Shock Factor: Controversial art throughout history

Art indubitably has the power to shock. Throughout history audiences have been scandalized, disturbed, offended, and downright outraged by art that was socially, politically, and religiously challenging. In this post I will explore some of the most infamous examples of controversial art throughout history; from Manet to Ai WeiWei the artist will undoubtedly remain a powerful provocateur of society.


Ai Weiwei, Study in Perspective series from 1995 to 2003 and captured his defiant middle finger in front of seats of political or cultural power in Paris, Washington DC, Berlin, Beijing and Hong Kong

Olympia: When first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865 this painting caused shock and astonishment. Criticism ensued because of the figure’s confrontational gaze and blatant associations with prostitution as well as for its flat, painterly paint application which deviated from the academic cannon of painting. Many conservatives dubbed Olympia as “vulgar”, and “immoral.”


Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas

Madame X: People were both shocked and scandalized by this sensual painting depicting Madame Pierre Gautreau donning the original sexy LBD, with suggestive post-coital flushed ears, and initially painted with only one strap on her shoulder all implying the intimate secrets of high society. Controversial reception at the 1884 Paris Salon ensued further when the anonymity of the figure was compromised causing Sargent to re-title the painting Madame X. 


John Singer Sargent, Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), 1884, oil on canvas

Les Demoiselles D’Avignon: Depicting five prostitutes in a disconcerting manner surrounded by a savage aura of primitivism, Picasso’s infamous painting evoked controversial anger from the public and critics alike. People found the painting grotesque in its painterly flatness, geometric deconstruction of the figure, and in the unflattering manner in which the women were portrayed.


Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas

Fountain: One of the first examples of artist censorship, this scandalous artwork by Duchamp consisting of a porcelain urinal was quickly rejected for exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. The kicker here is that this exhibition claimed to accept all artworks by those who paid the fee; Duchamp paid the fee, but was denied under the terms of the work’s “indecency.”


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917, ceramic

Artist’s Shit: Considered the artist’s most radical and savage gesture, this piece consists of ninety cans of what is claimed to be the artist’s feces. Though it is debated whether the contents are shit or actually plaster (opening the can would destroy the value of the work) it is undeniably a provocative artwork; Manzoi offered the work for sale at the then-current price of gold equating excrement with gold. In 1962 the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam strongly dissuaded and then prevented Manzoi from exhibiting his cans. It seems that similarly to Duchamp’s Fountain, Artist’s Shit was a bathroom joke no one found funny.


Piero Manzoni, Artist’s Shit, 1961, 90 tin cans, each 30 grams and measuring 4.8×6.5cm

Marina Abramovic: Causing controversy since the 1970’s Marina’s powerful performances challenge the limits of the body and mind and prod the relationship between performer and audience. Scandal and shock continues to follow the artist as controversy ensued over the 2011 MOCA gala of which she hosted. The event was criticized as a “grotesque spectacle” with human centerpieces of both, rotating nude women laying under skeletons in the center of tables and disembodied heads poking through holes amongst the food staring down guests. Further controversy followed concerning exploitation of the performers and criticism over low compensation.


Marina Abramovic, Rythm 0 (1974), The Kitchen II – Homage to Saint Therese (2009), Relation in Time (1977), Rest Energy (1980), Breathing In/Breathing Out (1977)

Robert Mapplethorpe: Mapplethorpe’s blatant portrayal of homoeroticism has raised questions of decency and public display of work as well has caused controversy concerning individual artist funding with tax payer money. In 1989 The Corcoran Gallery of Art refused to exhibit Mapplethorpe’s solo-exhibition The Perfect Moment, finding it offensive and obscene. In light of the incident the ICA stated:

“The Corcoran’s decision sparked a controversial national debate: Should tax dollars support the arts? Who decides what is “obscene” or “offensive” in public exhibitions? And if art can be considered a form of free speech, is it a violation of the First Amendment to revoke federal funding on grounds of obscenity? To this day, these questions remain very much at issue.”


Robert Mapplethrope, John N.Y.C., 1978, from ‘X Portfolio’

Dinner Party: Due to its challenging subject matter the infamous installation Dinner Party by Judy Chicago provoked much controversy in its initial reception. Though its craft-like appearance  was the artist’s intention as a reclamation of “women’s work,” the piece was dismissed as “bad art” and “kitsch.” Others found it offensive and attacked its central image as literal vaginas.


Judy Chicago, Dinner Party, 1979, mixed media

Tilted Arc: Probably one of the most notorious law suits involving public artwork, involved the removal of the commissioned site-specific sculpture Tilted Arc by Richard Serra. The 120 ft long, 12 ft high steel sculpture was commissioned in 1979 by the United States General Services Administration Arts-in -Architecture program to be installed in the Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan. Heated debate quickly followed after the installation of the arc in 1981. People denounced Serra’s sculpture as an ugly rusted metal wall and argued that it disrupted the flow of the plaza; furthermore the public strongly disliked the fact the arc was commissioned with public funds. Motion for its removal proceeded and in a matter of months 1,300 employees signed a petition to rid of this ‘eye sore.’ In 1989 courts ruled 4-1 in favor of the sculpture’s removal, exemplifying the irksome power of the public to remove artwork based on a matter of taste. In 1993 a new sculptural installation was commissioned for the Federal Plaza by Martha Schwartz which involved a maze of swirling benches and mounds of shrubbery. In reality the new installation caused a similar if not worse disruption of flow through the plaza proving the ludicrous nature of the Tilted Arc’s removal.


Richard Serra, Tilted Arc, 1981-89, COR-TEN steel, Federal Plaza, New York



Martha Schwartz, 1993 installation, Federal Plaza, New York

Piss Christ: Consisting of a photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine it is no surprise this artwork has sparked much controversy, particularly amongst the Christian community, since its debut in 1987. Like many other controversial publicly funded artworks, Serrano received a total of $20,000 from the NEA causing public outrage. Serrano received hate mail and death threats and lost grants due to the work. Public opinion of the work continues to be negative, on April 17, 2011 a print was vandalized beyond repair by Christian protestors who found the work to be a, “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.”


Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987


Vandalized print, 2011

How Ya Like Me Now?: David’s Hammon’s whitewashed portrayal of Jesse Jackson angered a group of black youths (who misinterpreted the work as being demeaning and racist) enough to tear down the outdoor installation of the billboard with sledge hammers. After the vandalism Jesse Jackson himself spoke about the incident saying,

“Sometimes art provokes; sometimes it angers. That is a measure of its success. Sometimes it inspires creativity. Maybe the sledgehammers should have been on display too.”

The sledgehammers are now part of the piece and stand as a testament to the power of art and have become part of the artwork’s history and legacy.


David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now?, 1988, Tin, plywood, sledgehammers, Lucky Strike cigarette wrapper, and American flag, Glenstone

Guerilla Girls: The name itself speaks to a rebellious vigilante nature that would most likely upset the general order of things. This billboard designed for the Public Art Fund (PAF) in New York served as an apt critique of the museum; however, not to everyone’s pleasure. The PAF rejected the work stating it was “too provocative.”


Guerilla Girls, Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum? (1990), New York

The NEA Four: In 1990 artist grants were denied by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to performance artists: Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck on the grounds of their provocative subject matter. This incident caused outrage over artist censorship and freedom of speech and snowballed into a Supreme Court Case. In response to Congressional pressure the NEA stopped funding individual artists.


Karen Finley, Shut up and Love Me, Holly Huges, Clit Notes (1996), Tim Miller, My Queer Body (1992), John Fleck, Blessed Are All the Little Fishes (1990)

Marc Quinn: Considered a provocateur, Quinn is know for his unsettling sculptures that considerably challenge the viewer. The controversial sculpture Self created from 9 pints of the artist’s blood caused gasps of repulsion and disgust when first exhibited in 1991. Regardless of Quinn’s socially challenging, squeamish nature his sculptures remain bestsellers within the art world.


Marc Quinn, Self, blood (artist’s), stainless steel, perspex and refrigeration, 1991- ongoing

Shirin Neshat: Socially and politically controversial the photographs and videos of Shirin Neshat challenge the representation of Muslim women. The series entitled  Women of Allah explores martyrdom in a series of self portraits depicting the artist painted with feminist Farsi poetry and in some instances holding a shotgun. These photos speak to the controversial social issues surrounding Middle Eastern women and men.


Shirin Neshat, Women of Allah, 1993-1997

Kara Walker: The racially controversial drawings and cut paper silhouettes depicting sexual and violent scenes particular to the American Civil War era, have caused much shock and discomfort amongst the public. Recently the Newark Public Library covered up one of Walker’s drawings depicting a black female slave having sex with a white man after employees found it “inappropriate and insensitive.”


Kara Walker, Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994, paper

The Holy Virgin Mary: Chris Ofili’s infamous painting caused considerable controversy when it was shown in New York in 1999. The then mayor Rudolph Guliani called the painting “sick” and attempted to withdraw the annual $7 million City Hall grant from the Brooklyn Museum where the painting was housed. A court case ensued over the painting which depicts a Black Madonna surrounded by “butterflies” made out of collaged pornographic images, supported by two resin-coated lumps of elephant dung, the museum eventually won the case. Further distress over the painting occurred, though protected by a plexiglass screen, the painting was vandalized by Dennis Heiner who smeared white paint over the canvas on December 16, 1999.


Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996

My Bed: Consisting of the artist’s bed with bedroom objects in an abject state including but not limited to, condoms, stained sheets, vodka bottles, menstrual stained underwear, and other detritus caused much shock and controversy. This bad girl confessional seemed to be too much for the public and critics who stated it reflected Emin’s “sluttish personality.”


Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998

Maurizio Cattelan: A notorious provocateur, Cattelan’s sculpture La Nona Ora depicting Pope John Paul II being hit by a meteorite was considered a blasphemous act. In 2001 this religiously challenging artwork was vandalized when displayed at Zacheta Gallery in Poland.


Maurizio Cattelan, La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour), 1999

David Černý: Considered the post-Soviet Union’s bad boy,  Černý  is notorious for creating socially and politically controversial works such as his 2002 sculpture Nation to Itself. The artwork was intended to sit atop Prague’s National Theater, but probably due to the offensiveness of the sculpture’s ‘peeing’ nature, the institution cancelled the installation.


David Černý, Nation to Itself, 2002, Prague

Dreamspace V: In 2006 British sculptor Maurice Agis’ large interactive installation Dreamscape V accidentally came off its moorings killing two people and injuring thirteen others. This horrific disaster naturally caused much controversy and in turn Agis charged with negligent manslaughter. Wrought with guilt Agis vowed to never make such large works ever again.


Maurice Agis, Dreamspace V (2006), County Durham, England

Patricia Piccinini: The public has been both shocked and disturbed by the provocative hyperrealistic sculptures of contemporary artists Patricia Piccinini. The controversial sculptures directly challenge ethical issues surrounding biotechnology and genetic engineering.


Patricia Piccinini, The Long Awaited, 2008, Silicone, fibreglass, human hair, leather, plywood, clothing

Ai Weiwei: The most infamous controversial artist of today Ai Weiwei faces contradictory realities of political oppression and international fame. With exhibits at the Tate Modern in London and a recent solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC Ai Weiwei is undoubtedly one of the most prominent artists of the 21st Century, as well as one of the most provocative. His political activism and democratic views have caused strong animosity between Weiwei and the Chinese government. In 2011 Weiwei’s Shanghai studio was demolished without warning and he was then detained and went missing for eighty-one days.


Ai Weiwei: According to What?
From top to bottom: Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995/2009; Colored Vases, 2007-2010.


3 comments on “Shock Factor: Controversial art throughout history

  1. Brett Murray’s painting entitled “The Spear”, was in the South African head-lines for a few weeks. The artist received death threats and the painting was defaced. I wonder whether any other painting, with an overtly political theme has ever been more controversial. 85 days after the destruction of the painting, Marikana occurred.

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