Ten of History's Most Controversial Artworks

Ten of History's Most Controversial Artworks

Text by Alex Allenchey
October 13, 2014
All art, regardless of style, is capable of inspiring varied reactions and discussions, but the handful of artworks highlighted in this exhibition have fueled some of the most heated and fiery debates of the past three centuries. While the controversy that surrounded these works when they were initially shown has since died down—many are now seen as masterpieces and most of the artists have gone on to have prosperous careers—some of the disputes still smolder, proving art’s timeless ability to provoke, challenge, and engage.
The people of Paris were shocked in 1885, when Manet’s "Olympia" was shown in the Salon, France’s annual, government-sponsored art show. The picture of a reclining nude proved provocative not for its subject matter, which was a common trope in academic painting, but the way in which it was presented. The work’s allusions to prostitution, when combined with the confrontational gaze of the undressed woman, which deviated from art historical precedents, and the artist’s uncommonly bold brushstrokes proved to be too much for the public at the time, earning Manet immense amounts of derision from attendees of the exhibition.

Continuing the artistic revolution begun by Manet, Courbet’s anatomically accurate painting "L’Origine du monde" presented eroticism in neither a mythological nor dreamlike setting, but rather depicted the female form in highly realistic manner that was unconventional for the 19th century. While the painting was deemed too risqué to be exhibited in its original time, it has also garnered some recent controversy as users who posted the image on their Facebook pages saw their accounts disabled soon thereafter.

More than any one individual artwork, it was the collection of over 150 photographs comprising the 1989 exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment that created a massive national controversy involving issues of censorship and obscene imagery. While the artist’s work, often black-and-white images of nudes, had been shown during his lifetime without incident—Mapplethorpe had died from an AIDS related illness earlier in the year—politicians and conservative organizations took issue with the graphic homoerotic and sadomasochistic content of some of the images and the role of government sponsorship in the arts. Under these political pressures and threats of decreased funding, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. declined to host the exhibition. The incident became a seminal moment in the “culture wars” of the 1990s.

The 12-foot high and 120-foot long bowed wall of steel that comprised Richard Serra’s "Tilted Arc," which was commissioned in 1981 by the U.S. government’s Arts-in-Architecture program for the Federal Plaza in New York City, was met with opposition almost immediately after its installation. Workers in the surrounding vicinity complained that the sculpture disrupted their daily lives, and despite arguments for the work’s merit from artists and art professionals, "Tilted Arc" was removed in 1989 following a public hearing that spurred an ongoing debate about public popularism and its place in determining the value of art.

Displayed as part of the 2010 exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., the four-minute excerpt from David Wojnarowicz’s film “A Fire in My Belly” sparked a massive firestorm of political controversy. An 11-second scene within the piece depicts ants crawling over a crucifix, a clip which caused an uproar from Republican politicians who deemed the work, originally made in 1987 to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim, as being offensive to Christians and demanded that the entire exhibition, itself a celebration of the place of gay and lesbian art in American history, be cancelled. Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough ultimately capitulated to political pressure and decided to remove the video from the exhibition.

As part of the touring exhibition Sensation, which included works owned by collector Charles Saatchi and made stops in both London and Berlin, Chris Ofili’s "The Holy Virgin Mary" received little to no fanfare until it landed in New York in 1999 when the show came to the Brooklyn Museum. The large painting depicts a black Madonna rendered in resin-covered elephant feces and surrounded by collages of pornographic images symbolizing seraphim, prompted then mayor Rudy Giuliani to deem the work offensive, later filing a suit against the institution in an attempt to withdraw the museum’s annual $7 million City Hall grant, which he subsequently lost. Though Ofili, winner of the UK’s prestigious Turner Prize, created many other paintings from elephant dung, none have raised quite as big a stink as this one.

Another work that featured prominently in the “culture wars” was Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph of a small plastic crucifix submerged in his own urine. A critique on the “billion-dollar Christ-for-profit industry,” the piece unsurprisingly inspired much disdain from the religious community for its purported lack of respect for the Christian faith. Having won one of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s 1988 “Awards in the Visual Arts," "Immersion (Piss Christ)," like some of the other examples in this exhibition, incited much debate regarding taxpayer-supported art, due to the fact that the publicly funded National Endowment for the Arts was one of the award’s sponsors. The image remains highly contentious and in past years has been attacked in multiple acts of vandalism.

Though live animals had been previously included in art exhibitions, none garnered as much worldwide attention as the dog in Guillermo Vargas’s 2007 exhibition Exposición N. 1. The show, which took place in Managua, Nicaragua, prominently featured a wanly local street dog tied on a short leash to a metal cable, with the words “Eres lo que less” (“You are what you read”) written in dog food on the wall of the gallery. The exhibition quickly became a viral phenomenon once reports began circulating that the dog had allegedly died while in captivity and over 4 million readers signed an online petition demanding criminal charges be filed against the artist despite an overwhelming lack of proof as to the dog’s demise. Vargas’s stunt raises interesting questions regarding both the involvement of live animals in artworks and the disproportionate amount of attention given to a single example of suffering in contrast to the adversities of dogs—and humans—the world over.

Perhaps one of the most important works of the 20th century, Marcel Duchamp’s "Fountain" first gained its notoriety for being famously rejected from a 1917 exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. While the Board of Directors, of which Duchamp was a member, were obligated by the society’s constitution to accept all works that members submitted, they decreed that "Fountain," a mass-produced urinal that Duchamp had rotated and signed with a pseudonym, was not suitable for the show. Breaking from the conventions of artistic definition at the time, the piece has since inspired much discussion about the role of artistic intention in transforming ordinary objects into artworks.