Controversial Artworks

Controversial Artworks – Explore the Most Provocative Art Made

What is controversial art? How do we navigate controversy in the art world and what does controversy mean about art? These are questions that every art enthusiast or scholar needs to examine when encountering the latest art scandal. This article will explore the top 10 most controversial artworks of all time, including why these paintings have been marked as controversial and worthy of scandal.



Scandal: What Is Controversial Art?

What is controversial art? We often hear of artworks in art history causing “quite the scandal” or stirring up harsh comments from the scrutinous eyes of art critics, but we often do not get the chance to unpack and observe what it is that makes these works so controversial to the public eye.

Given that most artworks are produced for public exhibition to some degree, the role of the artist is to decide what to include or exclude from an artwork’s composition or subject, such that the final artwork caters to the preferences of the public or parties concerned.

What lies behind the idea of something being subject to controversy or public scandal is therefore based on the idea that art must cater to the societal expectation of the public or those who stand to gain certain commercial profits from the artwork in question. Controversial art in the broader spectrum has always defied the existing standard of what was considered either good or “acceptable” art and was once reliant upon preset ideals and notions around what art was supposed to look like, evoke, and most importantly, what it was allowed to denote and connote.

Controversial ArtistsOrigin of the World (1866) by Gustave Courbet, located in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France; Gustave Courbet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The history of art suggests that most controversial artworks are also associated with controversial artists and this complicates the matter even further. The idea that an artwork may be controversial alludes to the fact that it must present ideas or subject matter that is in opposition to the ideals and norms of the general society it finds itself in.

Artists dubbed “controversial artists” are the living manifestations of the controversial work in question and carry a more active impact than a stationary artwork.

Controversial artists are often associated with engaging in questionable acts, performances, and lifestyles, and even making provoking statements that stir up the attention of the art critic and the public. In art history, scandals have emerged and shifted from controversial nude artworks to artworks that evoke political opinions and stir up questions on the role of the artist and the freedom of expression.



Top 10 Most Controversial Paintings in the World

Controversial art is not inherently “bad” art, but perhaps better framed as triggers to general society and alternative viewpoints that carry a significant impact on the global art community. Below, we will examine the top 10 most controversial paintings, artists, and artworks that have either made headlines or raised eyebrows.


Death of the Virgin (1601 – 1606) by Caravaggio

ArtistMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)
Date1601 – 1606
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions (cm)369 x 245
Where It Is HousedMusée du Louvre, Paris, France

Michelangelo Caravaggio is one of the most popular Italian painters who was also known to be a controversial artist who reportedly murdered a man during a sword fight that ensued shortly after a tennis match with a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni.

Aside from Caravaggio’s temper and inclination to murder, he also produced one of art history’s most controversial paintings, The Death of the Virgin, between 1601 and 1606.

Controversial Nude ArtDeath of the Virgin (1601 – 1606) by Caravaggio, located in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France; Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During the production of the painting, Caravaggio had already been practicing in Rome for 15 years and had received a commission from the papal lawyer, Laerzio Cherubini. It was not so much the title that stirred up controversy, but it was how Caravaggio depicted the Virgin Mary that resulted in a “contemporary stir” and was immediately rejected by the parish.

The way that Caravaggio depicted the Virgin was likened to that of a local prostitute who was believed to be Caravaggio’s mistress at the time.

As you might imagine, the painting was dismissed entirely and replaced with a new one by a different artist. On the other hand, Sir Peter Paul Rubens adored the painting and considered it his best painting. Perhaps the most controversial works are also some of the best works known in art history.


Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863) by Édouard Manet

ArtistÉdouard Manet (1832 – 1883)
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions (cm)208 x 264.5
Where It Is HousedMusée du Louvre, Paris, France

Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863), or “Luncheon on the Grass” in English, was one of the first controversial nude artworks that made Édouard Manet a controversial artist of the 19th century. The Salon rejected the painting in 1863 due to its display of a nude woman in an almost too modern setting of a picnic on the grass with two men, who were fully clothed.

The painting was seen as an absurd provocative artwork and was exhibited thereafter at the Salon des Refusés.

Controversial ArtLe Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863) by Édouard Manet, located in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France; Édouard Manet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This was only one of many “scandalous” paintings by Manet to follow, which featured a woman gazing unapologetically at the audience. What made this artwork particularly Modern and scandalous was the fact that the art world during this period was cautious about the depiction of female nudes, although it was found in many religious and mythological paintings, it was ironically rejected for its unconventionality in both subject matter and painting style.

This “provocative” artwork is also regarded as a precursor to Modern art.


Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp

ArtistHenri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968)
Medium Readymade ceramic urinal; signed
Dimensions (cm)61 x 36 x 48
Where It Is HousedLost

Fountain (1917) is considered one of art history’s most controversial artworks for the fact that it was almost disregarded as an artwork itself. Presented by Marcel Duchamp for the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, this readymade urinal signed with Duchamp’s name shook the art world.

One can say that Duchamp’s bold submission made room for questions about what could be and what makes something a work of art.

Controversial PaintingsPhotograph of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), made from a urinal and signed R. Mutt; Marcel Duchamp, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This also introduced the power of the agency of the artist in claiming that a readymade object could be an artwork in itself if presented as art by the artist. Duchamp transformed a once-everyday object into a readymade, sculptural work of art and posed an even deeper question for examination: What role do art institutions play in qualifying and evaluating art?

Duchamp’s Fountain was a necessary controversy for the rest of the 20th-century art scene.


The Guitar Lesson (1934) by Balthus

ArtistBalthasar Klossowski de Rola (1908 – 2001)
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions (cm)161.3 x 138.4
Where It Is HousedPrivate collection

The Guitar Lesson (1943) is a painting by Balthus, a Polish-French Modern artist who created this controversial painting in 1934 and has since never seen the light of an exhibition since its reveal in a 1977 New York show. One of the ingredients of a classic controversy revolves around triggering the viewer and evoking discomfort. If there was any such image in a painting that could still achieve that, then this is the one.

Balthus’ painting portrays a prepubescent girl on the lap of an older woman, shown with her lower body exposed and about to be fondled like an instrument.

The discomfort triggered here definitely carries pedophilic connotations and was observed by Peter Schjeldahl, an art critic, as a painting that presents the viewer with a “moral conundrum” through the use of “elegant nuanced violations of taboo”.

Balthus is generally considered a controversial artist due to his subject matter often portraying young girls in an erotic manner.


Tilted Arc (1981) by Richard Serra

ArtistRichard Serra (1938 – Present)
Medium Steel sculpture
Dimensions (cm)365.7 x 3657.6
Where It Is HousedMaryland; storage facility

This public art installation by Richard Serra was not well-received by the public and became a subject of controversy due to its position and aesthetic. The sculpture was built for the Foley Federal Plaza in Manhattan in 1981, which upon installation, was meant to cut across the plaza and therefore force the viewer to move around the sculpture.

Despite Serra’s artistic intention, he was forced to remove the sculpture after it was criticized for being more of an obstruction as opposed to a work of art. It was eventually removed in 1989.

Serra pursued legal action against the sculpture’s removal, arguing that this was a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech but the debate was unfortunately lost and the artwork is now dismantled into three pieces and stored at a facility in Maryland.


Immersion (Piss Christ) (1987) by Andres Serrano

ArtistAndres Serrano (1950 – Present)
Medium Cibachrome print, silicone, and plexiglass
Dimensions (cm)152.4 x 101.6
Where It Is HousedLast auctioned off at Sotheby’s, London for $145,162

In 1989, Andres Serrano created one of the most controversial artworks that attracted a great deal of hate and backlash from believers of the Christian faith. The artwork in question was a red and yellow image of a crucifix that was plunged into a vat of the artist’s urine and photographed. According to Serrano, he was not intending on relaying any message and upon reflection on his work, he regards this photograph as a reflection of his work as a Christian himself.

The image did not only incite aggression from the public but it also stirred up a congressional debate on public art funding in the United States.

The photograph enraged many to the point where Serrano’s work was attacked and destroyed in 2011 by French Catholic fundamentalists. Serrano also wanted to bring to light the reality behind the traditional interpretation of the cross; that it was more than just a fashion accessory as commonly used today and that it was still a symbol of a crucifix that a man bled on for three days straight.

In Christ’s last days, Serrano further stated that the crucifix is also where “he peed himself to death”.

According to Serrano, if people were stirred up by the image of a cross in urine, they were asked to reflect on the true nature of the event as opposed to the superficial nature of the cross. Serrano continued to receive hate mail and death threats for his work, thus making him one of the most controversial artists of the 20th century.


Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met Museum? (1989) by The Guerilla Girls

ArtistThe Guerilla Girls (1985 – Present)
Medium Lithograph
Dimensions (cm)27.9 x 71.1
Where It Is HousedThe Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This 1989 poster by the collective, the Guerilla Girls, was made as a critical response to the lack of representation of female artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The collective designed the billboard for the Public Art Fund (PAF) but it was rejected for being classified as a “provocative artwork”.

To get their important message across, the collective decided to rent out advertising space on buses and ran the advert themselves to expose the prevalence of the objectification of women in art.

The collective maintained their anonymity by wearing gorilla masks in public. What made this work controversial was that it became a direct question posed to one of the art world’s most popular and highly praised institutions. The collective researched the number of female artists represented in Modern institutions and compared that to the number of naked female bodies that appeared in the art on display at the Metropolitan Museum.

Their poster included statistics that were accompanied by the question “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”.

The collective’s eye-catching design also featured a nude woman from a French painting, Grande Odalisque (1814) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in a gorilla mask. The artwork also highlighted a dominant issue in the art world centered around the lack of gender diversity in the 1980s art world.


Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) by Ai Weiwei

ArtistAi Weiwei (1957 – Present)
Medium Silver Gelatin print; photography series
Dimensions (cm)148 x 121
Where It Is HousedGuggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Ai Weiwei created one of the most controversial photographic/performative series of the 20th century by smashing a 200-year-old ceremonial Chinese urn in an act of desecration to promote freedom of expression and critique the Chinese government.

In such a profound and swift gesture, Weiwei challenges historical symbolism and culture associated with the value of the urn and expresses his desire to create a new world by literally destroying the old one.

Like many other controversial artworks, Weiwei’s artwork presents questions for the art world to consider when moving forward toward Contemporary art. Some important questions that arose out of this work include vandalism and its place in art and considering which elements of tradition should be preserved.

The reexamination of tradition and its revision is highlighted as imperative to the freedom of expression in art. What do you think?


Shark (2005) by David Černý

ArtistDavid Černý (1967 – Present)
Medium Installation; tank, formaldehyde
Dimensions (cm) Dimensions Unavailable
Where It Is HousedBanned c. 2006

David Černý is one of the most popular controversial artists of the 21st century who, since 1991, has been overturning the tables of politics and art. Having been arrested for hooliganism for painting a national cultural monument pink, Černý did not stop in his pursuit of expressing his views on political matters.

Shark (2005) was an installation that was inspired by Damien Hirst’s previous controversial work that featured a shark preserved in a tank of formaldehyde titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).

Shark featured not an actual shark but a replica of the body of Saddam Hussein, who was still in jail at the time and was to be executed a year after. The installation was exhibited at the 2005 Prague Biennale and on the container itself, Černý signed “Mohammed”.

In the end, this controversial piece was banned from Poland and Belgium due to its offensive nature and harm to the Islamic community.


For the Love of God (2007) by Damien Hirst

ArtistDamien Stephen Hirst (1965)
Medium Platinum, diamond, human teeth, a human skull
Dimensions (cm)17.1 x 12.7 x 19
Where It Is HousedWhite Cube Gallery, London, United Kingdom

Regarded as both a Modern work of art and a controversial piece, For the Love of God by Damien Hirst, who is also considered a controversial artist, is a work that is known for its properties, that being, it was cast from a real human skull with teeth and encrusted in a later of 8,601 diamonds.

Hirst is well-known for using dead animals preserved in formaldehyde as works of art that sell for over $57,740.

Provocative ArtFor the Love of God (2007) by Damien Hirst, located in the White Cube Gallery in London, United Kingdom; Aaron Weber, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hirst’s skull artwork also gained much attention for being the most expensive artwork made by a living artist, with the skull selling for a massive $57.7 million. The production cost alone was around $16.2 million, which further emphasizes the artist’s dedication and reputation for creating rather interesting works of art.


Over the years, the artworks that have been subjected to controversy have raised the eyebrows of art critics for many reasons. Questioning the reasons behind what stirs a controversy in art is crucial to developing your own idea of what freedom of expression means and what the future of Contemporary art looks like. Another aspect to ponder is; at what point do ethics and freedom of expression exceed their limit of acceptability? Is there a limit? From these top 10 most controversial artworks in art history, which carries the most shock value for you?




Frequently Asked Questions


What Is the Most Controversial Artwork in the World?

The most controversial artwork in the world is considered to be Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) for its breakthrough in sculpture via the introduction of everyday objects as art. The artwork was considered controversial because Duchamp declared that it was art and added his signature to the urinal to further reinforce the idea and pose questions on what art could be.


What Makes an Artwork Controversial?

An artwork becomes controversial when it challenges the expected societal norm regarding various general subject matter, including opinions on politics, social issues, and prominent figures of authority in modern-day and pre-Contemporary history. Many artworks that have been classified as controversial often use artistic elements to make bold statements and are often criticized for the kind of messages embedded in them.


What Is a Provocative Artwork?

A provocative artwork seeks to challenge and provoke its viewers in a way that elicits a reaction aimed at exposing the viewer’s discomfort, amusement, admiration, or shock toward the artwork.


Cite this Article

Jordan, Anthony, “Controversial Artworks – Explore the Most Provocative Art Made.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source. October 28, 2022. URL:

Anthony, J. (2022, 28 October). Controversial Artworks – Explore the Most Provocative Art Made. artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source.

Anthony, Jordan. “Controversial Artworks – Explore the Most Provocative Art Made.” artfilemagazine – Your Online Art Source, October 28, 2022.

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