10 Famous Controversial Art Pieces In History

Added by Edan Barak on Nov 28, 2021
controversial art

The difference between good art and great art is that great art challenges our perceptions, biases and assumptions of the world in order to drive a point home. This kind of art demands an artist who thinks outside the box and isn't afraid to place an often ugly mirror in society's face, even if that could possibly mean angering many people in the process.

Sometimes, these artists aren't satisfied with merely pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable. In fact, the most controversial of these artists completely ignore all social constraints in their quest for truth. The more their art manages to shock, outrage and offend - the more controversy they incite - the better for their message.

The pieces below are, in my opinion, ten of the most hotly debated works ever to have entered the art world. Should these works of art be removed and banned, or has everyone created a lot of fuss over nothing? I'd love to read your comments on whether or not you find them controversial - and why.

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Myra by Marcus Harvey

If you're familiar with Myra Hindley (the woman who abducted, tortured, sexually abused and then buried fuve children alongside Ian Brady in what became known as the 'Moors murders') then you'll probably recognize the infamous black and white photograph of her face. At a first glance, Myra just appears to be a version of this photograph that has been blown up to a very large scale. However, it's only on closer inspection that you will see that it's actually not the same photograph at all - the image has been recreated using hundreds of children's hand prints.

Bearing Myra Hindley's background in mind, it's easy to see why there was such a furore surrounding this painting. Not only was an art gallery displaying a huge image of one of the most hated women in England, but some argued that linking the woman and hundreds of children left a bad taste in the mouth. Even Myra herself wrote to the gallery and asked for the painting to be removed, out of consideration for the families of her own victims, as well as the families of any other children who had been killed. When a murderer - a woman not exactly known for her compassion - asks for such an image of herself to be removed, you know it has to be bad!

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Eres Lo Que Lees (You Are What You Read) by Guillermo Vargas

In Eres Lo Que Lees (You Are What You Read), Guillermo Vargas has created one of the most controversial pieces in history - even I find it difficult to call this 'art'. He chained an apparently underweight dog to the wall of the art gallery, with a bowl of food just out of its reach.

It seems to be a horrendous, cruel thing to do to a dog on purpose - especially a dog that already appears to be hungry. The message behind the piece is a good one: it was supposed to highlight the fact that people could get so incensed by a starving dog in an art gallery, but minutes later they could completely disregard a starving dog that they might pass on the street. The message is important, but the way in which the artist carried it out is just heart-wrenching - and you don't have to be an animal lover to agree. Naturally, this piece became hugely controversial because it involved an animal's wellbeing. The gallery claimed that the dog was being fed, but the principle remains. Any person with half a heart in them would find this appaling. Just because it's in a gallery doesn't mean it's art!

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso is such a famous, popular artist that it's difficult to believe that he was actually behind one of the most controversial works of art of all time. It's true - he painted Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. It's an enormous painting that shows the atrocities that took place during the German bombing and massacre of a town called Guernica in Spain. Understandably, this topic was hugely controversial and completely divided opinion, especially when you consider that the painting was actually used as a propaganda tool. This is one painting that may have shaken up people who saw it, but at the same time it managed to show that art can be a tool which is more useful than just looking pretty!

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The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili

Artwork that features religious figures is always going to be controversial in one way or another - it always appeals to some groups more than others. However, I can't help but feel that Chris Ofili took it one step too far with this painting, The Holy Virgin Mary. Going by the title alone, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's a pretty innocent picture. It's not. First of all, the Virgin Mary is depicted as being black, and her figure is surrounded by numerous pornographic images. As if that wasn't enough, the artist placed the canvas atop two piles of elephant dung which have been coated with resin. It's almost as if Ofili decided to think up every single potentially offensive element that he could, before throwing them all together into the same piece.

Whether you're religious or not, you can probably see why so many people were up in arms. After all, it's not exactly the most respectful. As a result, the Brooklyn Museum (where the painting was housed) nearly lost $7 million worth of funding, all because of this one piece. However, the art world fought back. Eventually the museum won its case and the funding was reinstated. This was a victory for the gallery, but the jury's out on whether it was really a victory for the art world.

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Piss Christ by Andres Serrano

I've mentioned before how religious works of art can often be controversial. Well, would you believe it, Andres Serrano has taken it to new heights - even more so than the last religious-focused piece on this list! The name Piss Christ is enough to turn your stomach, and the piece itself only gets worse. It is made up of a photograph of a plastic crucifix which has been submerged in what appears to be a glass of the artist's urine.

The contents of Piss Christ caused a massive outrage, especially amongst Christian and religious communities. However, the situation was just amplified when it became known that the artist received $20,000 for the work, from the National Endowment for the Arts - which comes straight out of the taxpayers' back pockets. Amidst all the outrage, Serrano received death threats and hate mail with regards to this piece; the controversy surrounding it continues to this very day, despite the fact that it is nearly 30 years old. Can this type of work ever be justified, or does it take 'art' one step too far?

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Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

Fountain by Marcel Duchamp is probably one of the earliest examples of what we would nowadays call 'modern art'. In other words, it's an example of art that some people would say isn't really art at all. Quite simply, this piece is made of urinal placed on its side. That's nothing out of the ordinary by today's standards, but bear in mind that it was created in 1917, almost 100 years ago.

At that time, art was still fairly traditional and conservative; the world hadn't seen most of the revolutions and changes that have made society into what it is today. Suddenly, for someone to declare that a urinal was 'art' was completely shocking - more so than we realize. Of course, this piece sparked much debate at the time, leaving its mark in history as one of the most controversial works of art of all time.

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The Nude Maja by Francisco Goya

The Nude Maja by Francisco Goya was finished way back in 1803. To our modern eyes it looks fairly tame (especially when compared to many of the other pieces on this list!), but it's difficult for us to completely understand just how controversial this painting was 200 years ago. At that time the nudity was shocking in itself, but it was the woman's confidence that made the painting really controversial. She appears to be looking out of the canvas, straight at the viewer - this was simply unheard of at the time.

It is true that other much earlier works such as Titian's Venus of Urbino influenced this work of art, and this piece did itself influence other, later artists: Manet is just one example, with his painting entitled Olympia. Nowadays it doesn't enjoy the same controversy as it did when it was first painted, but taking into account its sociocultural context, it remains one of the most controversial works of art of all time.

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Tilted Arc by Richard Serra

What constitutes 'art'? That's one of the questions that was posed by Richard Serra's piece entitled Tilted Arc. He designed a curved wall that was made from metal; it measured 12 feet tall and was installed in the middle of Manhattan Plaza. The aim was to make people more aware of the space they were in - instead of walking straight from building to building, this wall would force them to change direction and look at the space through new eyes. The light and the shape of the space would change with every step, altering people's perceptions. Isn't that what art is all about?

Sadly, not many people thought so. It was widely agreed that this piece was more of a hindrance than anything else, because it forced people to go out of their ways. If you ask me, that's rather sad - if you're too busy and work-focused to walk a few steps further and appreciate the space around you at the same time, then you're not living life to the full! Nevertheless, this piece was removed eventually. Ironically (and amusingly) the installation that was chosen to replace Tilted Arc ended up being even more of an obstruction to people who tried to cross the plaza! The morals of this story are: take the time to look at the world in a new way, and be careful what you wish for!

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Shark by David Cerny

Damien Hirst is no stranger to controversy, especially when it comes to his piece entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, which features a shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. Here, David Cerny has drawn heavily on the aforementioned controversial work. Shark features an almost-nude model of Saddam Hussein - he appears handcuffed, floating in a tank of formaldehyde. Anything which bears reference to both a highly controversial public figure and another controversial work of art is guaranteed to get tongues wagging, and this is no exception. It was actually banned in several countries including Poland; Belgium banned it because they didn't want to upset its Muslim communities. However, the artist should be used to this by now. Much controversy has surrounded his other pieces, two of which have included a statue of St Wenceslas riding a dead horse, and another statue featuring two men urinating into a pool

The question is: is Shark art or a political statement? I'll let you decide...

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My Bed by Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin is well known for her controversial art. This piece was shortlisted for the Turner Prize, a highly prestigious award held by the Tate Britain art gallery, so it received much media attention. The title of this piece pretty much says it all - it shows an unmade bed covered with stains and bodily fluids. Strewn beside the bed is a whole number of unwholesome items, such as condoms and dirty underwear - not the sort of thing you'd typically expect from art! Naturally, during its time in the spotlight it caused much discussion, controversy and debate due to its scruffy and dirty nature. However, some could argue that this discussion was healthy, as the piece took a very honest look at life, especially when dealing with depression. However nasty it may seem, is art that invites discussion and opens people's eyes to very real problems really such a bad thing?

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