IS THIS ART? 10 Controversial Pieces

Serving as a mirror held up to the face of the world, one of the primary functions of art is to take a closer look at nature and ourselves, reflecting a hard kernel of truth that “washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”, as Picasso said.

Some antiquated work of art might not seem so controversial now, but at the time it was subject to jarring criticism due to the societal mores it wilfully disregarded.

Isn't it the same at any point in time? Sometimes works just kick-off a new movement and therefore, when created, those pieces are hardly been seen as a great piece of art. Years, decades or even generations later, we will know whether it was indeed a great piece of art, or just something.

New media, multimedia and our online-socialised societies are already a playground for a new breed of contemporary artists.


New Portraits | 2014
Richard Prince

In 2014, Richard Prince put up a show – ironically titled New Portraits – consisting of other people’s photos that the artist had just screenshot and printed off of Instagram onto six-foot tall blank canvases.

The only changes he made were cryptic remarks that Prince added to the comment threads. Was this “genius trolling”? Or vulgar appropriation?

The American artist “rephotographed” the images – without permission – and turned them into museum pieces. Depicting scenes of everyday self-obsession, girls in their underwear and stock-like photography, the artworks would not have caused such outrage had they not been sold for as much as $100k.

One of the women on the photos, Missy Suicide from pin-up collective Suicide Girls, began selling the Prince-appropriated image for $90 on the social media platform, with the caption “Do we have Mr. Prince’s permission to sell these prints? We have the same permission from him that he had from us. ;)” A bargain! Same thing, just about 99.9 per cent cheaper than Prince’s ‘original’ copy.


The Holy Virgin Mary | 1996
Chris Ofili

This mixed-media painting by the Turner Prize winning Chris Ofili depicts a black Virgin Mary surrounded by images from blaxploitation movies and female genitalia.

In addition to this, her bare breast was made from elephant dung. Unsurprisingly, when it was exhibited in New York in 1999, art critic Rudy Guiliani called it sick and disgusting and tried to sue the Brooklyn Museum to have it removed.

Other enraged New Yorkers attempted to smear the plexiglass covering by throwing white paint and horse manure at the painting.

Bricks | 1976
Carl Andre

Can some old bricks laid in a rectangular shape on bare floor be art? This puzzle arose in 1976 when the Tate purchased Carle Andre’s Equivalent VIII, more commonly referred to as “a pile of bricks”.

Forty years have passed and The Independent admits: “We still can’t decide”.

Back in the 1970s, the American artist’s work was slammed by critics asking why “taxpayers’ money” had been spent on “a load of bricks”.

Like it or not, visitors rushed to the museum, as Arthur Payne, a Gallery Assistant described to the Evening Standard “...these bricks have really brought the public in. They can't make head or tail of them. Nothing has attracted as much attention as they have.”


The Enigma of Wilhelm Tell | 1933
Salvador Dali

Shocking, weird, offensive and a lot other adjectives can be used to describe this painting from the very famous surrealist painter Salvador Dali. This is one of the strangest paintings to hang in any art museum.

The reason that makes it a controversial piece of art is the way it represents Vladimir linen (the then Russian communist revolutionary, politician and political theorist).

Andre Breton, the founder of surrealism, found this painting so outrageous that he and other Marxists surrealists wanted to destroy it and ruin the reputation of Dali. A lot of his other works are also provocative to look at but which made him famous. History also states that Breton’s anger was more of a professional jealousy.

He thought that Dali’s art had become too commercialised and was threatening the reputation and agenda of surrealists. After this Dali was no longer associated with the surrealists but he never left his paintings ever.


Fountain | 1917
Marcel Duchamp

The apex of Dadaist art, Marcel Duchamp‘s “Fountain” confounded people upon its unveiling.

Taking a urinal and attaching the signature “R.Mutt” to it, the artwork was rejected by many galleries for not being what they considered art.

Now it is recognised as a key philosophical statement regarding what we consider to be a work of value. In recent years performance artists have also tried adding to the urinal by, well, pissing in it.


Blue Poles or Number 11 | 1952
Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock was one of the most influential Abstract Expressionists and is best known for his large ‘action’ paintings, which he made by dripping and splattering paint over large canvases on the floor.

Disillusioned with humanity after the horrors of the Second World War, Pollock began to portray the irrationality of the modern human condition in his wild drip paintings.

Perhaps his most famous work is Blue Poles, also known as Number 11, 1952.

Pollock’s radical painting style initially shocked people, but was soon appropriated by mass culture, something that became symptomatic for that period in art. Pollock, however, remained critical about the direction and reception of his work.


The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living | 1991
Damien Hirst

This creation is a more recent example of a piece of art that has been highly controversial, if only for its high price tag and the gimmick that many art critics and citizens alike believe it to be.


Campbell’s Soup Cans | 1962
Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol, a leading figure in the pop art movement, became one of the most influential and controversial artists of his time.

His work explored the line between artistic expression, celebrity culture, mass production, and mass media culture.

His world-famous 1962 silkscreen painting Campbell’s Soup Cans caused a stir when exhibited in LA – some were intrigued, while many dismissed it and were disdainful.

Warhol once said, while reflecting on his career: “I should have just done the Campbell’s Soups and kept on doing them… because everybody only does one painting anyway.”


For the Love of God | 2007
Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst is one of the most controversial figures in the art scene today.

With his dead animals preserved in formaldehyde selling for as much as £50.000, he is one of the highest-paid artists of his time, and also one of the most heavily criticised.

For the Love of God is a platinum cast of a human skull, which Hirst encrusted with 8601 diamonds.

This artwork was sold for the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist, at £50 million – while it cost £14 million to produce it. The work is meant to question the morality of art and money.

The way that Hirst has created a brand for himself as an artist has disgusted and inspired many, but either way, he has undoubtedly left quite the mark on the art world.


Guernica | 1937
Pablo Picasso

Picasso's great anti-war painting depicts the 1937 bombing of a Basque village by German and Italian fascists in stark blacks and greys.

One story goes that he was challenged about it by a German officer while living in Nazi-occupied France.

Pointing to a photo of the painting, the German asked: "Did you do this?" Picasso replied: "No, you did."

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