10 Controversial Artworks That Changed Art History

Throughout history, artists have been causing controversy, attempting to subvert the dominant structures in society, and provoking people to see life differently. After all, isn’t the role of the artist to create new perspectives? Meet some of the most daring provocateurs of the art world from the past few centuries.

Édouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, 1863.

Édouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, 1863
Édouard Manet’s famous painting was rejected by the Salon in Paris in 1863, and instead exhibited at the Salon des Refusés, where it generated quite the scandal. The unabashed presence of the nude woman, surrounded by fully clothed men in the dress of that period, scandalized the art world and the public. Even Manet’s style in this painting was considered shocking, since he made far more brutal contrasts between light and dark than was usual in that period. Manet’s refusal to conform to conventional methods in Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe is often regarded as the departure point for Modern Art.


Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917.

Marcel Duchamp – Fountain, 1917
Arguably the most controversial artwork of the 20th century, Fountain is the quintessential ‘readymade’, an everyday object that is turned into an artwork because the artist decides it is art. In 1917, Duchamp submitted a urinal to the newly established Society of Independent Artists. The Society refused Fountain, arguing that it could not be considered a work of art. Duchamp’s Fountain incited countless important questions such as “what makes something a work of art?”, and “what is the role of art institutions in evaluating and qualifying art?” These are questions that helped form the direction of art from the 20th century up until this day.


Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Pablo Picasso’s huge 1937 mural Guernica, which depicts the massacre of a Basque village in 1937, has since become a representation of every city ever bombed. It is one of the most powerful artistic decries against fascism, and has been a point of contention throughout the years due to its strong, critical message. Picasso refused to have it on display in Spain until justice had been restored there, and when it was on display at the MoMa in 1967, artists petitioned for it to be removed as a protest against the Vietnam War. In 2003, a tapestry version of Guernica was covered up at the United Nations.


Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles or Number 11, 1952
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.


Warhol, Andy

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962
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.”


Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987
Piss Christ is a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano, depicting a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass tank of Serrano’s urine. The piece caused a huge scandal and outrage from senators because Serrano had received taxpayer-funded support from the National Endowment for the Arts, and because many found the piece to be blasphemous. In this period, Serrano received death threats and hate mail. In 2011, a print of the piece was vandalized during an exhibition in Avignon, France.

Guerilla Girls, Do Women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?, 1989
The Guerilla Girls are a group of feminist activist artists, who use facts, humor, and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias and corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture. In 1989, they designed this billboard for the Public Art Fund (PAF) in New York, aimed to criticize the museum institutions for under-representing female artists and objectifying women. The PAF rejected this piece, deeming it “too provocative.” Instead, the Guerilla Girls rented advertising space on NYC buses and ran the ad themselves.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
Ai Weiwei is one of the great provocateurs of our time, whose work heavily criticizes the Chinese government and fights for freedom of expression. Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn depicts the artist as he smashes a 200-year-old ceremonial urn, of significant symbolic and cultural worth. Many called this an act of desecration, to which Weiwei replied: “General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.”

Tracy Emin, My Bed, 1998
My Bed is the artwork that instantly cemented Tracy Emin as one of the most controversial and most celebrated artists in the UK. When My Bed was first exhibited at Tate Britain in 1999, reactions were extremely mixed, with some people utterly disgusted and deeply critical, and others completely enraptured. Love it or hate it, this confessional piece managed to address taboos about people’s most intimate spaces, failure, depression, female imperfections, and bodily fluids.

Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007
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 criticized. 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.

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