“I do not understand laws,” Rimbaud wrote. “I have no moral sense.” He wasn’t the first artist to feel that way! As Mike Kelley pointed out in his Pay for Your Pleasure installation, which included a long list of quotations from artists flouting conventional morality (including that Rimbaud line), creative types have a way of disregarding authority.
And not surprisingly, they consequently have a knack for getting arrested, which is what befell Brooklyn’s Takeshi Miyakawa this past week after being picked up for placing plastic bags and LED lights in trees. He was charged with 10 felony and misdemeanor counts, ranging from reckless endangerment to planting a false bomb. Though word spread that that Salon 94–repped artist faced 30 days of detention pending a psychiatric evaluation, he was out on $250,000 bail on Wednesday, and says he’ll fight the charges.
That aside, we’re here right now for a slide show: a brief survey of some of art history’s most infamous artist arrests, from the artists who were wrongfully jailed to those who very much deserved to be taken into custody. (A side note: we have not included Chinese artists, since their government has a habit of locking them up fairly frequently. That is a whole separate slide show.) No doubt we missed many of your favorite artist arrests. Please do post them in the comments section below.
Click above to view the slides.
1476 — Leonardo da Vinci — Sodomy
The question of Leonardo da Vinci's sexuality largely stems from an arrest at age 24, when he and a number of friends, among them a male prostitute, were brought to the courts on sodomy charges. Records from a Florentine court in 1476 show that the charges were dropped, with no evidence behind them but an anonymous tip.
Courtesy Getty Images
Around 1600 — Caravaggio — Numerous charges
The Italian painter Caravaggio was detained on a number of occasions during his short life. (He died at the age of 38.) The National Gallery in London notes that while he lived and worked in Rome he "was arrested repeatedly for, among other things, slashing the cloak of an adversary, throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter, scarring a guard, and abusing the police." He also stabbed a young man, killing him, though he was never arrested for that crime, instead fleeing from the Italian capital city.
Courtesy Hulton Archive/Getty Images
1871 — Gustave Courbet — Destruction of state property
Leave it to one of the father's of modernism to be arrested for a truly epic crime: helping destroy the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune. After the defeat of the Commune, Courbet was sentenced to six months in prison and fined 500 francs. Later he was ordered to pay more than 300,000 francs in compensation. We went to exile in Switzerland.
Courtesy Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty
1957 — Wallace Berman — Obscenity
Beat maestro Wallace Berman had his first show at the legendary Ferus gallery in Los Angeles in 1957. It would be his only show there. The police raided the exhibition after being tipped off about a drawing by the one-named artist Cameron which depicted sex. The artist was found guilty and forced to pay a fine.
Contact sheet showing images of Wallace Berman's exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, 1957. The Getty Research Institute, Charles Brittin papers, 2005.M.11.13. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Photos by Charles Brittin
1964 — Jonas Mekas — Obscenity
In 1964, Jonas Mekas, the legendary experimental filmmaker and Factory habitue, was arrested for screening Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures and A Song of Love, Jean Genet's only film. Both works were sexually explicit, though Mr. Mekas fought the censorship charges and eventually co-founded the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, creating a dedicated space for the avant-garde.
A still from the Genet film. Courtesy Wikipedia
1968 — Otto Muehl — Obscenity and sexual offenses involving minors
Otto Muehl was one of the founders of Viennese Actionism, a performance art group which staged violent and provocative "actions" as a statement against bourgeois Austrian culture. In June 1968, Muehl and several companions performed at "Kunst und Revolution" (Art and Revolution), an event that began as a usual student gathering until it was taken over by a more radical contingent; Mr. Muehl hurled beer as other people defecated and masturbated while singing the Austrian national anthem. They were arrested. In 1991, Muehl would be arrested again, this time sentenced to seven years in prison for sexual offences involving minors.
Otto Muehl Performing "Mama and Papa," in 1964. Courtesy Quietlunch.com
1968 — Yoko Ono — Drugs
In 1968 Yoko Ono was arrested on drug charges after a raid on a home she shared with John Lennon in London. Police found hashish, traces of marijuana and morphine in the home but the arrests were still more scandalous—and, one might argue, cruel—since both artists were married to other people at the time. Lennon pleaded guilty to the charges out of fear that Ms. Ono may be deported.
Lennon is led from his home following his arrest. Courtesy Getty Images
1974 — George Maciunas — Warrant for arrest for violating loft laws
George Maciunas, the founder of Fluxus, the loosely organized art movement, introduced the concept of artist-owned cooperative buildings when he purchased an empty loft at 80 Wooster Street in 1966 and started the first Fluxhouse Cooperative. In 1970, the City Planning passed a resolution requiring all artist cooperatives in Soho to file a prospectus with the Attorney General’s office. Though Maciunas organized 15 co-ops between 1966 and 1975, he never filed a prospectus, angering the Attorney General’s office, which sent out a warrant for his arrest in 1974. Maciunas responded by donning elaborate disguises in public while continuing to renovate lofts and form co-ops and was never arrested for this violation. He also made a Fluxus kit of disguises for the Attorney General’s office.
Maciunas' Dumpling Dinner, June 29, 1971 in 80 Wooster Street yard; from left, Adolfas Mekas, Andy Warhol, Fred Hughes, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Jonas Mekas, and Barbara Moore. Bernstein, Royslyn, and Shael Shapiro. Illegal Living. Vilnius: Jono Mekas Foundation, 2010. Print. p50 Courtesy Parsons.edu
1975 — Gordon Matta-Clark — Trespassing and defacing property
In his 1975 work Day’s End Mr. Matta-Clark snuck into Chelsea’s then-abandoned Pier 52, outfitted it with stained glass windows and turned it into a cathedral. The police arrested him shortly after the project opened for trespassing and defacing property. Pier 52 is now the parking lot for the Department of Sanitation.
1978 — Karen Finley — Unclear
Performance artist Karen Finley has been provoking and offending audience members for years. In a book of her collected writings, she reported that, in 1978, she was arrested while playing the role of "a mix of red-light-district prostitute and locked-up psychopath" in the window of an inactive JC Penney. She would go on to be one of the NEA 4 in 1990.
Courtesy The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA
1990 — Museum director Dennis Barrie — Obscenity
In 1990, Dennis Barrie, the director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati was hit with obscenity charges for hosting a traveling Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. According to The New York Times, the resulting court case "was believed to be the first criminal trial of an art museum arising from the contents of an exhibition." The museum had faced $10,000 in fines and its director was up against a possible one-year jail sentence. Mr. Barrie was acquitted by a jury.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Man in Polyester Suit (ZC9), 1980. Courtesy Maloney Fine Art/Artnet
2004 — Steve Kurtz — Bioterrorism
In 2004, Critical Art Ensemble co-founder Steve Kurtz awoke one morning to find that his wife had died in the night. After he called 911, police noticed the biology lab in his home and grew suspicious of biological terrorism, something of a trendy fear after 9/11, you'll remember. CEA pushed boundaries across various mediums and used harmless bacteria in several projects, Mr. Kurtz's reason for having the lab. The case was dismissed in 2008.
The FBI entering Steve Kurtz's home. Courtesy Getty Images
2007 — Phillip "Duke" Riley — Violating security zone
Duke Riley, the Brooklyn-based artist known for his illegal clambakes on Brooklyn's waterfront, was detained by officers from the New York Police Department after his make-shift submarine—a replica of the Revolutionary War era nautical craft "Turtle"—drifted too close to the Queen Mary II, which was docked in the Buttermilk Channel off of Red Hook, Brooklyn. The following statement by Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly was released by the Police Department: “A makeshift submarine discovered at about 10:30 this morning by an N.Y.P.D. Intelligence detective on board the Queen Mary 2 in New York Harbor is the creative craft of three adventuresome individuals. It does not pose any terrorist threat. We can best summarize today's incident as marine mischief.” While Mr. Riley and his two companions were not arrested, they were issued two citations: for violating a security zone and for having an unsafe vessel.
© Duke Riley, courtesy Dukeriley.info
2011 — Odd Nerdrum — Tax Fraud
In August 2011, Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum was sentenced to two years in prison after not claiming taxes on a large amount of money that was discovered in a safety deposit box that was stashed in Austria. Odd, indeed!