Art is a means to express the imagination; things, places, ideas that are unreal or unknowable, in non-grammatical ways that are not tied to the formality of spoken or written language.
Art is subjective. A painting that appears beautiful to one person may be ugly to another. An artwork that inspires awe in one may be seen as offensive and derogatory to another.
Below is a list of five artworks that are controversial:
The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), Chris Ofili
The Holy Virgin Mary is a painting created by a British painter of Nigerian descent, Chris Ofili in 1996. It was one of the works included in the Sensation exhibition in London, Berlin and New York in 1997–2000.
The large painting depicts a black woman wearing a blue robe, a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary. The work employs mixed media, including oil paint, glitter, and polyester resin, and also elephant dung, map pins and collaged pornographic images. The central Black Madonna is surrounded by many collaged images that resemble butterflies at first sight, but on closer inspection are photographs of female genitalia. A lump of dried, varnished elephant dung forms one bared breast.
The mixture of the sacred (Virgin Mary) and the profane (excrement and pornography) became a cause of controversy when the Sensation exhibition moved to New York in 1999. The City of New York and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani brought a court case against the Brooklyn Museum, with Giuliani describing the exhibition of Ofili’s work as “sick” and “disgusting”.
The Last Judgement, 1536–1541, Michelangelo
The Last Judgment is a fresco by the Italian Renaissance painter Michelangelo covering the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. It is a depiction of the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity.
The Last Judgment became controversial as soon as it was seen, with disputes between critics in the Catholic Counter-Reformation and supporters of the genius of the artist and the style of the painting. Michelangelo was accused of being insensitive to proper decorum, regarding nudity and other aspects of the work, and of pursuing artistic effect over following the scriptural description of the event.
Before the work was complete, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena is reported by Vasari as saying that: “it was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns”.
In a move called a fig-leaf campaign, bits of fabric and flora were later painted over the offending anatomy, some of which were later removed as part of a 20th-century restoration.
Myra (1995), Marcus Harvey
Myra is a large painting created by Marcus Harvey in 1995. It was displayed at the Sensation exhibition of Young British Artists at the Royal Academy of Art in London from 8 September to 28 December 1997.
At first sight, it resembles a greatly magnified version of a black and white photograph printed in a newspaper. It was made using casts of an infant’s hand to build up a mosaic of black, grey, and white handprints, creating a reproduction of the iconic police photograph of a hard-faced Myra Hindley.
The painting was included in the controversial Sensation exhibition of Young British Artists at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1997. Four members of the Royal Academy – Craigie Aitchison, Gillian Ayres, Michael Sandle, and John Ward – resigned in protest at its inclusion in the exhibition.
The painting was vandalised twice by two different artists – Peter Fisher and Jacques Rolé – on the opening day of the exhibition, 18 September 1997.
Piss Christ (1987), Andres Serrano
Immersion (Piss Christ) is a 1987 photograph by the American artist and photographer Andres Serrano. It depicts a small plastic crucifix submerged in a small glass tank of the artist’s urine.
The work generated a large amount of controversy based on assertions that it was blasphemous. Serrano himself said of the controversy: “I had no idea Piss Christ would get the attention it did, since I meant neither blasphemy nor offense by it. I’ve been a Catholic all my life, so I am a follower of Christ.”
In 1987, Serrano’s Piss Christ was exhibited at the Stux Gallery in New York and was favourably received. The piece later caused a scandal when it was exhibited in 1989, with detractors, including United States Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms, outraged that Serrano received $15,000 for the work and $5,000 in 1986 from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts. Serrano received death threats and hate mail, and he lost grants due to the controversy.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Pablo Picasso
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a large oil painting created in 1907 by the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. The work, part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, portrays five nude female prostitutes in a brothel on Carrer d’Avinyó, a street in Barcelona. Les Demoiselles was revolutionary and controversial and led to widespread anger and disagreement, even amongst the painter’s closest associates and friends. At the time of its first exhibition in 1916, the painting was deemed immoral.