Is it art? Or an insult?

Is it art? Or an insult?

Poppy Trivedi reveals the five most controversial works of art

There are several works of art that have shocked the viewer, divided opinion and caused uproar in the art world. A work of art is a powerful tool in expressing an opinion or critiquing an aspect of society. However, the view held by the artist, or the way of portraying it, may not be favourable to others. While some work may have become controversial due to the politics that surround it or opinions of others, some is intended to be controversial. Controversial art tends to include one of four factors: sex, religion, race and/or politics. With this in mind, I have decided to share what I believe to be five of the best examples of controversial art from the last 50 years.


  1. Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1989)

Image Credit: David Aschkenas, 1985

Serra’s Tilted Arc caused great controversy in New York in the 1980s. It was a public sculpture situated in the Federal Plaza, commissioned by the US General Services Administration in 1979. The controversy stemmed from the fact it was ‘site specific’. Several people deemed the piece to be incongruent with the surrounding area, a nuisance to the daily routine of the Federal Plaza and they claimed that it acted as a barrier in, what was otherwise, a very open space. Serra was adamant the piece could not be relocated, as, in doing so, the work would be destroyed. Nevertheless, the outcome of the trial and a subsequent appeal by Serra was that in 1989 Tilted Arc was taken down and removed.


  1. Marcus Harvey, Myra (1995)

Image Credit: Time Out

Myra is a painting by Young British Artist, Marcus Harvey. It caused uproar when displayed at the Royal Academy of Art in 1997. The painting is a reproduction of the well-known police photograph of Myra Hindley. Hindley was one half of the Moors murderers – she and Ian Brady horrifically assaulted and murdered several children in the 1960s. The most chilling aspect is that Harvey’s portrait of Myra is made up of black, white and grey casts of an infants hand. The piece caused such a reaction that it was attacked twice, before having to be restored and then placed behind Perspex glass with security officers guarding it.


  1. Andres Serrano, Piss Christ (1987)

Image Credit:

Serrano’s piece, Piss Christ, is a photograph that shows a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of his own urine. Despite being well received when displayed in 1987, it caused great upheaval when shown again in 1989. People were angered by how much money Serrano received for the work and began to send him death threats and hate mail. Many saw the piece as blasphemous and disrespectful to the Christian religion. In 2011, outraged Christians vandalised a print of the piece and in 2012, when the photograph was on display in New York, many called for the President to denounce the work.

  1. David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now (1988)

Image Credit: Broc Blegen

This piece by Hammons depicts his interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement. Hammons has taken an image of American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, but has completely altered it, turning Jackson into a white, blonde haired, blue-eyed man. On top of this altered image is the rhetorical question “How Ya Like Me Now?” which draws further attention to the issue of race that encapsulates this piece. Originally the painting was used as a billboard but was attacked by sledgehammers on multiple occasions due to people viewing the altering of the image of Jackson into a white man as a racist action. Now, when displayed in galleries, the sledgehammers have been incorporated into the piece, arranged in a semi circle in front of the painting.


  1. Robert Mapplethorpe, The Perfect Moment (1989)

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment was a travelling solo exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work in 1989. The photographic show included works from his X Portfolio that involves sexually explicit images, with strong themes of homoeroticism and sadomasochism. However, several people from the Corcoran Museum of Art (one of the museums where the exhibition was shown) and from the U.S. Congress disapproved of the images and their graphic sexual nature. The Corcoran refused to display the exhibition and this led to a long debate about censorship: should an artist be free to choose whatever they want for their subject matter? Despite all the opposition towards his work, the publicity in fact led to a raise in profile and price of Mapplethorpe’s work.


Featured Image Credit: Bloc Blegan

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