What Makes a Controversial Art Project Controversial?

November 28, 2016

What is controversial in controversial art pieces? Is it the audacity of presentation, obscenity, perceived blasphemy or something else? We will try to answer this question by examining some of the indubitably controversial artworks and the strategies of their authors and hopefully, we could come up with a provisional conclusion because the field of controversial art is still blurred by its transgressive nature and frequently offensive language. The pieces we understand as controversial could be found throughout the whole history of art and in all media - from early engravings, designs and paintings, across the avant-garde and conceptual art to photography, sculpture, installation art and performance and all neighboring practices.

controversial work in its own time
Diego Velazquez Pope Innocent X 1650. Study after Velazquez's Portrait of Pop Innocent X 1953 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved.

The Case of the Urinal

The emblematic example of the controversial art projects is the Fountain ready-made art piece from 1917 that challenged the art establishment. Avant-garde artist and forefather of Conceptual Art, Marcel Duchamp applied to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists with a porcelain urinal, mysteriously signed with “R. Mutt” pseudonym, because it was clearly stated in rules that all works would be accepted from artists who paid the fee. This intelligent provocation showed the hypocrisy of the system of art and its impermeability to the innovative practices while maintaining unspoken and unwritten canon of what art is and how it should look like. At the time, the Fountain arose a great scandal since it provoked the public sphere and Paris cultural milieu. It was offensive but sharply directed only to the dominant structures and to the positions of power held by eminent curators and intellectuals.

Marcel Duchamp - Fountain, 1917

Controversial Feminist Art

By its definition, feminist art is aimed to provoke the hetero-patriarchal societal norms but not all feminist works are historically assigned as controversial. In 1976 Cosey Fanni Tutti became a sex worker and involved herself in pornography and then later exhibited images within her show Prostitution at the Institute for Contemporary Art. She provoked a public scandal and disturbed even the British Parliament. In the late 80s, an anonymous group of artists Guerilla Girls reacted on the male dominating statistic in art world and produced the politically engaged protest work Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum? criticizing the fact there were only 5% of female artists are included in MoMA collection. Tracey Emin built her artistic career around the controversial project Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (1995) when she set up the tent and embroidered the names of 102 persons she had slept with or had sexual intercourse.

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ORLAN and her series of plastic surgeries to meet the ideals of beauty from the art canon assigned bio politic art in the nineties. When Katarzyna Kozyra in 1996 first challenged the stereotypes around body affected with cancer depicting her own body with strong reference on Edouard Manet’s Olympia, the public was also shocked. The list of the provoking feminist works is endless because our society considers as provocative any artistic practice directly addressing some of the main feminist topics – explicit sexuality, lesbian or queer practices, sex work, pornography matters around violence against women or heavy criticism on patriarchy or religion. But, this statement on feminist art is telling us more about our society than on the artworks, because the cause of the fact we understand some work as controversial lay in its discrepancy with the public moral and criterions of normality. And feminist art often tends to questions dominant politics, norms and laws.

Katarzyna Kozyra - Olympia, 1996

Controversial Conceptual Art

Similarly to feminist art, conceptual art is considered controversial from its beginnings and there are many examples of the works continue to shock the public realm. From Damien Hirst and his formaldehyde pickled animals to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or explicit sexual content of the Robert Mapplethorpe photographs or controversial paintings from Picasso’s Guernica to Bacon’s Screaming Pope series to the facebook art piece Los Intocables (The Untouchables) by Erik Ravelo.

One of the projects that completely shocked the world with its unacceptable cruelty was the 2007 showcase Exposition No 1 by Guillermo Vargas when he tied a dog to a wall in the Codice Gallery in Nicaragua. The words spelled out with dog food behind the tied dog stated: "You Are What You Read". Dog was left without the food during the show and even died as a result of starvation. The artist has this radical strategy of provoking intervention at the public but no one who attended the show intervened by giving the food or untied the dog. Many moral questions arose after this piece and one could rightly ask - Is the art concept worth the life of innocent creatures? It is a completely different story when artist uses his or her own body or the bodies of the people gave written consent.

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Damian Hirst - Away from the Flock, 1994

Two Sides of Controversial Art

In her legendary six-hour performance Rhythm 0 in Studio Morra, Naples, the dame of performance art Marina Abramovic stood still while the audience was invited to use or abuse using one of 72 objects she had placed on a table. The controversial part was that she placed the scissors, a scalpel, nails, a metal bar and above all - a gun loaded with one bullet to voluntarily challenge the people to hurt or even kill her. But, there is another controversial example of Abramovic’s work that could show the elusive margin of morally acceptable provocation within the art world. In 2011, Abramovic organized a fundraising dinner tending to show all the absurdity of the world of art, reenacting the bacchanal party at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and for the occasion organized the audition for extrast to take part in the performance An Artist’s Life Manifesto. According to art-direction some of the young artist were required to lay dead still in the nude or to be buried under a skeleton for a significant period of time, while others would crouch underneath the table with their heads out during the fundraising feast. Immediately, the other performance artist Yvonne Rainer reacted by publicly criticizing Abramovic for using her symbolic capital to gather the cast and for subjecting her collaborators to public humiliation who, though willing, were exploited for the sake of performance and even more - the fundraising dinner.

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Marina Abramovic - Rhythm 0, 1974

Duality of the Controversy

These two examples of controversial art projects, conducted by the same artist precisely mark the duality of controversy within art - it could be the critique of the society norms or it could completely reproduce the laws one tends to critic under the very artwork. The main concern with the controversial art pieces is that the artwork could (un)willingly become its own opposite – from emancipatory and critical work of art to repressive and offensive practice. There are many artistic strategies to create an artwork transgressive and controversial but the question of the justification of these methods will always lay at the singularity of that specific case and will be regulated only by the personal moral norms of the very artist.

Featured images:Marina Abramovic - An Artist's Life Manifesto, 2011 via latimesblog; Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1995; ORLAN - Blooming, 7th Surgery-Performance Titled Omnipresence, 1993; Damien Hirst - The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991; Cosey Fanni Tutti - Artist's pornographic images via post-punk.com

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