Art is an ever-evolving, complex concept. The only real definition we can give is that art must provoke some kind of reaction. Sometimes that’s wonder or joy, and other times, it’s disgust or even anger. What makes a piece of art shocking? In this article, we describe three examples of the most controversial art of all time:
Piss Christ by Andres Serrano
If a person knows anything about the most controversial art, they probably know about Piss Christ. This photo from 1987 shows a plastic crucifix submerged in a cup of Andres Serrano’s urine. Not surprisingly, just about everybody freaked out, especially religious folk. It also triggered political debates about using public funds for art, because a lot of people were angry their taxes could possibly be going to art like Piss Christ. The piece has remained so provoking that 24-years later, French Catholic fundamentals destroyed a photo print at an Avignon display. As for Serranos, he identifies as a Christian (at least he did in a 2012 article with The Guardian) and said he wasn’t “trying to get anything across” with the photo. He also said that if the photo is upsetting, “maybe it’s a good thing to think about what happened on the cross.”
Myra by Marcus Harvey
In 1995, Marcus Harvey created a portrait of a woman, using casts of a child’s hand prints in black, white, and gray. That doesn’t seem too controversial on the surface, but it’s all about who that woman was. It was Myra Hindley, who with her partner Ian Brady murdered five children. Their 1960’s crimes were known as the “Moors murders,” and the press called Hindley “the most evil woman in Britain.” When the portrait was displayed during an exhibition called “Sensation,” protests began. On its opening day, two other artists vandalized it with ink, and then eggs. After being removed for restoration, the painting returned, but behind a screen, with security guards on watch.
From prison, Myra Hindley herself, who claimed for years to be reformed and appealed for release, wrote a letter begging organizers to remove the painting. She called it a “sole disregard” for the pain and trauma of all child victims and their families.
The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili
Created in 1996, this unusual painting of the Virgin Mary didn’t catch the public’s eye until it came to New York in 1999. It was actually part of the same “Sensation” exhibit as Myra. What made it one of the most controversial art pieces? It depicted a Black Madonna surrounded by cut-out photos of women’s backsides, which at first glance, look like butterflies. One of Mary’s breasts is made from dried, varnished elephant dung, and during the display, the painting is supported by more dung. This wasn’t a special material for the painting; Ofili had brought samples back with him after a trip because he liked their size and shape, and had been incorporating it in other work.
All Americans heard was “Virgin Mary” and “elephant dung,” and outrage ensued. Rudy Giuliani, the current mayor at the time, was especially angry. He went to court to try and force the Brooklyn Museum to get rid of the painting, calling it “sick and disgusting.” Not caring about the details, Giuliani claimed that Ofili had just thrown elephant dung at the painting. He even threatened to withdraw the museum’s annual $7 million grant, but they held firm. The museum director turned it around and filed a lawsuit against Giuliani for breaching the First Amendment. The museum won. In 2015, the original The Holy Virgin Mary sold for $4.6 million.
One of the most common to reactions to the most controversial art is to try and censor it. Is there ever a time when that’s the right choice? Where is the line?