Art controversy  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
art, controversy, art and politics, transgressive art, succès de scandale

The history of art controversies goes back to the early 19th century, the birth of public art.

Theodore Gericault's Raft of the Medusa (c. 1820), was a social commentary on a current event, unprecedented at the time. Edouard Manet's "Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe" (1863), was considered scandalous not because of the nude woman, but because she is seated next to men fully dressed in the clothing of the time, rather than in robes of the antique world. John Singer Sargent's "Madame Pierre Gautreau (Madam X)" (1884), caused a huge uproar over the reddish pink used to color the woman's ear lobe, considered far too suggestive and supposedly ruining the high-society model's reputation.

In the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937) used arresting cubist techniques and stark monochromatic oils, to depict the harrowing consequences of a contemporary bombing of a small, ancient Basque town. Leon Golub's Interrogation III (1981), depicts a female nude, hooded detainee strapped to a chair, her legs open to reveal her sexual organs, surrounded by two tormentors dressed in everyday clothing. Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1989) is a photograph of a crucifix, sacred to the Christian religion and representing Christ's sacrifice and final suffering, submerged in a glass of the artist's own urine. The resulting uproar led to comments in the United States Senate about public funding of the arts.

In the twenty-first century, Eric Fischl created Tumbling Woman as a memorial to those who jumped or fell to their death in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Initially installed at Rockefeller Center in New York City, within a year the work was removed as too disturbing.

Public art controversies

public art

Public art sometimes proves controversial. A number of factors contribute to this: the desire of the artist to provoke; the diverse nature of the viewing public, with widely varying degrees of familiarity with art and its syntax; issues of appropriates uses of public funds, spaces, and resources; issues of public safety and civic oversight.


  • Richard Serra's minimalist piece Tilted Arc was removed from a New York City plaza in 1989 after office workers complained their work routine was disrupted by the piece. A public court hearing ruled against continued display of the work.

  • House, a large 1993–94 work by Rachel Whiteread in East London, was destroyed by the local council after a few months. In this case the artist and her agent had only secured temporary permission for the work.

  • Maurice Agis' Dreamscape V, a huge inflatable maze erected in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, killed two women and seriously injured a three-year-old girl when a strong wind broke its moorings and carried it 30ft into the air, with thirty people trapped inside.
  • 16 Tons, Seth Wulsin's vast 2006 work includes the demolition of the raw material it works with, namely a former skyscraper jail, Caseros Prison, located in the middle of Buenos Aires. The prison is guarded by the Argentine military 24 hours a day, so that, in order to gain authorization to carry out the project, Wulsin had to engage a huge network of local, city and national government agencies, as well as groups of former prisoners of the jail, former political prisoners, human rights groups, and the military.

In any given controversy, complexities are involved. Though press reports often present community debates as contests between two rival camps, a variety of views exist among both art specialists and lay public. Neither subset of the population is a monolithic group. Art is challenged and defended in a variety of ways by a number of individuals.

Recent developments in public art now demonstrate an appeal to a friendlier notion of the public in the form of "community" art. Artists accept the many contexts brought to public art by its diverse audience, along with their own standing as members of the communities they address. They design pieces that generally curb avant-garde tendencies in favour of work that celebrates shared experiences. This approach validates the concerns of most public arts administrators and granting agencies. The approach encourages community involvement and critique of art works in the planning stages. It can head off controversies before large expenditures of public resources are involved.

This approach tends to alienate those who wish to see art take a more confrontational approach to social issues. Work that emphasizes common experiences within a community, they charge, plays down unpleasant conditions that persist within that community. Art groups like the Viennese Wochen Klausur (Weeks of Enclosure) aim to offer an alternative by working with expert agencies and using contemporary art idioms to explore possible solutions to pressing social problems.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Art controversy" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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