11 of 2023’s most controversial culture moments

(Image credit: Getty Images)

A picture of Prince Harry getting into a car

Among all the highs and lows of the year in the arts, here are the people, works and incidents that really got everyone talking.

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Arts and culture may be a sanctum from the trials of daily life for many, but that is not to say they can’t cause as much debate and consternation as they can provide comfort and joy. So here are 11 moments from within the cultural sphere that really created a commotion this year:

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

1. Prince Harry releases a bombshell book 

He may have quit the British Royal Family and moved to California with his wife Meghan and their children, but the Duke of Sussex proved he was far from leaving the past behind him, when in January he released his autobiography Spare, and pulled no punches. Bearing the Prince’s distinct tone of voice and turn of phrase, the book – though ghost-written by JR Moehringer – was as candid as they come, generating acres of headlines with its more sensational stories, revelations and claims. From detailing his alleged fisticuffs with the Prince of Wales to a case of frostbite on his genitalia during Prince William and Catherine’s wedding, there was seemingly no filter applied. Perhaps as a result, according to Guinness World Records, Spare became “the fastest selling non-fiction book of all time” on the date of its release. But while Prince Harry will have been celebrating his literary success, his father King Charles III was reported to be “hurt and dismayed” by the publication. And the year was literally book-ended by scandalous royal tomes, when in December royal reporter Omid Scobie released his own book, Endgame. It again detailed alleged royal tensions, and caused particular controversy when a Dutch edition of the book was erroneously published naming King Charles and Catherine as the royals who allegedly discussed the potential skin colour of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s first child.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

2. Kylie Jenner sparks debate by wearing a (fake) lion head

Coming from a family, the Kardashian-Jenners, who seem to live by Oscar Wilde’s adage: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”, Kylie Jenner certainly offered a roar for attention at January’s Paris Fashion Week with her divisive outfit. The make-up mogul turned up in a black Schiaparelli dress with such an ultra-realistic lion head attached to the shoulder that some wondered if it was actual taxidermy of the jungle creature. While the brand were quick to point out it was fake on Instagram – stating in all caps “NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED IN MAKING THIS LOOK” – many were still offended by it. One commenter below the Schiaparelli post said, in reference to the wider trend for realistic animal parts in fashion: “We have to stop showing animals as luxury ‘products’. They may be made from foam but these are endangered species that have historically been killed for their pelts to be turned into garments.” Unexpectedly, however, the anti-animal cruelty charity Peta praised Jenner for her sartorial choice, explaining: “These fabulously innovative three-dimensional animal heads show that where there’s a will, there’s a way. We encourage everyone to stick with 100% cruelty-free designs that showcase human ingenuity and prevent animal suffering.”

(Credit: Alamy|)

(Credit: Alamy|)

3. A German ballet director smears a critic with faeces

Ballet: a powerful cultural medium that uses the intricate mastery of the human body to tell a story through dance. Or, a study in how actions can tell us more than words. That’s presumably the belief of choreographer Marco Goecke, the now ex-director of Hanover State Ballet, who in February chose to make his feelings known about a bad review by smearing dog faeces in a critic’s face. The grotesque attack happened in the interval of his latest show, when, after confronting Wiebke Hüster, the dance critic of German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, about her negative reaction to his previous work, he pulled out a bag of the offending matter and rubbed it in her face. “When I felt what he had done, I screamed,” Hüster was reported as saying afterwards. Hüster’s crime? She had said of his previous production, In the Dutch Mountain, that “one alternates between a state of feeling insane and being killed by boredom”. It was later announced that Goeke would be leaving the HSO “by mutual agreement”, and Hüster had the final word when she told the New York Times: “I will never attend any Goecke show again,” adding in a truly cutting aside: “He is not that relevant.”

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

4. Gwyneth Paltrow’s ski-crash case

It was the most talked-about celebrity appearance of the year – the two weeks in March when Gwyneth Paltrow turned up in a Utah courtroom to mount her defence after being sued by retired optometrist Terry Sanderson for liability in a 2016 ski-crash between, only to countersue him for the same incident. The court proceedings produced many memorable moments. But it was the pithy little asides from Paltrow in the witness stand that really captured the public’s attention. When asked how she had suffered in the crash, she quipped: “Well, we lost half a day of skiing,” and the internet erupted. When the jury eventually found Sanderson entirely at fault  – and awarded Paltrow damages of $1, as she requested – Paltrow, like a true movie nemesis, approached Sanderson and whispered “I wish you well”, before sweeping out of the courtroom.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

5. Hit country song Try That In a Small Town divides opinion in the US

Country singers are known for telling it how it is, and on this year’s most debated chart hit, Try That In A Small Town, Nashville musician Jason Aldean certainly didn’t hold back about his opinion of life in big cities compared to rural towns. In the lyrics, Aldean lamented the changing state of the world, and, some alleged, threatened violence against those who would “try that in a small town… see how far ya make it down the road”. However, the real outcry was over the video, which was accused of being racist for featuring clips of police violence against Black Lives Matters protestors until they were removed. Adding further fuel to the fire was the video’s filming location, which was revealed to be a courthouse in Columbia, Tennessee, where the lynching of Henry Choate occurred in 1927. Aldean has consistently and vigorously rejected such accusations but four days after the video’s release, Country Music Television pulled it from their channel. However the song began to rack up millions of plays and entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart at number two, before rising to the top spot. Similarly, towards the end of the summer, another song that was perceived as speaking for disillusioned white working-class people across rural America, Oliver Anthony’s Rich Men North Of Richmond, also struck a chord, and went viral, getting five million views in just three days. Fox News played Rich Men North of Richmond at the first Republican presidential TV debate in August, but, in a YouTube statement, Anthony claimed he is non-partisan and that the song had been “weaponised” in the culture wars: “I see the right trying to characterise me as one of their own. And I see the left trying to discredit me, I guess in retaliation.”

(Credit: Alamy)

(Credit: Alamy)

6. HBO’s The Idol becomes 2023’s biggest TV turkey

A collaboration between Sam Levinson, the creator of feted teen show Euphoria, and pop superstar Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, The Idol was one of the most hyped shows of recent times, even if advance reports alleged a troubled shoot. However, when it finally hit screens in June, following a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, it was universally eviscerated. Described by The Daily Telegraph as “the worst show of the year”, The Guardian went one further to dub it “one of the worst TV shows ever made”. Both opinions had merit: Levinson and Tesfaye created a series that had seemingly promised to be a searing take on the dark and exploitative nature of the music industry, but instead turned out to be a degrading, misogynistic and highly problematic tale of a young popstar (played by Lily-Rose Depp), who falls into an S&M relationship with a cult leader. The dialogue was terrible and the plotlines evaporated into thin air, nor did Tesfaye’s performance as the manipulative Svengali help matters; as for the presumably hastily pulled together female empowerment “twist” ending, it was both misjudged and illogical. Needless to say, HBO cancelled it after just one season. Still, at least it produced what GQ claimed was possibly “the song of the summer“.

(Credit: Alamy)

(Credit: Alamy)

7. Sound of Freedom becomes a surprise summer box-office hit 

With various blockbusters flopping this summer, one lower-budgeted film came out of nowhere to be the unlikely success story of the season. Inspired by the experiences of Tim Ballard, a former US government agent turned anti human trafficking activist, independent drama Sound Of Freedom has now earned almost $250 million at the international box office. Starring Jim Caviezel as Ballard, it drew attention to a horrific issue, but divided opinion, and while receiving considerable support from prominent conservatives, was accused of being “QAnon adjacent” by some more left-wing publications – a reference to the infamous conspiracy theory movement. This was not helped by star Caviezel, who had appeared at a QAnon-affiliated conference in Oklahoma in 2021 to talk about the film, where he repeated the group’s false claims that a global cabal of satanic-worshipping elites harvest “adrenochrome” from children, a chemical which is supposedly found in children’s adrenal glands and used as an elixir of youth. In response to such criticism, the film’s writer and director Alejandro Monteverde told Variety that he “was like really sick. I was like, ‘This is all wrong. That’s not true’. It was heartbreaking when I saw all this polemic and all this controversy going on.” No matter the bad publicity however: a sequel based in Haiti is being planned.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

8. Matty Healy gets The 1975 banned from Malaysia for kissing his male bandmate on-stage

Fresh from a short-lived rebound relationship with the newly-single Taylor Swift – which caused ire among some of her disapproving fans – Matty Healy, the frontman of UK band The 1975, was propelled into more headlines in July, after causing outrage at a Malaysian festival. Performing at Good Vibes Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Healy told the crowd that the band’s decision to appear in the country in which homosexuality is illegal, and punishable by up to 20 years in jail, had been a “mistake”. He then kissed the bass player Ross MacDonald, before the band ended their set, claiming officials ordered them off stage. The entire festival was subsequently cancelled because of a directive from Malaysia’s Ministry of Communications and Digital, leading to an outcry from both the country’s LGBT+ community and music fans, many of whom did not look on Healy’s actions favourably. One person on TikTok commented: “I hate this white saviour complex of people coming to regions like Southeast Asia – with no prior research whatsoever to what the culture is, or the repercussions of doing acts like this – and ruining it not for them but for the people who actually live here.”

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

9. The British Museum announces that around 2,000 objects are “missing” 

As the debate rolls on as to whether The British Museum should return artefacts that originated from other countries such as the Parthenon Marbles or the Rosetta Stone, the 250-year-old London cultural institution faced further difficulties in August when it was announced that around 2,000 items from its collection had gone AWOL, presumed stolen. It was an academic-turned-antiques dealer, Ittai Gradel, who first noticed an item from the museum for sale on Ebay in 2021, and alerted the institution. But after an investigation that did not uncover any problems, Gradel alleges he was told by the museum’s then-director Hartwig Fischer that “all objects were accounted for”. When the true extent of the theft was revealed – thousands of items taken over a period of years from the collection’s storeroom – Fischer apologised, not only for not responding as comprehensively as he should but for making “misjudged” comments about Gradel himself, and resigned. One staff member suspected of being involved in the theft was sacked, but the vast majority of the stolen items are still unaccounted for. One arts professional told the Evening Standard that there was a bigger impact from this scandal: “It is like the last vestiges of British colonialism, this arrogance, and I think that’s inevitable now that it will face more restitution claims.”

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

10.  Drew Barrymore crosses the picket line

The WGA and Sag-Aftra writers’ and actors’ strikes made Hollywood grind to a halt for many months in 2023, as the unions fought for better pay and working conditions. So most writing or filming stopped during this time, and most promotional events and activities were also prohibited. However, amid the unionised solidarity between many actors and creatives, one star who crossed the picket line was Drew Barrymore, who in September made the decision to start filming her chat show The Drew Barrymore Show again, despite the ongoing writers strikes, just without WGA writers. The WGA said it was a “violation” of union rules, as the talk show was “a WGA-covered, struck show”, and a crowd of protestors turned up outside the set, chanting “shut it down”, Barrymore later backtracked, stopping production after writing in a now-deleted Instagram post: “I have listened to everyone, and I am making the decision to pause the show’s premiere until the strike is over. I have no words to express my deepest apologies to anyone I have hurt and, of course, to our incredible team who works on the show and has made it what it is today.” By 9 November, all strikes had ended.

(Credit: Getty Images)

(Credit: Getty Images)

11.A Danish artist is forced to repay museum after submitting blank canvases

Who decrees what is or isn’t art? The Danish artist Jens Haaning stoked the contentious discussion once again with what some might consider one of the best examples of performance art in recent memory – although the museum who commissioned it certainly disagreed. Back in 2021, Hanning was given more than 500,000 kroner (£58,000) by The Kunsten Museum in Aalborg to embed into recreations of two previous works of his, comprised of frames encasing piles of banknotes representing the total average annual salary of someone in Denmark and Austria, respectively. However, when he handed in his work this time, all he offered was two blank canvases, in a project he then wittily christened Take the Money and Run, explaining “The work is that I’ve taken their money“. The museum asked Haaning for the money back, but he refused to return it, and this year a court finally ordered him to reimburse the institution. But despite the ruling, the museum has been displaying Haaning’s canvases anyway, describing them as showing “that works of art, despite intentions to the contrary, are part of a capitalist system that values ​​a work based on some arbitrary condition”. The irony of the whole affair was not lost on Haaning, who told TV2 Nord the museum had made “much, much more” money than what it invested thanks to the publicity surrounding the affair.

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