Top 5 most scandalous contemporary artworks

Added Nov 16, 2020 - 8 minutes read

Contemporary art has often been the subject of intense controversy. However, these scandals aren't specific to our time. Already in 1541, Michelangelo attracted the wrath of public opinion by creating one of the most famous frescoes in the History of Art: The Last Judgement. On the walls of the Sistine Chapel, the naked bodies were quickly covered by ecclesiastical censorship.
Numerous other events will mark consciences and morals, until the rise of Impressionism, which will confirm the opposition between contemporary creation and latent academism, the model of a wavering Puritan society. 

Here, we will not evoke artworks with established indignation: Manzoni's Artist's Shit, Duchamp's Fountain or Maurizio Cattelan's recent Banana ("The Comedian"). Instead, we will show you some contemporary artworks that are a little less well-known, yet just as interesting, because of their polemical dimension, as well as their curious (and sometimes violent) reception towards the public.

Settle down, let's make room for scandal! 

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987

Piss Christ is a photograph taken in 1987 by the Brooklyn-born artist Andres Serrano. It shows a plastic crucifix immersed in an aquarium filled with urine and blood.  

For the artist, this confusing artwork should be seen as a critique of the lucrative business of Catholicism, and a "condemnation of those who abuse Christ's teaching to serve their own vile ends. ». 

The highly blasphemous scope of this artwork will logically cause intense controversy, both in the United States and abroad, especially in France. On the American continent, the artwork didn't go unnoticed, even making the headlines of certain national newspapers. It is even ranked among the 100 most iconic photographs of all time by Time Magazine

The artwork was quickly rewarded by a powerful artistic institution in 1989 (Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art), itself financed by public funds. Some American senators took offence at this public support for an artwork they considered indecent. A fierce senatorial battle ensued between critics and supporters of this approach, against the backdrop of a debate on artistic freedom

After this political intervention, the artwork was repeatedly subjected to infernal violence, whether in the United States, Sweden, or even France, where it was vandalized during an exhibition in Avignon in 2011 by several individuals equipped with hammers and blunt objects, who also assaulted the museum staff who interfered in this macabre maneuver. 

The director of the museum will receive numerous death threats, and a demonstration gathering more than 1,000 people was organized in the city where the artwork was exhibited. 

Chris Ofili, "The Holy Virgin Mary," 1996

The Holy Virgin Mary is a painting created by the British artist Chris Ofili in 1996. It depicts a black woman wearing a blue dress, a garment traditionally attributed to the Virgin Mary. It's not this simple freedom taken by the artist that attracted controversy.
His particularity? The artist used different techniques in the realization of the artwork: oil paint, glitter, polyester resin... and above all: elephant dung and fragments of pornographic images! Indeed, around this black virgin, we can distinguish shapes similar to butterflies. However, these graphic elements aren't lepidoptera, but rather female genital attributes, generally far removed from the artistic standards surrounding the sacred subject of the Virgin Mary.

For the artist, a former altar boy, this artwork doesn't really constitute blasphemy, but describes the confusion he experienced during his Catholic apprenticeship, faced with the inconsistency of the narrative describing the birth of the Virgin Mary. He considers this artwork as a "hip-hop version" of the pictorial tradition of the ancient masters

The artwork will be directly acquired by Charles Saatchi, a very influential collector in the world of contemporary art, the year following its completion. It was then presented in 1997 as part of the "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in London, devoted to art scandals.
On this occasion, Chris Ofili attracted a choice opponent: the Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani.
This one, deeply offended by the discovery of this artwork, launched a punitive crusade against the artist and the institution hosting the work, through various procedures and methods more or less questionable. He was even go so far as to try to suppress the municipal grant of 7 million pounds intended to support the museum, with no results since the institution won its case in court. 

This controversial mixture of sacred and profane also attracted a lot of vandalism. In 1999, the artwork was the victim of white paint projection by a fervent Catholic activist. In the same year, an artist named Scott Lobaido projected horse manure on the Plexiglas covering the artwork, who considered Ofili's work "denigrating the Catholic faith". After their intervention, the museum's guards, not without a touch of humor and contempt, replied, "This isn't the Virgin Mary. It's a painting". 

Since these events, the painting has continued its impressive ascent to the heart of contemporary art history. In 2015, it will be sold for $4.6 million at Christie's. In 2019, it is the ultimate consecration, as it becomes part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. 

Marc Quinn, Self, 1991

Self is a series of self-portraits by British artist Marc Quinn. These self-portraits, in the form of sculptures, were created from a mold of the artist's face, filled with his own frozen blood (about 5 liters of hemoglobin per mold). This series is still not finished, since the artist makes a new self-portrait every 5 years, from an updated cast of his face and "new" blood. 

Setting aside the deeply gory aspect of this process, no one can reproach this artist for not giving enough of himself to make his artwork personal. Indeed, Marc Quinn seeks to challenge the viewer by pushing back the limits of the portrait, by creating an artwork "that doesn't simply have the form of the model but is in fact made with the model's own flesh and blood". 

This artwork, less divisive than the previous ones because it is centered on a personal approach, didn't have to suffer from vandalism or popular opprobrium. However, it has been the subject of much intellectual debate as to its artistic relevance, with some considering this artwork to be a dreadful vampire and immoral soup, and others believing it to have a strong allegorical value. This artwork can legitimately rise to the rank of legendary self-portraits, from Van Gogh to Cindy Sherman, testifying in a more or less enlightened way to the fragility of mankind, and allowing the viewer to move in a parcel of the artist's intimacy. 

Ai Weiwei, "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn," 1995

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn is a performance artwork by Chinese activist Ai Weiwei, consisting of an assemblage of three photographs, in which the artist can be seen destroying a vase step by step

As the title suggests, the vase undergoing this premeditated destruction is a 2,000-year-old Chinese ceremonial artifact of high financial and symbolic value. 

Far from a pure arbitrary whim, this act is in fact, according to the artist, in resonance with Duchamp's emblematic artwork "Fountain", considering his artwork as a "cultural ready-made". Indeed, upon discovering this series of photographs, many spectators directly interpreted this act as scandalous and immoral. Ai Weiwei responded to his detractors by quoting Mao Zedong: "The only way to build a new world is to destroy the old one". To complete this idea, the artist achieves this conceptual approach by making various antique style vases, painted by the artist in the colors of candy symbolizing modern capitalism, or with the Coca Cola logo, which can be analyzed without detail. 

This dubious and ambitious destruction has obviously inspired others, many Chinese citizens being particularly sensitive to the conservation of their historical heritage, mistreated by various powers, internal or colonial, through the ages. As a result, a visitor of the Ai Weiwei exhibition in Miami destroyed one of his vases to protest against the artist's action.
Responding to destruction with destruction is a great demonstration of lucidity!

Ai Weiwei will not be excessively disturbed by this destruction, since the artworks were insured and especially because he is quite used to controversies and violent opposition (he has already been imprisoned for more than 2 months in China, for obscure reasons). 


Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998

Last but not least, My Bed is an artwork by one of the most famous and controversial British artists of the 21st century: Tracey Emin. Victim of long depressive phases during which Tracey was bedridden, this artwork, realized in 1998, is composed of the artist's own bed in a pitiful state, associated with various objects present in her room when she was undergoing one of her deepest descent into hell. There is a dirty carpet, strewn with garbage symbolizing the decay of body and soul: vodka bottles, cigarette packets, a full ashtray, fast food packaging, dirty handkerchiefs, used condoms... The bed is in a disastrous condition, the sheets are dirty and crumpled, and the mattress seems to be permanently worn down by the weight of a body that has been abandoned to its own idleness for too long

When he first exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1999, the public's reactions were extremely confused. Some expressed a powerful repulsion to this bitterly unveiled intimacy, while others quickly succumbed to the charm of a new concept offered by an artist with a bold and very personal approach. Whether one appreciates this artwork or not, it unquestionably deserves a place of choice in the history of contemporary art. This parenthesis of intimacy constitutes a great forum sublimating society's taboos about personal failure, weaknesses and feminine imperfections. The artwork, although unattractive as possible, allows to open many intellectual debates of a powerful interest, for art as well as for human beings. In 2014, the artwork will be auctioned at Christie's for the modest price of 2.8 million euros, further proof, if proof were needed, of the eminent conceptual interest acquired by this artwork. 


These artworks are obviously not the only ones to have stimulated minds and protests. We could have evoked Robert Mapplethorpe's hyper-sexualized artworks, Richard Serra's monumental and contested sculptures, Paul McCarthy's Christmas Tree (Plug?) or Marina Abravomic's intimate and disturbing performances. Art has constantly stirred up scandal, and this is partly why we recognize it. 

What do you think of these artworks?

For the most curious, discover our selection of artworks gathering the cream of audacious contemporary creation available on Artmajeur.

Bastien Alleaume
Content Manager - Artmajeur Online Art Gallery


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