman Wanted slipping just under the wire, thank god. What's so deliciously nasty about the practice is that once a film was on a path toward awfulness, a director could shoot the moon and get paid for making the deleriously terrible film — and then save his reputation by using an absurd moniker. The producers and actors rarely had such an easy out. The convention should be resurrected simply because it gave us the most delightful page on all of IMDb — a filmography so wretched you kind of want to marathon-watch every title in order. To think that Hellraiser: Bloodline, the edited-for-TV version of Dune, and a last-season episode of The Cosby Show were all the work of one demented man is an illusion far too good to give up.
OK, maybe it wasn't for the best that Nikolai Gogol burned the second volume of Dead Souls shortly before his painful death. But the choice to blame this frenzied act on Satan's trickery rather than a mental breakdown is exactly the kind of insane bravado we should demand from every writer. California artist John Baldessari, for instance, built a pyre simply for closure, setting aflame everything he'd painted between 1953 and 1966 — in a morgue, no less. Hitchcock bought up copies of the novel Psycho so his audience wouldn't know the ending, and Monet destroyed dozens of his famous water garden scenes when he discovered that cataracts had affected his sense of color for years.
Last month, sculptors Andre Prinsloo and Ruhan Janse van Vuuren were rushed through a job constructing a memorial for the late Nelson Mandela. It was almost 30 feet tall and made of bronze. When the sculptors were informed they wouldn't get to sign it, they did what any good artists would: they got revenge. It took weeks before anyone noticed their small, sardonic gesture — a bronze rabbit hiding deep in Mandela's right ear. It was an anonymous autograph of sorts, and also a rebuke, as "haas" means both "rabbit" and "haste" in Afrikaans. "We don't think it's appropriate because Nelson Mandela never had a rabbit on his ear," said Mogomotsi Mogodiri, spokesman for South Africa's Department of Arts and Culture, who insisted that Prinsloo and van Vuuren had never asked about engraving their names on the statue.
So you see, artists have been devious and manipulative for centuries. Though, when you get right down to it, is there any artistic decision not somehow based on spite?
Image by Michael Erazo-Kase
Miles Klee is a reporter for The Daily Dot and author of the novel Ivyland, a finalist in the 2013 Tournament of Books. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Lapham's Quarterly, BlackBook, The Awl, Salon, The Village Voice, The New York Observer and elsewhere.