Art that looks at reality in a way we’ve never seen before, while challenging notions of taste and what’s palatable to society, can be instrumental in inspiring new artistic movements, transformative for the viewer and even bring about significant social change.
The list below illuminates 15 artists and their respective artworks – mavericks who were unafraid to test boundaries, ideas and to provoke an often hostile response to their creations. They paved the way for the open platform that art strives to be, through explorations of sexuality, disregard of cultural norms, and overt political statements.
Take a look at our selection of 15 of the most controversial moments in art over the past two centuries across three categories: culture, sexuality, and politics.
For a more in depth description and resources for additional information, scroll below the visual.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917)
The story behind Marcel Duchamp’s ”Fountain” is almost as shocking as the piece itself. Duchamp purchased the urinal and submitted it under the alias “R. Mutt” to the New York-based Society of Independent Artists, which he had helped establish. The submission was a test, probing the boundaries of the very definition of art. The piece was rejected by the board of directors, which enraged Duchamp and resulted in his resignation. Following this controversy, Duchamp had the piece photographed by acclaimed photographer Alfred Stieglitz and it went on to break the mold of modern art.
Banksy, Love is in the Bin (2018)
Sotheby’s later spun it as the first artwork “ever to have been created live during an auction” after the secretive street artist pulled off a stunt that sent shockwaves through onlookers, as they watched the famous “Girl with Balloon” being shredded within seconds of being sold. Intended to critique capitalism – one of Banksy’s prominent themes – and take a pop at the art world, in destroying the previous artwork, a new piece was born. It originally sold for £1,042,000 (then equivalent to $1,366,672), and went under the hammer again in 2021 for an artist-record of £18,582,000 (around $23,629,500).
Andres Serrano, Immersions (Piss Christ) (1987)
Andres Serrano claims his photograph of a crucifix submerged in his own urine was not intended to offend. In fact, it didn’t until it was seen on display by an outspoken pastor in Virginia who discovered the National Endowment for the Arts had given funding to Serrano, albeit not in correlation to ”Piss Christ.” This photo brought to light issues of censorship and the power of the government to control artistic output.
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)
The British conceptual provocateur began exploring the idea of death with this visceral piece. He purchased the 14-foot tiger shark from Queensland, Australia and placed it in a massive glass container of formaldehyde, thus preserving the animal for a period of time. The shark eventually began to decompose and had to be replaced in 2006, which led to controversy around the originality of Damien Hirst’s work. However, as a conceptual artist, the intentionality behind the creation is the most significant piece.
Maurizio Cattelan, Comedian (2019)
Garnering fresh attention in April 2023 after a hungry student gobbled the exhibit while it was on show at the Leeum Museum in South Korea, this fruity artwork – consisting of a banana held in place by duct tape – was released in an edition of three. Having sold three times at Art Basel Miami for between $120,000 and $150,000, the installation caused such uncontrollable crowds that it was removed early from the 2019 fair. “Comedian” has caused outrage and admiration alike, prompting debate as to whether the true piece of art is the banana or the audience’s polarised response.
John Singer Sargent, Madame X (1884)
The scandal of the prestigious Paris Salon’s annual exhibition, Sargent’s depiction of a high society American living in Paris – Virginie Gautreau – was a source of such disgrace that she had to temporarily relocate to Brittany, while Sargent departed France altogether. The portrait’s offending element was an off-the-shoulder strap (later repainted onto said shoulder) which was seen as overly provocative, along with Gautreau’s figure-hugging dress and ghostly skin tone. Despite the critical commentary, the portrayal of female sexuality in all its bold and beautiful realness inspired a slew of Parisian artists to follow suit.
Tracy Emin, My Bed (1998)
A feat in exposing intimate details to shock effect, the messy, possessions-laden bed created by British artist Tracy Emin was unapologetically boundary-pushing, exploring taboos around female sexuality and society’s expectations of women. Documenting Emin’s painful breakup and subsequent binge in bed with stained sheets, cigarette packets and blood-stained pants, it was one of the most controversial artworks of the ’90s and is now seen as an act of feminism, empowering women to move away from feelings of shame about their bodies.
Richard Mapplethorpe, The Perfect Moment (1989)
Richard Mapplethorpe used his medium to address gay male sexuality during the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. His Washington D.C. exhibition featuring explicit images was cancelled and led to charges against the then Corcoran Gallery of Art director for obscenity. This ultimately led to a trial focused on the definition of art in the city of Cincinnati. The art community was ultimately victorious, which furthered the divide in the culture wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s between conservative and liberal groups.
M.F. Hussain, Goddess Lakshmi Naked on Shri Ganesha’s Head (1996)
Often referred to as the “Picasso of India,” M.F. Hussain was exiled and forced to live in London due to the controversy surrounding his work. In this painting of Goddess Lakshmi, she is seen degrading Lord Ganesha who is widely worshipped. Conservative Hindus were outraged at what they saw as a disrespectful depiction, and several filed criminal complaints against the artist. Regardless of his reputation, M.F. Hussain inspired a generation of artists and elevated Indian art to an international level.
Yoko Ono, My Mummy Was Beautiful (2004)
Yoko Ono created images of women’s breasts and genitals and put them on display around the city of Liverpool in honor of her deceased husband John Lennon and his mother, who was killed when he was young. Designed to highlight and pay homage to the idea of motherhood, the wide distribution and prevalence of the images led to a public questioning of the definition of art and its purpose. If art is meant to shock, Ono’s work certainly accomplished the task.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica (1937)
“Guernica” is one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous paintings, due to its powerful political stance in response to the devastation caused by Nazi bombing in Guernica, Spain. The painting shows the dark and destructive elements of war on a monumental canvas. It was displayed at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris to showcase the wreckage. It faced heavy criticism at the time from political activists and communist leaders. Controversy about whether artists could and should bridge the gap between art and politics surrounded the 11ft tall and 25.6ft wide oil painting.
“Dread” Scott Tyler, What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? (1988)
This installation depicts an American flag laid on the floor with a shelf above it displaying a flag accompanied by a pen, along with a photo above depicting South Korean students burning the U.S. flag. This artwork caused huge controversy as hundreds of protesters gathered outside the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. President Bush Sr. and the entire U.S. Congress denounced the piece, ultimately resulting in a Supreme Court case focused on protecting the American flag.
Jens Haaning, Take the Money and Run (2021)
A Danish artist whose pieces focus on power and societal inequality, Jens Haaning was commissioned by the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg to recreate two of his previous works, using loaned banknotes to the tune of around 532,000 krone ($50,851). In protest at low pay rates and modern “miserable” working conditions, Haaning instead produced two blank canvases with the above title – and indeed, the money was nowhere to be seen. He was ordered by a court to repay the funds, although he was allowed to keep his fee – around $3,811 – after the gallery began to showcase the canvases.
Santiago Sierra, 160 cm Line Tattooed on 4 People, El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo (2000)
Documentary artist Santiago Sierra has created many controversial pieces where people, occasionally addicts, are paid to perform an activity. In this particular piece, Sierra paid four prostitutes to allow a line tattoo be placed on their backs for significantly more than they would usually be compensated. Sierra hoped to highlight the division between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as well as the impact of capitalism.
Emma Sulkowicz, Carry that Weight (2014)
In a statement against sexual assault on college campuses (of which she was a victim), Ms. Sulkowicz carried a 50-pound mattress everywhere she went during her senior year at Columbia University. In search of powerful art that elicits a powerful response, Ms. Sulkowicz shed light on an issue that had long been ignored, creating allusions to stages of the cross and martyrdom as well as the condemned Hester Prynne by quite literally, carrying her burden and marking herself as a modern version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s protagonist in “The Scarlet Letter.”
For more information on artists taking a stance, check out this article from Format magazine on Protest Art.
Alexis holds a PhD in art history and has enjoyed professional roles across gallery, museum, and academic settings. Thanks to these myriad experiences, Alexis holds a wealth of knowledge across the fields of fine and decorative arts and enjoys every opportunity to share these insights along with the stories of these makers and objects with Invaluable collectors.