As the summer’s crop of superhero movies send hyper-empowered white knights into battle with their villainous nemeses, we wondered: who are the heroes and villains of the contemporary art world? After all, artists are nothing if not regular people with supranormal abilities, tussling it out on a global battlefield to see who will control the fate of art history—not to mention the world’s supply of disposable mogul income. What follows is a partial roster of the protagonists and antagonists vying for art-world supremacy.
VILLAIN: This mad scientist’s laboratory, fully staffed with teams of his willing minions, churns out terrifying animal experiments and mysterious pills with alarming frequency. There are also rumors that he’s developed a ray gun to turn human bones into diamonds. For the love of God!
HERO: Beguiling adversaries with her dazzling trompe-l’oeil compositions, Tauba Auerbach battles for the sacred cause of painting—and is victorious nearly every time. She also makes really nice jewelry.
VILLAIN: A diabolical genius, Bruce Nauman has persuaded naïve curators and critics around the world that his habit of torturing clowns, tormenting viewers with claustrophobic tunnels, and filming strange nocturnal surveillance videos is a force for good—when really his endgame is infinitely more disturbing, resolving itself only at his viewer’s point of death.
VILLAIN: A charismatic, mercurial master of illusion, Yves Klein made his patrons’ money vanish—sometimes by throwing it into the Seine as art, sometimes by filling a gallery with nothing but air—but his true mission was far more subversive: to try, along with his band of naked female accomplices, to turn the whole art world bleu.
HERO: The Robin Hood of urban visuality, Banksy wages whimsical war against bigots, overreaching cops, gentrifiers, and other foes of the idealistic left by stealing wall space from the Man and giving it back to the trod-upon local underclasses.
HERO: As brutal wars rage in the Middle East, Omer Fast uses his video camera to reflect the dehumanizing realities of mechanized war back upon the armies of the West, hoping to engender empathy and restraint in a conflict he shows to be far from Manichean.
VILLAIN: An enigmatic figure clearly employing some form of black magic, Marina Abramovic has a rap sheet full of mischief, including hypnotizing an entire city just by looking at them and getting into a performance-art brawl with Jay-Z (though the less said about that, the better).
HERO: Leading an army of narcotically amped-up monsterlings, aliens, and Buddhist sages, Takashi Murakami is the foe of Hirst and Koons, battling to gain control of the world’s store of megacollector money so that he can re-channel it to emerging artists of his beloved post-tsunami Japan.
VILLAIN: Aided by an army of art robots, Koons has enslaved the world’s wealthiest elites by mesmerizing them with his irresistible balloon creations, which reflect back upon their “owners” a narcotically enchanting image of their best selves.
HERO: A master of disguise who insists on working alone, Cindy Sherman changes personae with a chameleon’s ease in order to infiltrate the museums and private collections the world over, slipping in under the cover of night to leave behind artworks that only reveal their true value over time.
VILLAIN: This young mad scientist has been quietly building an army of dance robots in an effort to take over New York. Now that Jordan Wolfson has moved onto L.A. and tapped into that city’s high-tech Hollywood wizardry, there’s no telling what he’s capable of.
HERO: Long held under house arrest in his home country for his freedom-flighting ways, this avenger has dedicated his life and art to rooting out censorship and inequality in all its forms, garnering a loyal following in the process. His motto? “We can do this the easy way, or the Ai Weiwei way.”
VILLAIN: Adel Abdessemed has turned wild animals loose on the streets of Paris, designed gladiatorial arenas where innocent critters fight to the death, and had cuddly barnyard creatures sledgehammered into pulp for the camera. He also fills galleries with the preserved remains of his victims. What more do you need in a villain?