THAT’S NOT ART! Artists ahead of their time, or merely courting controversy in order to gain an audience and name for themselves? Art and controversy have often been familiar bedfellows, but occasionally offence emerges from beneath the sheets as well – whether intended by the artist, or not.
In an industry filled with visual noise, colourful online imagery and increasing competition for the public eye, professional artists are continuing to use shock tactics and risk side-lining and offending the public, to build an audience and a name for themselves. Other artists, simply through the creation of their work, or by reputation, find members of the public up in arms.
I went in search of the most controversial artworks I could find abroad and within New Zealand. Here are 10 considered to be either in bad taste, intentionally offensive, bold political statements by the artists, or merely considered controversial because of the time period and social climate in which they were created.
Let me know, in the comments section below, if I’ve missed any interesting ones.
Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937
Guernica is regarded by many art critics as one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history. It was controversial because it was made intentionally for political reasons as opposed to artistic ones. At 3.49 metres tall and 7.76 metres wide, the large mural was painted by Pablo Picasso, who was commissioned by members of Spain’s democratic government. They wanted to expose the atrocities of General Francisco Franco and the fascist government of Spain, which was allied with the Nazis. The cubist painting depicts the shocking bombing of the sleepy market town of Guernica, and the slaughter of the men, women and children by German bombers during the Spanish Civil War. It is considered to be the first time modern weapons of war were used to deliberately target civilians.
Guernica continues to represent to many the ultimate artistic political war statement. Picasso refused to have it displayed in Spain until justice had been restored. When it was on display at MoMA in the USA in 1967, 400 artists signed a petition directed at Picasso to have the painting removed, citing the atrocities of the Vietnam War. In 1974, a young artist named Tony Shafrazi vandalised Guernica, spray painting the words "Kill Lies All" on the canvas. In 2003, a tapestry version of the piece was covered up at the United Nations. It is now permanently housed in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Spain.
Mother and Child (Divided) by Damien Hirst, 1993
Mother and Child was a tabloid sensation because it depicted a mother cow and her calf bisected and immersed in formaldehyde. It is a glass-walled tank sculpture with space between each pair so that a visitor can walk between them and and view the animals’ insides.
“Cut us all in half, we’re all the same...The work should attract you and repel you at the same time...cows are the most slaughtered animals ever...I see them as death objects. Walking food...What’s sad is that if you look at my cows cut up in formaldehyde, they have more personality than any cows walking about in fields.” – Hirst
Mother and Child (Divided) subverts one of the oldest icons of Western Christian art – the portrait of the Holy Mother and Child, traditionally the centrepiece of Catholic devotion. Instead of a traditional image celebrating the joyful unity of mother and baby, Hirst presents a mother and child forever separated from one another, but also fatally severed themselves.
Catholic school educated Hirst worked in a mortuary for several months, where the everyday exposure to corpses dulled his horror of death, but not its mystery. Now reputed to be the richest living artist to date (and one of the most offensive), some of Hirst’s work has been banned from galleries because of fears of ‘vomiting among visitors’.
Auckland statehouse The Lighthouse sculpture on Queens Wharf by Michael Parekōwhai
The Lighthouse sculpture is a 1950s family home, closely resembling a statehouse, with a wooden exterior and hollow fibreglass interior with neon light installations. Positioned on Auckland’s Queen’s Wharf, viewers can walk around the house, look into its windows, or climb stairs to one side of the structure.
Created by Michael Parekōwhai, considered one of New Zealand's leading contemporary artists, the work was commissioned by real estate firm Barfoot & Thompson to celebrate 90 years of successful business in Auckland.
The Lighthouse caught the attention of protesters who stood alongside it during its official opening to draw attention to Auckland's housing crisis. Sue Henry of the Tamaki Housing Group, which organised the group of about 10 protesters, said the $1.5m sculpture was just "a trophy to Barfoot & Thompson". Concerns about the artwork were also raised by Auckland councillors and members of the public about its location, the process for granting consent and whether public money should go towards it.
When asked if The Lighthouse was a commentary on Auckland's housing crisis, or housing in general, Parekōwhai replied it was an art work and up to those who viewed and experienced it to interpret.
"For all the controversy public art attracts, and the hard work associated with it, it's exciting for me and, I think, any artist." – Parekōwhai
Starving dog by Guillermo Habacuc Vargas
Is a starving dog art? A central American artist named Guillermo Habacuc Vargas tied up a street dog in a gallery in Costa Rica and allegedly allowed the animal to starve to death while gallery goers watched. This set off an angry stream of online commentary.
Vargas apparently saw the sick, malnourished dog in a poor neighbourhood and paid several local children to help him catch the dog. He then tied the starving dog up in the gallery while patrons passed through the exhibit. Some gallery goers asked him to free the dog, but he refused and some say that instructions were left for staff not to feed the dog.
As they entered the gallery, visitors were greeted with a cryptic sign, "Eres lo que lees," which means, "you are what you are reading." The title was spelled out in dry dog food.
Sadly, the dog named Natividad died the day after the exhibition.
Photographs of eight members of the Mongrel Mob by Jono Rotman
Left: Shane Harrison, convicted murderer.
Right: Bung-Eye Notorious.
Wellington born photographer, Jono Rotman, spent eight years with the Mongrel Mob, convincing them to sit and have their photo taken. A series of gripping portraits resulted and were exhibited, giving gallery viewers a glimpse into gang life. However, critics said the photographs glamorised gang culture, calling them ‘cultural pornography’ and accused them of perpetuating the colonial stereotype of the ‘violent savage’.
One specific portrait, caused the greatest controversy. That of Shane Harrison, a mobster about to be tried for murder – and since convicted, for killing Sio Matalasi. Sio’s father, and other family members, were angry that his killer would be immortalised.
“I hope viewers will look at each individual portrait of a mobster and consider the forces that made him. Most, come from histories and communities marked by pain and poverty.” – Rotman
Virgin in a Condom by Tania Kovats
Exhibited in 1998 by Te Papa Tongarewa, Museum of New Zealand, Virgin in a Condom is a small statuette of the Virgin Mary, 7.5cm tall, shrouded in a condom. Artist Tania Kovat was using her rubber-sheathed Madonna to air concerns about the Catholic Church's treatment of sexuality, contraception and abortion.
The display of the piece by Te Papa quickly provoked a nationwide outcry with protesters marching in the streets and 30,000 people signing a petition for its removal.
“To refuse to remove this beloved statue enshrouded by a condom, which causes such grave offence to so many New Zealanders, must surely mean that the Museum of New Zealand can no longer be called a ‘place for all New Zealanders’,” Wellington woman Amanda Sutherland said. “ A ‘Vehicle for Cultural Mockery’ would be a more appropriate line.” – The Press 22 April 2017
The artist, and the museum’s CEO received death threats. A museum worker was assaulted, and during the show the glass case surrounding the statuette was smashed several times. Counter protesters displayed ‘God loves Art’ posters during demonstrations and the two sides had to be separated by barricades during the protests. Te Papa acknowledged Catholics' dismay, but refused to remove the offending work from display, asserting the museum was a space for the expression of divergent and controversial views. This left many questioning if Te Papa would allow a sacrosanct piece of Maoridom to be mocked in such a manner.
Couldn't Shouldn't, André Brönnimann’s swastika imagery
New Zealander, Wanganui-based artist, André Brönnimann is a self taught surrealist and photo realist. When he entered his surrealist painting Couldn't Shouldn't in a couple of art competitions, he was hoping to get as many rejections as possible. But, after only two rejections, the painting won first prize at an art exhibition in Hawera.
"I was a little bit disappointed when I won. I knew a lot of art galleries wouldn't go near the painting because it would be too controversial for them." – Brönnimann
The surrealist painting, at first glance, is unremarkable - it depicts two plates hanging on a wall.
A second glance reveals the plates have a Nazi swastika motif, while the wallpaper pattern is of the Jewish Star of David emblem.
“I've always had a fascination with war and what humans do to each other. This painting is a symbolic representation of the madness of the era by depicting the idea of brutally nailing two Nazi plates onto Jewish wallpaper. Instead of shattering, the plates stay intact, something that shouldn't and couldn't happen, yet it did. The painting itself always brings controversy. Jewish people have either loved it or hated it, offended that the two symbols are presented together in one place, or by the content in the message, that it should never have happened.” – Brönnimann
My Bed by Tracey Emin, 1998
British artist, Tracey Emin’s installation ‘My Bed’ was made by Tracey Emin in 1998 when she was living in a council flat in Waterloo. It shows her real bed at the time in all its embarrassing glory – complete with crumpled, stained sheets, an ashtray full of cigarettes, dirty knickers, empty bottles of alcohol and used condoms.
My Bed sold for more than $4 million at auction. Critics consider her success to be illegitimate because of the controversy that has surrounded her work and the celebrity it has inspired.
“She’s somebody who is very much begrudged her success because people in the art world and other artists feel she has had a lot more exposure than she deserves.” – Kokoli.
The bed, on display at the Tate, has since become an icon of 1990s British art. Tracey wants visitors to view her installation as a ‘sweet’ moment of history and a ‘portrait of a younger woman’...”There are things on that bed that now have a place in history. Even forms of contraception, the fact that I don’t have periods anymore, the fact that the belt that went round my waist now only fits around my thigh…” – Emin
Sea of Hull by Spencer Tunick
Since the 1990s New York artist, Tunick, has shot over 75 human installations of nude crowds around the world. “There’s something about the human body and how it is juxtaposed within a public space that inspires my work.” – Tunick
Is Tunick’s work exhibitionism or eroticism by mass? Tunick’s work is considered controversial by many, as his photographs are mostly of nude, often homosexual couples, and out in public places. Some of his work can also be disturbing, looking like dead bodies washed up on a beach.
Arrested five times, and taken to the Supreme Court by city officials in New York, after an arrest in 1999; Tunick filed a lawsuit against New York to protect himself and his participants from future arrests. The court sided with Tunick, recognizing that his work was protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. New York however, still refuses to grant him the necessary permits for his work, so now he chooses to create his people installations abroad.
“The natural, soft vulnerable body that’s up against the concrete world – it creates a dynamic that interests me.” – Tunick
The Sea of Hull is the largest work Tunick has created to-date in the UK. Thousands of people from 20 countries registered to take part, with people of all ages, sizes and gender stripping naked and painting themselves in one of four shades of blue for the huge art installation.
Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, 1917
Left: Fountain, 1964 replica
Right: The original Fountain - Marcel Duchamp 1917 - photographed by Alfred Stieglitz
Marcel Duchamp, a French artist famous for his ‘readymades’, presented Fountain for exhibition to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym R. Mutt. It was a challenge by Duchamp to the way art galleries and institutions deemed it their prerogative to decide what was, and was not art.
Fountain was a ‘readymade’, an ordinary manufactured object designated by an artist as a work of art. The original, which is lost – disposed of by Alfred Stieglitz after photographing the piece in his studio – consisted of a standard urinal, usually presented on its back for exhibition purposes rather than upright, and was signed and dated ‘R. Mutt 1917’. Tate’s 1964 replica is made from glazed earthenware and painted to resemble the original porcelain.
The Society of Independent Artists’ board of directors, who were bound by the Society’s constitution to accept all members’ submissions, took exception to Fountain, believing that a piece of sanitary ware – and one associated with bodily waste – could not be considered a work of art and was indecent (presumably, although this was not said, if displayed to women).
“The Fountain may be a very useful object in its place, but its place is not an art exhibition and it is, by no definition, a work of art.” – Statement issued by the board of the Society of Independent Artists. 1917.
Duchamp’s Fountain, is now considered to be one of the most influential art works of the 20th century, has inspired countless artists from Grayson Perry to Damien Hirst. It continues to stir debate about ‘What is art?’
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