Top 15 Art Controversies: Culture, Sexuality & Politics

Damien Hirst, The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living. Photo by Minhee Cho.

Art is a tool for creative expression, and artists have long been pushing the boundaries of what society deems socially acceptable. The role of censorship has a significant impact on artistic output and can limit an artist’s ability to create. The list below delves into 15 captivating stories of artists who were unafraid to test boundaries and pave the way for the open platform that art has become through exploration of sexuality, disregard of cultural norms, or overt political statements.

As an integral part of popular culture, art by its very nature can be shocking. Sometimes, shock factor is even a tool used by artists to bring to light a topic or theme they are looking to explore. Artists like Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso broke the mold of modern art, thus paving the way for art as we know it today. Below, explore our list of 15 of the most controversial moments in art of the last two centuries.

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 an alias “R. Mutt” to the Society of Independent Artists, which he himself 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 famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz and it went on to break the mold of modern art.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1981)

Sculptor Richard Serra’s work of public art, commissioned by the Arts-in-Architecture program, received high amounts of criticism from Manhattan pedestrians. Tilted Arc is a 12 feet high and 20 feet long wall of curved steel meant to engage viewers and cause them to reflect on their movement through the plaza. Instead, it was eventually removed after a public hearing leading to questions of the role of government in public art.

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)

Damien Hirst began exploring the idea of death with this piece. He purchased the actual 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 animal eventually began to decompose and had to be replaced, which led to controversy around the originality of Hirst’s work. However, as a conceptual artist, the intentionality behind the creation is the most significant piece.

Martin Creed, Work No. 227, The Lights Going On And Off (2000)

Martin Creed’s work is comprised of an empty gallery space with bare walls in which the lights turn on and off at set intervals. While the purpose behind the piece is up to interpretation, on his website he quotes artist Maurizio Cattelan, who enjoys the simplicity and relates it to an inability to hold onto joy based on natural changes in human emotion. Creed is bringing the gallery itself, which usually serves as a backdrop for a work of art, to the foreground for its own artistic purpose. While many in the art world highly regarded the work, the public and journalists both questioned whether this could really be considered fine art.


Édouard Manet, Olympia (1865)

It wasn’t nudity that shocked viewers of Manet’s painting, but rather the nude woman staring back at them with what can be described as a “defiant gaze.” This manner of casual sexuality was deemed pornographic by Manet’s contemporaries. There was also outrage at the realism incorporated in this woman’s nude form and and visual cues that hinted that the subject was a prostitute.

Gustave Courbet, The Origin of the World (1866)

Gustave Courbet fought against the academic tradition of painting for most of his career, culminating in The Origin of the World that shows an unembellished close-up of a woman’s lower torso and open thighs. The painting was considered blasphemous at the time, due to both the subject and the work’s realism.

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 exhibition featuring explicit images was cancelled and led to charges against the 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 from his work. In this painting of Goddess Lakshmi, she is seen degrading the Lord Ganesha who is widely worshipped. Conservative Hindus were outraged at this disrespectful depiction and several filed criminal complaints against the artist. Regardless of his reputation, he inspired a generation of Indian 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 husband John Lennon and his mother who was killed when he was young. Meant 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 art’s 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 reaction to the devastation from Nazi bombings in Guernica, Spain. The painting shows the dark and destructive elements of war on a monumental canvas. It was displayed at the 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 between art and politics surrounded Guernica.

“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 that depicting South Korean students burning the U.S. flag. This work caused a huge controversy as hundreds of protesters gathered outside of the School of Art Institute of Chicago. President Bush, Sr. and the entire U.S. Congress denounced the piece, ultimately resulting in a Supreme Court case about protecting the American flag.

David Černý, Pink Tank (1991)

David Černý painted a World War II memorial that represented Soviet occupation in Prague pink, resulting in his arrest. Černý was arrested for hooliganism after the Russian government protested and the monument was repainted green. The newly elected members of parliament were angered by the artist’s arrest and painted the monument pink again, taking advantage of their official immunity. Černý was released and the tank was removed after repeatedly being painted shades of pink and green several more times.

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 let a line tattoo be placed on their backs for significantly more than they would usually be compensated. Sierra hopes 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 a powerful art that elicits a powerful response, Ms. Sulkowicz shed light on an issue that long went ignored creating allusions to stages of the cross and martyrdom as well as 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.