15 Bizarrely Controversial Works of Art
It’s possible, probably, to dislike something and just get on with your day. When it comes to art, though, people seem to find it impossible — they have to kick up a stink about how shitty or reprehensible they find it. That stink-kicking inevitably brings attention and new eyes to it all, and the artist being vilified as a ` usually ends up doing okay out of it all — for every person telling them they suck, there’s someone who gets what they were trying to do.
Deliberately courting controversy is therefore something a lot of artists have done — not always for as cynical a reason as wanting to be known, but sometimes. Being a provocateur ties in with the idea that an artist’s life is in a way one of their artworks, that they are so much more than someone who puts paint on a page. But it’s also a way of drawing attention to a cause, getting people talking, communicating ideas much more complex than “look at my stuff.”
Plenty of controversy, though, comes along by accident — an artist does something they think is great, and all of a sudden they’re on the front page of a newspaper with “BAN THIS SICK FUCK” on it. If you’re an artist in art school, showing your art exclusively to other art-loving artists, you can easily get to a point where elements of your work that might shock the less arty side of the population just don’t register. Or you might just be trying to do something cool, but the thing you think is cool horrifies other people.
Often, the outlets that do all the pearl-clutching and horrified what-is-this-shit shtick do more for the artists than anyone supporting them could, but pretending to be upset by things that aren’t worth getting upset about is their bread and butter. It’s a controversial snake provocatively eating its own arty tail.
Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ (1917): A Toilet as Art
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists, who refused it, arguing it wasn’t art. That incited an enormous ongoing debate/argument about what art was, rather than than a simple “agree to disagree.”
Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ (1987): The Lord in a Tank O’Pee
In 1987, Andres Serrano photographed a small statue of Jesus submerged in his piss. Serrano’s piss, not Jesus’ piss. Serrano had a publicly-funded arts endowment, so the media was horrified that he’d spent taxpayers’ money on blasphemy.
Ai’s ‘Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn’ (1995): Artful Clumsiness
Ai Weiwei’s series of photographs showing him deliberately dropping a two-millennium-old vase is deliberately provocative. There’s an element of “I’m Ai Weiwei, welcome to Jackass!” to it. But it became wildly controversial, seen as desecrating China’s past.
Emin’s ‘My Bed’ (1998): Taking Cum into the Tate
Tracey Emin became world-famous overnight when her installation My Bed — literally her unmade bed, complete with used condoms and soiled underwear — went into the Tate. Horrified U.K. tabloids disgusted by her did more than any positive review ever could.
Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgement’ (1541): What a Lot of Cocks!
There was nudity in art before Michelangelo redecorated the Sistine Chapel, but the sheer in-your-face dicks-aplentiness of it all caused a ruckus. Fig leaves and loincloths had to be painted over the most offending members, only removed 300 years later.
Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1905): Nuclear New Nudes
It doesn’t seem shocking now, because of Picasso’s legacy, but at the time, the distorted, fucked-up, aggressively angular treatment he gave, of all things, naked women, was shocking. It arguably changed art more than any other 20th-century work.
Schneemann’s ‘Meat Joy’ (1964): Finger-Lickin’ Good
Performance art always attracts controversy. Carolee Schneeman’s, involving raw meat and paint slathered on the flesh of multiple nude women, was a powerful feminist statement that provoked the memorable review: “I don’t know what this is, but it isn’t art.”
Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’ (1979): Eat Up
Another piece of feminist art decried by misogynists making its point for it, Judy Chicago’s 48-foot-wide sculpture is very vulva-focused, leading to damnation from conservative media and a canceled U.S. tour.
Cattelan’s ‘Comedian’ (2019): A Pain in the Potassium
Comedian is a banana duct-taped to a wall. It sold for $120,000, bad-boy artist Maurizio Cattelan making a point about the commercialization of art (and lots of money). Another artist ate it, so he taped up a new one.
Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991): Art Jar Shark
Damien Hirst became internationally known with his installation of a dead shark preserved in formaldehyde, another “is this art?” piece. Challenged that anyone could have made it, Hirst replied, “But you didn’t, did you?”
Ofili’s ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ (1996): Holy Shit
Chris Ofili won the Turner Prize for his portrait of a Black Mary surrounded by vaginas he’d cut out of magazines and real horse shit. Rudy Giuliani said it was sick and disgusting. Hey, how’s Rudy Giuliani doing these days?
Eakins’ ‘The Gross Clinic’ (1875): Gross by Name, Gross by Nature
Thomas Eakins painted The Gross Clinic for America’s centennial celebrations, but people were horrified by it — the calmness of the doctors contracted with the graphic surgery and terrified woman meant it wasn’t exhibited, despite subsequently being hailed as a masterpiece.
Marina Abramovic’s Entire Career (1973-): What, What, What, What the Hell
The long, astonishing performance art career of Marina Abramovic always brings controversy, splitting opinion between art aficionados who massively appreciate what she’s doing and less-impressed people who think she’s getting paid a lot to sit around.
Harvey’s ‘Myra’ (1997): A Tiny Bit Insensitive?
British artist Marcus Harvey can’t have been enormously surprised when his enormous portrait of child murderer Myra Hindley made of children’s handprints drew controversy. It was intended as a mediation on innocence and horror, but led to a lot of smashed windows.
Prince’s ‘New Portraits’ (2014): Yeah, Fuck This Guy
Richard Prince has made a fortune by photographing other people’s photographs, patting himself on the back for being so clever. His exhibition New Portraits was essentially stolen Instagram screengrabs, sold for huge prices. He sucks!