It is a known fact that abundant artists do not shy away from controversy. The idea of art, from the artist’s point of view, is expression; it can be interpreted as good or bad by the public. Most artists don’t really care.
Controversy in art has always been there, since the cave art days. We want to discover why this can be a good thing and how it empowers the life of the viewer. Here are some examples of art from history that created quite a stir.
In 2018, the artist created a work of art, “Girl with Balloon,” that sold for 1.37 million at auction and self destructed when it was sold. This caused quite a controversy in the art world and the public view.
“The Last Judgement,” painted between 1536–1541 in the Vatican, met with opposition from the Counter-Reformation Catholic church. Jesus was depicted without a beard, and most of the 300 figures were nude. A campaign was mounted, called a fig-leaf campaign, to cover these nudes with bits and pieces of fabric. The fabric was later removed during restoration in the 20th century.
“The Gross Clinic,” painted in 1875, showed advances in scientific medicine, as a depiction of surgery was the subject. It was rejected by the Philadelphia Centenary Exhibition because of either the bloody hands of the doctor or the woman shielding her eyes from the sight. A century later, it was recognized as a great masterpiece, both artistically and scientifically.
“The Fountain,” a porcelain sculpture of a small urinal, was done in 1917. It sparked a controversy regarding what actually constitutes a work of art. He signed it “R.Mutt”; it was rejected from a show where any artist, who paid a fee, was accepted. Today, although the original piece was somehow thrown out by the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of “The Urinal” are in collections throughout the world.
Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”, painted in 1907, shocked the public and the art world as well as fellow artists, such as Henri Matisse. As the foundation of what would become the very successful Cubist movement, its faces look like African masks. Bodies are constructed from hard angles and distorted shapes. A woman with with her exaggerated features, looks very unladylike as she squats in the corner. People were horrified, and the painting was hidden for several years after it debuted.
In 1984, Yoko Ono did performance art, called “Cut Piece,” where members of the audience were invited to cut a piece of her clothing. During this action, she sat motionless and did not talk. She later recalled that those who did it were so shocked that they did not talk about it. It was her way of bringing the message to discard materialism. She was also providing the audience with participation in the creation of the work.
Why Controversy is a Good Thing
Controversy in art makes us stop and think, evaluating for ourselves and making us ask several questions. These might be:
- Do I like it?
- What does it mean?
- Is he or she serious?
- Is it satire?
To understand the controversy, we must be aware of the time in which the art was made. Is the artist trying to confront uniformity, materialism, technology or other symptom of their times? Questions may lead us to the conclusion that the artwork is still valid, whether we like it or not.
Controversy forces us to take another look at a piece of art, without just passing it by. It may also be a good thing for the artist, as controversy drives up the prices and worth of the artist’s body of work. Think of Banksy and the piece that self-destructed. This made him known to a wider audience, through articles and controversy. In fact, it also made the shredded remains more valuable; it was immediately a good thing for the artist and gave many others a chuckle.
Pushing the boundaries of tradition has be a good thing for artists and the art world as well as the general public. During the controversy, however, the artist may not think it is such a good thing, but eventually it can be.