The Art of Controversy

Every so often, an artwork comes around and rankles the feathers of many in the non-art crowd (artists and art lovers not so much). Here are two pieces that did just that.


ABOVE: Andres Serrano, Immersion (Piss Christ), 1987, chibachrome print, 60 x 40 inches

In 1987, Andres Serrano submerged a plastic crucifix in a jar of his own urine and took a picture of it. Predictably, people lost their shit, and in addition to death threats, the work was either attacked when shown, or barred from being shown at all. Thirty years since its creation, Piss Christ still provokes strong reactions from the public (most recently, a print was attacked and destroyed in 2011).

“Several weeks ago, I began to receive a number of letters, phone calls, and postcards from constituents throughout the Senate concerning art work by Andres Serrano. They express a feeling of shock, of outrage, and anger. They said, ‘how dare you spend our taxpayers’ money on this trash.’ This so-called piece of art is a deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity. This artist received $15,000 for his work from the National Endowment of the Arts. If this is what contemporary art has sunk to, this level, this outrage, this indignity – some may want to sanction that, and that is fine. But not with the use of taxpayers’ money. This is not a question of free speech. This is a question of abuse of taxpayers’ money. If we allow this group of so-called art experts to get away with this, to defame us and to use our money, well, then we do not deserve to be in office.” New York Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato

“I thought he was saying, in a rather simplistic, magazine-y type of way, that this is what we are doing to Christ, we are not treating him with reverence. His great sacrifice is not used. We live very vulgar lives. We put Christ in a bottle of urine – in practice. It was a very admonitory work. Not a great work; one wouldn’t want to go on looking at it once one had already seen it once. But I think to call it blasphemous is really rather begging the question: it could be, or it could not be. It is what you make of it, and I could make something that made me feel a deep desire to reverence the death of Christ more by this suggestion that this is what, in practice, the world is doing.” Sister Wendy Beckett

ABOVE: Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, paper collage, oil paint, polyester resin, map pins & elephant dung on linen, 95.9 x 72 inches

In 1996, Chris Ofili made a portrait of the Holy Virgin Mary that included pornographic imagery and real elephant dung. Although the painting had been displayed in London and Berlin without controversy, it caused a shit storm when it crossed the pond to be shown in New York City. Twice during the exhibition it was attacked but despite minor damage, it survives to this day. In 2015, Christie’s sold The Holy Virgin Mary for $4.6 million.

“Last time I checked, I’m the Mayor, and I don’t find closing down access to a public museum consistent with the use of taxpayer dollars,” Giuliani said. “People have an absolute right to express anything they want to express, but they do not have an absolute right to have that funded by the taxpayers.” New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani

“It certainly is true that the level of prudery is much stronger in the United States than in Europe and that includes London. It’s louder, more vociferous and more fundamentalist.” Norman Rosenthal, director of the Royal Academy

3 responses to “The Art of Controversy

  1. I’m all for controversial art as long as all participants consented, e.g. no abuse, animal torture, etc. Sometimes controversial art is powerful and makes a statement that is important to see/hear, and art certainly comments on whatever era and life experiences the artist has, which is also important. Tax payer money should be carefully used, not to filter out controversy, but to take a hard look at it and ask, “Is this schtick or controversy?” Because sometimes it is the former, and there are some artists (or their handlers) who are very good at hucksterism. Maybe the line is blurry sometimes but it does need to be considered. Funding for the arts is always in danger of being cut, so the people who ultimately decide what gets funded need to have a good BS detector.

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