Curious to learn all about controversy within the art world? So are we! And that’s exactly why we’ve done a deep dive into the subject, making this list for the most controversial artworks ever created!
Hold on tight, this is going to get wild.
Controversy. By definition, controversy is a ‘prolonged public disagreement or heated discussion’. It’s a subject or action that sparks uproar or debate, and usually for good reason! It’s something that can pop up anywhere, in any moment of time - and that certainly doesn’t exclude even the earliest of eras. Art is most definitely no exception to controversy either. In fact, there are probably more controversial artworks than any other media. And that solely down to the fact that art is a form of self-expression, something in which people use to express their deepest of thoughts; everyone views the world very differently and has their own morals and ethics. It’s inevitable that people somewhere along the line will create something controversial.
But, without further ado… let’s get into our list!
Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? - Guerilla Girls, 1989
Starting off with a piece that conveys a very powerful message by a group of artists who have created numerous artworks reinforcing that same statement… ‘Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum?’. With a strong title in itself, this piece was made by a group of feminist activist artists in 1989 for the Public Art Fund as a billboard and aimed to criticise museums for under-representing female artists as well as objectifying women.The PFA inevitably rejected their artwork claiming that it was ‘too provocative’ and, so, they ran it themselves as an ad on NYC buses!
The Guerilla Girls used facts, humour and shocking visuals in attempts to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film and pop culture. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily deem this piece controversial today, it caused huge debate back when it was released in the late 80’s which, if anything, proves as a great example of how times have changed.
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn - Ai Weiwei, 1995
Ai Weiwei was a provocateur, which for people who don’t know is someone that deliberately behaves controversially in order to provoke arguments or other strong reactions. His work heavily criticises the Chinese government in his fight for freedom of expression. In 1995, Weiwei released ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, a photograph that depicts him smashing a 200-year-old ceremonial urn, an urn with huge symbolic and cultural worth. I can definitely see where people were divided with this one - whilst I can see why people were upset about the subject, the reasoning behind the piece was of great importance and if that’s what it takes to spark much needed change then… power to him!
Many were furious about the destruction of such a sacred urn but Weiwei responded to the criticism stating that ‘General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.’.
My Bed - Tracy Emin, 1998
It seems as though the 90’s was a popular time for controversy! In 1998, Tracy Emin created a piece so debate worthy, she became one of the most controversial yet celebrated artists in the UK. First exhibited at Tate Britain in 1999 ‘My Bed’ received mixed reactions. Some felt the artwork was close to home in the way in which it depicts depression whilst others thought that it was just plain disgusting.
The artwork featured an unmade bed, soiled underwear, worn pantyhose, empty vodka bottles and used condoms and was able to challenge taboos regarding people’s most intimate spaces, failure, depression, female imperfections and bodily fluids. Artists criticised Emin, stating that anyone could put a messy bedroom on display but despite that fact, the piece ended up selling for a whopping £150k… so who’s the real winner?
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - Damien Hirst, 1991
Damien Hirst is probably one of, if not the most, controversial artist known to date for his art involving dead animals, yes you read that right. This is somehow one of the least disturbing of the several artworks he’s created revolving around death, which really puts into perspective how shocking his other pieces are. ‘A Thousand Years’ being the very worst. I do not recommend Googling it. I mean it. Don’t let curiosity get the best of you.
In 1991, Hirst caused huge debate upon the release of this particular piece which featured a dead tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde. Again, somehow this is the least gruesome of the lot. Think about that. Animal rights groups across the globe were furious, believing the practice to be inhumane - and, rightfully so.
Hirst snapped back at the controversy by explaining that the reason so many people were outraged was because ‘we struggle to process the concept of death to such a degree that we continue to imagine [his] shark is actually still alive’. Alive or dead, this artwork feels wrong on so many levels.
The Gross Clinic - Thomas Eakin, 1875
At first glance, there is nothing overly controversial about this painting but that’s what makes it so interesting! Back in the 1800’s the piece was beyond picked apart for being ‘graphic’ with a surgery procedure being the subject. It was said that the calmness of the doctors is what distressed viewers most. Since then, we’ve clearly grown a huge amount as people, with all things health and medicine being so outwardly spoken about today - which is exactly why it made our list. It’s interesting to think that things that are so controversial today, might become completely normal in a hundred years time and vice versa!
With that, we’ve come to the end of our list for the most controversial artworks ever created. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out our other art-themed blogs as well as keep an eye out for any future posts!