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Controversial Art

October 11, 2007

A crucifix suspended in urine. A can of the artist’s fecal matter. A ballet that caused a riot. Is it art? Of course. But what does it mean and what do our reactions to it tell us about ourselves? In my research for a paper on Marcuse and artistic alienation I did a bit of research on controversial art and, just like potato chips: once I started I couldn’t stop. Here are a few of my favourites:

Rite of Spring – Stravinsky (1912).

The first two minutes apparently went well, with the audience enthralled by the haunting introduction. But then, the astringent brutality of the first scene broke through as,Seiji Ozawa conducts the Boston Symphony in the Rite of Spring -- 1969 RCA album cover in Stravinsky’s words: “the curtain rose on a group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down.” The subject itself was scandalous: instead of the fanciful amorous stuff of fluffy ballet dreams, ugly pagans sacrifice a maiden to propitiate the gods of spring. The choreography, costumes and sets boldly dispensed with grace and beauty to emphasize awkward, primitive starkness. At first there were a few boos and catcalls, but then a storm broke as the outraged audience reacted by yelling and fighting. Stravinsky was furious and stormed out of the theater before police arrived to end the show.

Piss Christ – Andres Serrano (1987)

Andres Serrano caused a scandal in 1987 when he showed Piss Christ, a large photo of a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine.

The shock of this piece originates from the juxtaposition of what is to some the most holy of images with what is to many of those same people consider the most base and vile of substances. Some assumed that the submersion of the crucifix in urine was a prima facie statement of contempt for Christ and therefore blasphemous. In fact, Serrano was brought up in a devout Catholic family and religion was very significant to him as a child. In [another view], he was examining our own mental categories of beauty and profanity, divinity, and humanity.

Myra -Marcus Harvey (1995)Marcus-Harvey-Myra.jpg

However, the biggest media controversy [concerning the art show Sensation] was over Myra, an image of the murderer Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey. Winnie Johnson, the mother of one of Hindley’s victims, asked for the portrait, made up of hundreds of copies of a child’s handprint, to be excluded to protect her feelings. Along with supporters she picketed the show’s first day. Even Myra Hindley, herself, sent a letter from jail suggesting her portrait be removed from the exhibition, reasoning that such action was necessary because the work was “a sole disregard not only for the emotional pain and trauma that would inevitably be experienced by the families of the Moors victims but also the families of any child victim.” Despite all the protest the painting remained hanging. Windows at Burlington House, the Academy’s home, were smashed and two demonstrators hurled ink and eggs at the picture as a result, requiring it to be removed and restored. It was put back on display behind Perspex and guarded by security men.

Merda d’Artista – Piero Manzoni (1961)

In May 1961, the Italian artist Piero Manzoni packed and sealed ninety cylindrical cans, each containing thirty grams of his own excrement. Atop each tin are the words PRODUCED BY, followed by the signature Piero Manzoni, and a stenciled number designating its place in the run. A label affixed to the body of each consists of rows of the artist’s first and last names strung together and repeated over and over. This PIEROMANZONIPIEROMANZONI functions as a background on which is printed the words:


Artist’s Shit




IN MAY 1961

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