Fountain, Marcel Duchamps, 1917

Top Ten Controversial Artworks

‘Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’

– Banksy

Banksy’s quote brings to the foray an important fact about contemporary art- that the traditional notions have been redefined drastically in the last couple of decades. Art is increasingly becoming a useful tool with which artists constantly question the way we look at the world, and challenge our perceptions of it.

One of the best ways for an artist to make a mark in the art world is to be surrounded by a cloud of controversy. They take up various socio-political and religious concerns which are sensitive topics for one or the other community, as themes in their works in order to shock, disturb or make a statement.

Artsome lists ten controversial works of art in recent times.

1. La Nona Ora, Maurizio Cattelan, 1999

This work is part of an installation in Venice held at that time connected to two recent stories, the Pope’s announcement of his resignation on Monday February 11, and the meteor falling in the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on Friday, February 15. Cattelan combines the two events to present a satiric interpretation.

2. Fountain, Marcel Duchamps, 1917

The Dada movement was marked by Marcel Duchamps’ infamous(at the time) exhibit of a found urinal which he laid on its back, signed it R. Mutt and named it ‘Fountain’. It was met with extreme reactions by critics when it first appeared in 1917 at an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. While the original was lost soon after the exhibition, the object is perfectly symbolic of the Dada moveemnt as ‘anti-art’.

3. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damien Hirst, 1991

English artist Damien Hirst, who was part of the Young British Artist (YBA) scene of the early 90’s created this particular work to express the transient nature of death and bring viewers face to face with their worst fears. According to the artist, the title was, “just a statement that I had used to describe the idea of death to myself”.

While some felt it was more of a publicity stunt to sensationalize his work, the tiger shark has become a defining piece in British art and is one of the most controversial works in recent times.

4. Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, Tracey Emin, 1995-2004

Made in 1995, Tacey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 was controversial because of its sexual subject matter, Emin used the process of appliqué to sew the names of all the people that she has ever shared a bed with – including lovers, friends and family – onto the inside of a small tent. To view the work, the audience had to crawl inside the tent. When faced with mockery she defended her work saying that the sexual aspect was only one part of it. It was destroyed in a fire in 2004 after which Emin decided not to recreate it.

5. Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937

One of Picasso’s most politically charged works, Guernica is an eminent work from the Cubist perspective. It was inspired by (and named after) the bombing of the small Spanish town by the Nazi’s on April 26, 1937. Due to the monstrous nature of the attack, which was perpetrated on unarmed civilians, Picasso created it to document the tragedy.

6. Self-Portrait(as a sick Bacchus), Caravaggio, circa 1593-94

The painting shows a pale figure with blue lips which hints towards a serious disease called Syphilis, a sexually claimed disease which was widespread in the 19th century. self-portrait of the artist himself, Caravaggio was suffering from the disease due to having multiple love partners in his life. The artist choosing himself to be painted as Bacchus (symbol in Greek mythology which stands for sexual liberation) is what makes this painting controversial. Rumored to have killed his lover and lived the rest of his life running from authorities; adds up to the controversy of his paintings.

7. The Rape, Rene Magritte, 1935

Painted in 1935, Magritte’s The Rape is visually disturbing to say the least. Aside from political underpinnings, the depiction and naming itself seems like a violation. Appearing like a portrait, the painting shows the face of a woman but instead of the familiar features, her eyes have been replaced by breasts, her nose by a belly button and her mouth by her pubis. Heavily inspired by Surrealism, the painting points a metaphorical finger towards the ‘male gaze’; of how men might see women primarily for their anatomy.

8. Dropping the Urn, Ai Weiwei, 1995

Engaged in a deep dialogue with Chinese culture, art and craft, Ai Weiwei is an artist who is bent on redefining any preconcieved notion relating to them. His outrageous acts and art projects have made him a direct target for the Chinese authorities. Dropping valuable urns and vases which are thousands of years old has become symbolic of his unique brand of protest art. Urns of this vintage are usually cherished for their anthropological importance. By employing them as readymades, Ai strips them of their original significance. He transforms precious artifacts—treating them as base and valueless by painting, dropping, grinding, or slapping with a logo—into contemporary fine art.

9. The Sirens of the Lambs, Banksy, 2013

One of the most controversial street artists in current times, Banksy with his latest installation ‘Siren of the Lambs’, brings the issue of factory farming and animal cruelty to the streets. Stuffed animals were seen crying out for help from a slaughterhouse van which circled the meatpacking district in New York on October 11th, 2013.

10. Los Intocables, Erik Ravelo, 2013

A new series produced by Cuban Artist Erik Ravelo titled ‘The untouchables’ shows children being exploited for various reasons in countries such as Brazil, Syria, Thailand, United States and Japan. Facebook deemed the material too shocking and removed it from the website. A petition was started to allow the artist to display the work on Facebook.

“The first image refers to pedophilia in the Vatican. Second child sexual abuse in tourism in Thailand, and the third refers to the war in Syria. The fourth image refers to the trafficking of organs on the black market, where most of the victims are children from poor countries; fifth refers to weapons free in the U.S.. And finally, the sixth image refers to obesity, blaming the big fast food companies.”