5 Controversial Works of Art

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Fine art pushes the boundaries of human expression more than any other discipline. Consistently forerunners of the leading edge of consciousness, visionary artists are only content when pushing the limits of definitions, exploring new territories of consciousness, and trampling on the status quo which keeps the everyman content in homogenized simplicities which belie the complexity inherent in the universe. Thus, many artists and works of art greatly offend the general public, and the best ones greatly offend the art industry itself who pride themselves on being the custodians of culture. However, it is the artists only who are the custodians, and the harbingers of new vistas of experience. The following five works of art may be controversial, but to look into the roots of that broiling drama is to look at the repressed heart of the artist in every person.

The Artist is Present 

Groundbreaking performance artist Marina Abramovic held her career retrospective at the MOMA from March 14 to May 31, 2010. During this period she sat still in a chair opposite a table and an empty chair for visitors to sit in and gaze upon her. The work was her longest to date, 736-hours, requiring two years of physical, mental, and emotional training to rewire her circadian rhythm to withstand the demands of nothing. The work has roots in her earlier performance work with her collaborator Ullay, but breaks new grounds of intimacy for her and her audience. The results of the controversial performance would have a profound impact on the life of the artist and the lives of those who sat with her, simply being together, present. 

During “The Artist is Present” Abramovic gazed upon her visitor without judgement, demand, but with compassion and objectivity. Many people became ecstatically happy, many cried, and some were mystified by their complex emotional reactions. During this time Abramovic’s emotional sensitivity and “beingness” allowed her to perceive the authenticity of her participants, and she came to realize that the majority of humanity is harboring a deep well of sadness, an overwhelming bleakness which is often repressed through manic business of the mundane. After the close of the work Abramovic chose to open an Institute (MAI: in construction) whereby she can help the public heal this collective wound through her disciplines, and the power of performance art.

"The Artist is Present” is a living paradox of art. In one sense it is extremely simple: two people sit across from each other looking into each other’s eyes and say nothing for a period of time. However, in another sense it is extremely complex: two souls allow themselves to be nakedly exposed to each other without the artifice of culture, identity, or any of the qualifiers of language, only the quality of their gaze to speak of their inner world. While some art critics found this work to be amazing, revolutionary, and timeless, others found it meaningless, narcissist, and an example of the degradation of post-postmodernism in the floundering contemporary art world. 

Just as the work itself covered a vast gamut of experience with its paradoxical foundations, commentary and criticism said everything that could be said about the work. One example of criticism devoid of the only qualifying factor that would make it accurate, participation, was;

In a sense the whole business is another act of self-enshrinement in the art world’s ego Olympics, and that’s not interesting. Divas are a dime a dozen, and I don’t trust charisma anyway. More interesting, because it ties in with her impulse to conserve a possibly unconservable art form, is the way “The Artist Is Present” attempts to control time, hers and ours (Cotter).

As a powerful women in a man’s world Abramovic has been called everything throughout her career, and while insults always hurt she has come to understand that when people criticize what they do not understand or have not experienced they are simply expressing the limits of their fear and the brackets of their closed heart. That is why she now dedicates her art practice to helping people slow down, open their minds, connect with their bodies, and find the simplicity of the divine within-always a controversial subject.

Tilted Arc 

In 1981 sculptor Richard Serra installed the large public work, Tilted Arc. This work, is of cor-ten steel, 120 feet long, 12 feet high, 2 1/2 inches thick, and 72 tons. The Arc’s surface is unadorned. It is located in the Federal Plaza (also known as Foley Square) in lower Manhattan in front of the Jacob K. Javits federal office building and surrounded by other federal and state buildings. The Arc tilts slightly toward the office building and the trade courthouse and sweeps across the center of the plaza, dividing it into two distinct areas. (Arizona College of Fine Arts)

This work became controversial for many reasons. One, people found it to be ugly. Two, it forces people to walk around it to pass through the courtyard. Three, it cuts off the view of the architecture of the plaza. The controversy was immediately felt. In fact, “Two months after its installation, a petition with 1300 signatures of federal employees working in and around the plaza requesting the removal of the sculpture was submitted to the GSA” (Arizona College of Fine Arts). Serra was not surprised, part of his motivation was to confront the busy people of New York with an ugly obstacle which they would be forced to reconcile with on a daily basis. However, in the world of consumerism, this message was rejected and the sculpture was removed from the plaza.

The Fountain

Founder of the Ready-Made (aka Found Art) movement, Marcel Duchamp so shocked the art world that he had to create his own gallery to show his and his friends work. Submitting a discarded urinal he titled “Fountain”, Duchamp signed it R Mutt and paid the entrance fee into the outsider exhibit. It was hilarious, it was offensive, and it offered a new take on the  philosophic quandary “What is art?” At the time his perspective was not appreciated, but hindsight has a way of balancing such extremes;

And what happened to the original? The best guess, according to Calvin Tomkins in his biography of Duchamp, is that it was thrown out as rubbish by Stieglitz shortly afterwards (a common fate of Duchamp's early ready-mades). By a delicious irony that the artist must have enjoyed, all the versions of Fountain now extant - including the one in the Tate show - are not ready-made at all, but carefully crafted hand-made facsimiles of that ‘Bedfordshire’ urinal (Gayford).

This controversial work once thrown in the trash, and then honored with a replica in one of the most respected galleries reveals that one answer to the question of what is art, is that an idea, a novel idea can be art as much as anything can. 

Man in Polyester Suit

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work is generally all controversial. Featuring photographs of genitalia in pristine black and white, the artist confronted the repressed sexuality and Puritanism which so limits the enjoyment of life, culture, and sexuality. His most controversial picture, “Man in Polyester Suit” features a close shot of a black man in a suit with his large penis fully exposed out the front of his pants. While this would have been shocking in most contexts, the fact that the featured penis is black is what puts it over the edge of obscenity for critics, who call it “filthy art” (Munoz-Alonso). 

Mapplethorpe was sued over this work for obscenity in 1990, which is the first time an art museum was sued for the content of its shows. The sexuality of black men has always been seen as a threat by white patriarchal order, and this work was unacceptable to the public. However, the museum and Mapplethorpe were acquitted of the charges based on freedom of expression. This was after a two-hour deliberation, and if the museum owner had lost he would have faced jail time. In response to this controversy, the museum owner said “This was a major battle for art and for creativity, for the continuance of creativity in this country,…Mapplethorpe was an important artist. It was a beautiful show. It should never have been in court” (Munoz-Alonso). However, the groundbreaking work of Mapplethorpe has not led to a lessening of cultural sensitivity over nudity and sexuality. If anything the 21st century has seen a resurgence of repression and sexual squeamishness. 


As a harbinger of the widespread consumerism which art is now heir to, Andy Warhol’s work “Brillo” continues to challenge contemporary aesthetics, art theory, and question the boundaries of art and culture-if there are any? An enlargement of the brillo pad boxes for sale;

The finished sculptures were virtually indistinguishable from their cardboard supermarket counterparts. Warhol first exhibited these at the Stable Gallery in 1964, cramming the space with piled-high boxes that recalled a cramped grocery warehouse. He invited collectors to buy them by the stack, and though they did not sell well, the boxes caused much controversy.

Most people did not know what to think of Warhol’s work, still don’t in fact. Used to being told what is what, “The media has always created ‘in-style’ images that consumers are supposed to follow, but these unknowns showed viewers that it was possible to be whoever they want and still grab their share of the limelight” (Wallace). As a result of this free flowing career, Warhol opened many new doors for artists to make money off of their work, some for good some for ill. One of the dark side shows to Warhol’s movement may be the current endemic of people stealing images off the Internet and selling them as their own art, as the now famous Richard Prince has done. Prince takes other people’s Instagram pictures, slaps a few comments on there, and sells them for up to $100,000 (Price). Since the controversy surrounding this theft it appears he may become even more popular. 


Art and controversy are bedfellows who will not be parting ways anytime soon. The limits of expression have yet to reach any type of limit or pinnacle, and the rates of the status quo ensure that controversy will always be awaiting those with brilliant voices. These are but five of many examples of how artists push the limits.

Works Cited

Arizona College of Fine Arts. “Richard Serra: The Case of Tilted Arc.” Retrieved from: http://www.cfa.arizona.edu/are476/files/tilted_arc.html

Cotter, Holland. “Art Review: Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.” The New York Times, 11 Mar. 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/12/arts/design/12abromovic.html

Gayford, Martin. “Duchamp's Fountain: The practical joke that launched an artistic revolution.” The Telegraph, 16 Fe. 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3671180/Duchamps-Fountain-The-practical-joke-that-launched-an-artistic-revolution.html

Munoz-Alonso, Lorena. “Robert Mapplethorpe’s Most Controversial Photograph Hits the Auction Block After 23 Years.” Artnet.com, 2 Oct. 2015. Retrieved from: https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/robert-mapplethorpe-controversial-photograph-auctioned-336990

Price, Rob. “An artist is making $100,000 a pop off other people's Instagram photos — and it could be totally legal.” Business Insider, 22 May 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.businessinsider.com/richard-lewis-instagram-photos-100000-dollars-new-york-new-portraits-copyright-2015-5

Warhol. “Brillo: But is it Art?” Warhol.org, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.warhol.org/education/resourceslessons/Brillo--But-is-it-Art-/

Wallace, Chalsey. “Andy Warhol: Visionary or Sell-out?” Mhllearningsolutions.com, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.mhlearningsolutions.com/commonplace/index.php?q=node/3772