Controversial Art

Controversial Art – A Look at the Most Provocative Artworks

Controversial art, also labeled as “offensive art”, has found many ways to disgust, enrage, and appall society throughout the years. Many artworks ranging from the 16th century up until the present day are considered to be examples of controversial paintings due to the response that they elicited from society. However, provocative art pieces have also intrigued society greatly, with several works being discussed and debated over the years. Below, we will be going through some of the most extremely provocative art pieces ever made.



What Is Controversial Art?

As a general rule of thumb, the overall aim of controversial art is to provoke audiences as much as possible. Some artists in particular have gone to great lengths to do this in their artworks and are considered to have helped increase the art controversy surrounding what is acceptable by traditional art standards. As some artworks have been thought of as truly offensive when unveiled to society, retaliations such as public destruction and censorship of artwork have occurred, which only ended up increasing the popularity of the works.

No matter the period, there have always been artists who have boldly gone against the prevailing traditions of their time and depicted topics that were widely considered to be taboo and essentially forbidden.

As these artworks were usually publicly scorned and often banned, important conversations surrounding the freedom of creativity and expression of artists have been encouraged. With controversial art making a great impact on society, the emerging artworks have gone on to inspire countless individuals throughout the centuries.

Controversial Art and Paintings Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (‘Luncheon on the Grass’, 1863) by Édouard Manet, the nudity of which sparked much controversy during its time; Édouard Manet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite being met with much outrage, controversial and offensive art is a valuable medium for important conversations. As art is known to serve more than just a basic visual appeal, it has long been used to create messages that surpass language barriers. Specific works that have been considered to be provocative art have acted as a much-needed spark to encourage important discussions on certain topics. Even if audiences do not share in the expressions, the opinions gathered from these artworks give insight into the other side of the argument.

In essence, controversial art allows us to look within ourselves and evaluate the authenticity of our own beliefs, as these artworks serve as a reflection of the thinking of artists and society. In the 21st century, we are no longer strangers to the emergence of controversial paintings and artworks.

As other shocking art movements have progressed, like Dadaism, Cubism, Fauvism, and Modern Art, in addition to various political and social changes, this has ultimately paved the way for the emergence of provocative art which still occurs today.



Famous Controversial Artists and Their Artworks

What is so ironic about provocative art is that despite their controversy, the majority of these artworks are considered to be the greatest works produced in history. The same goes for their artists, who make up some of the most celebrated and talked-about creatives today. Including depictions of fully naked bodies, overt displays of sexuality, and even the blatant use of ready-mades disguised art, controversial art has continued to push the envelope in all spheres.

Below, we will be taking a look at 15 of the most controversial art pieces ever made.


The Last Judgement (1536 – 1541) by Michelangelo

Date 1536 – 1541
Dimensions13.7 m x 12 m
Where It Is Currently Housed Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

The first controversial art piece on our list is the iconic The Last Judgement, painted by the great Michelangelo. Created between 1536 and 1541 when Michelangelo was 67 years old, this magnificent fresco painting covers the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City. Painted almost 25 years after he completed the Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgement represents the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment by God of all of humanity. After its completion, this fresco was met with immediate controversy.

Consisting of over 300 individuals, The Last Judgement caused a massive quarrel between the Catholic Church and admirers of Michelangelo’s work. The church was appalled that he chose to depict mostly nude male figures in such a holy place, as this type of art was more appropriate for taverns and public baths at the time.

Religious officials spoke out about Michelangelo’s work and stated that he did not portray Jesus in the correct and most respected way, as he painted him without a beard which was very unorthodox for the time.

Art Controversy The Last Judgement (1536-1541) by Michelangelo; Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

To add insult to the injury, Michelangelo included figures from Pagan mythology in The Last Judgement, which was an incorrect display for the 16th century. It was said that the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, labeled Michelangelo’s work as a “disgrace”, as it was considered to be very shameful at the time for figures to be so exposed in such a sacred place.

These comments angered Michelangelo, who retaliated by copying Cesena’s face onto Minos, the magistrate of the underworld, complete with donkey’s ears.

In an attempt to complain, Cesena brought this to the Pope’s attention, who humorously replied that his power and control “did not extend to hell”. Because of the uproar it caused, bits of fabric and flora were painted over the exposed anatomy after Michelangelo’s death. However, these additions were later removed in a 20th-century restoration. After The Last Judgement’s completion, the fresco went on to be argued about for centuries.


St. Matthew and the Angel (1602) by Caravaggio

Date 1602
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions292 cm x 186 cm
Where It Is Currently Housed San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome 

Another painting that made the list of offensive art is St. Matthew and the Angel, painted by Baroque artist Caravaggio in 1602. While this painting was known to be quite scandalous, Caravaggio’s personal life proved to be more controversial than any of his artworks, as he passed away while in exile after being suspected of murder. Commissioned for the Contarelli Chapel in Rome, Caravaggio was asked to depict a traditional and religious painting of Saint Matthew and an angel, which was not what he did at all.

Flipping convention on its head, Caravaggio chose to use a destitute peasant as a model for Saint Matthew.

Religious Art Controversy St Matthew and the Angel (1602) by Caravaggio; Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While this notion itself upset critics, society, and religious leaders, what disturbed people even more was Caravaggio’s portrayal of Saint Matthew with dirty feet, which jut out from the canvas at a noticeable angle. While the angle of the foot was a well-known visual trick frequently used by Caravaggio, the fact that he chose to paint Saint Matthew’s feet as filthy gave virtually no respect for the very holy subject matter.

However, what caused even more contention was the way that Caravaggio structured his painting.

St. Matthew and the Angel implied to viewers that the saint was actually illiterate and had to be read to by the angel above his head. This painting was ultimately rejected on the grounds of blasphemy by the Church and was replaced with The Inspiration of St. Matthew (1602), which was considered to be a more traditional portrayal of the scene.


The Nude Maja (1799 – 1800) by Francisco Goya

Date 1799 – 1800
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions97 cm x 190 cm
Where It Is Currently Housed Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid

Painted by Francisco Goya between 1797 and 1800, The Nude Maja was the first painting in a series that he created for Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, who was one of his main patrons. Also known as La Maja Desnuda, Goya depicted an unknown and nude woman leaning back a green velvet chaise with her arms effortlessly crossed behind her head. Despite the woman’s identity remaining a secret, it was speculated that she was either Pepita Tudo, Godoy’s mistress, or the Duchess of Alba, who was Goya’s alleged lover.

Painted during a heavily religious and political climate in Spain, “The Nude Maja” was considered to be an incredibly controversial artwork.

Controversial Artists The Nude Maja (1799-1800) by Francisco de Goya; Francisco de Goya, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At that time, openly portraying a naked woman, pubic hair and all, was considered to be very offensive, with Goya breaking further conventions by depicting a real woman as opposed to a goddess or an allegorical figure. Goya was also one of the first artists to ever portray a naked model staring directly and unashamedly at viewers, later influencing Édouard Manet in his creation of Olympia (1863).

The bold expression with which Goya gave his model in The Nude Maja was seen as an important detail of the provocative art piece. As this feature utterly shocked viewers, it also provided a basis for other controversial artists to build on, as many other modern artists were inspired by this work. Despite its innovation, the Spanish Inquisition dismissed and confiscated the work in 1815 and ordered Goya to paint a new version with the woman fully clothed.

Today, both works sit beside one other in Spain’s most prestigious museum.


Origin of the World (1866) by Gustave Courbet

Date 1866
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions46 cm x 55 cm
Where It Is Currently Housed Musée d’Orsay, Paris 

When looking at all the offensive art pieces produced in the 19th century, Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet is possibly the most provocative of the lot. If we contemplate how controversial it was to produce paintings depicting full nudes, we can only imagine how incredibly brave and progressive Courbet was to produce Origin of the World.

Painting an exceptionally lifelike portrayal of a woman’s bare thighs, vagina, and torso, Courbet’s controversial work was viewed as completely revolutionary for its time.

Provocative Art Origin of the World (1866) by Gustave Courbet; Gustave Courbet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What made Origin of the World so offensive was that Courbet chose to focus on the woman’s genitals and naked body, without showing her face and giving her identity. Thus, the main focus of the painting became her vagina, pubic area, and breasts, which was extremely outrageous for the 19th century. During this time, Courbet dismissed the ideals of academic painting and its smooth, romantic nudes.

He went on to challenge the social conventions that viewed eroticism and pornography to be acceptable only in mythological paintings.

The level of realism present in Origin of the World pushed the limits of what was considered acceptable and respectable within art. Its lifelike and intense nudity shocked many viewers, which caused censorship of artwork to occur. In 1994, the French police removed a book from bookshops that used an image of the painting on its cover. Causing quite a stir again in 2011, Facebook had to disable accounts that posted pictures of Origin of the World on their page, censoring the image again.


Les Demoiselles d ‘Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso

Date 1907
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions243.9 cm x 233.7 cm
Where It Is Currently Housed Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Celebrated artist Pablo Picasso also makes the list of most controversial artists for his creation of Les Demoiselles d ‘Avignon in 1907. Painted during the Proto-Cubism movement, Picasso’s painting indicated an extreme move away from the use of traditional perspective and composition in painting. In this controversial art piece, Picasso depicted five naked women whose figures were made up of flat and fractured planes.

Their faces were said to have been inspired by African masks, as they took on a very stylized appearance.

This artwork is considered to be very offensive, as the time in which it was painted generally depicted women as rounded and sensual figures. The use of sharp-edged lines to depict women gave off a very rough idea, as their bodies were represented as mere fragments. However, the biggest controversy within Les Demoiselles d ‘Avignon was that Picasso chose to portray five prostitutes from a brothel in Barcelona.

The title of the painting also refers to prostitution, as it was named after a popular street that was well-known for its sex trade.

The subject matter led to the painting being badly received when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1916. When it was unveiled to audiences, many viewers were horrified with Picasso’s brazen subject matter and his crude depictions of nude prostitutes, whose faces and bodies appeared too confrontational and shattered to be human. Even Picasso’s friends were shocked at the content and execution of his work, as while the use of nude women was not unusual at the time, the aggressive sexual postures he gave his figures were unconventional.


Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp

Date 1917
DimensionsDimensions of a urinal
Where It Is Currently Housed Lost

Possibly the most famous controversial art piece to ever exist, which is commonly thought of as a landmark in the emergence of provocative art, is Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Fountain. Seen as the first “readymade” art in existence, Duchamp acquired an ordinary porcelain urinal, lay it face up, signed it with the alias “R. Mutt” and put it forward as a sculpture to the Society of Independent Artists. Despite this group being known to accept any artist who could pay the fee, they quickly rejected Duchamp’s work for the exhibition.

What was more ironic about the sculpture’s rejection was that Duchamp was a co-founder and board member of the society, demonstrating that his work’s dismissal was a very big deal.

Offensive Art Fountain (1917) by Marcel Duchamp; Marcel Duchamp, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While he stated that this piece marked a shift towards a more conceptual mode of expression, others were outraged that he attempted to pass off an unremarkable object as a prestigious work of art, when there was nothing extraordinary about it. Critics believed that Fountain completely disrespected all of the ideals that traditional art was built upon.

As Fountain mocked the system and its established standards, it was barred from the exhibition, with Duchamp stepping down from the board in protest. As a major landmark in 20th-century art, it caused a great scandal about the rules of fine art and initiated modern discussions about what constitutes real art. The sculpture also helped redirect art’s purpose from physical practice to highbrow interpretation.

Since its debut, many other artists have claimed victory over the piece by urinating in it, which ended up causing further outrage.


The Guitar Lesson (1934) by Balthus

Date 1934
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions161.3 cm x 138.4 cm
Where It Is Currently Housed Private collection

French painter Balthus was listed among the most controversial artists after he unveiled The Guitar Lesson, which he painted in 1934. Considered to be one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Balthus was an extremely contentious artist who produced equally questionable paintings. In The Guitar Lesson, Balthus depicted the guitar in question carelessly discarded on the floor, while the teacher yanks on the hair of her underage student whose skirt is raised, while holding her as if she was an instrument about to be played.

However, what makes this painting so provocative is the fact that the guitar teacher is touching her student in an extremely inappropriate area, with her hand very close to her student’s exposed vagina. As the girl is splayed across her teacher’s lap, the impression that she is strumming invisible guitar strings is made obvious by her hand placement inside her student’s thighs.

Another feature that adds to this offensive art piece is the fact that the teacher’s breast is uncovered, with her clothing appearing disheveled as if it was ripped open.

The Guitar Teacher existed as an extremely unsettling portrayal of pedophilia, as the painting triggered feelings of immense discomfort in viewers. Additionally, Balthus’s use of young girls as sexual objects in his works was equally disturbing. After it was initially exhibited in one of his early shows in Paris, The Guitar Teacher generated a lot of discussions.

As it was viewed as a truly disturbing and controversial art piece, it has not been put on display since 1977 and has simply passed between museums and collectors to this day.


Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) by Robert Rauschenberg

Date 1953
MediumTraces of drawing media on paper with label and gilded frame
Dimensions64.1 cm x 55.2 cm x 1.2 cm
Where It Is Currently Housed San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

At the beginning of the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg considered the limitations of art through the creation of Erased de Kooning Drawing. As Rauschenberg was experimenting with the idea that a work of art could be created by simply removing marks from a page as opposed to producing them, he began using his own drawings to practice on.

However, he decided that in order for the work to be effective, it would have to be an erased drawing that was of immense value, which led to him asking legendary artist Willem de Kooning for one of his artworks.

After heavy persuasion, as de Kooning initially found the idea “corny”, Rauschenberg acquired one of his iconic and heavily worked-on paintings, which took him two months to erase. Once completed, he presented this blank canvas where de Kooning’s work once was as art. His controversial art piece was met with much disagreement, as his method was denounced as an atrocity by most critics. People went so far as to say that what he did was essentially a criminal act and labeled it as the destruction of property.

As de Kooning was not very fond of the idea, he purposefully gave Rauschenberg a heavily marked drawing that was a mixture of grease pencil and charcoal, in the hopes that he would struggle greatly.

Even after Rauschenberg finished his erasure, traces of de Kooning’s original work were still visible. It took about a decade for word about Erased de Kooning Drawing to spread and when it eventually did, Rauschenberg’s work was met with two conflicting opinions: was this the work of a genius, or was it purely vandalism?


Rhythm 0 (1974) by Marina Abramovic

Date 1974
MediumTable with 72 objects and slide projector with slides of performance and text 
DimensionsOverall display dimensions variable
Where It Is Currently Housed Video housed at the Tate, London

Renowned for her intense performance art pieces, Marina Abramovic makes the list of most controversial artists for her Rhythm 0 performance. Taking place in Naples in 1974, Abramovic set out a long table covered with a white tablecloth, 72 different objects, and 96 slides that were projected onto the gallery wall.

The objects ranged from softer items like a feather, scarf, and handkerchief, to more intense items, like a gun, bullet, scalpel, whip, and a pair of scissors.

Abramovic’s work aimed to invite spectators into the performance and use any of the 72 objects on her body in whatever way they wanted to, which gave them total control over her. Abramovic stated in the description of her work that she acknowledged herself as an object and that she would take full responsibility should anything happen to her.

“Rhythm O” demonstrated her belief that directly facing physical harm and fatigue was important in making a person completely aware of themselves in the current moment.

What made Rhythm 0 such a provocative art piece was the fact that Abramovic involved the audience through a dynamic exchange of power. While the performance was going on, viewers subconsciously divided themselves into those who wanted to hurt Abramovic (by holding a loaded gun to her head and drawing blood from her neck), and those who tried to guard her (by wiping away her tears).

After standing still for six hours, concerned members demanded that the performance be stopped, as others were becoming more and more violent.

After the performance ended, Abramovic remarked that at one point, she was ready to die when the gun was pointed at her and a fight broke out in the gallery over how far people were willing to take things. However, the moment the performance ended, everyone instantly ran away to avoid confronting what they had just done and what had happened. Since the debut of Rhythm 0, Abramovic has been heralded as the “godmother of performance art”.


The Dinner Party (1974 – 1979) by Judy Chicago

Date 1974 – 1979
MediumCeramic, porcelain, textile, and glass
Dimensions1463 cm x 1463 cm
Where It Is Currently Housed Brooklyn Museum, New York City

This monumental sculpture created by Judy Chicago exists as an artwork that was faced with countless art controversy and discussions. The Dinner Party, produced between 1974 and 1979, set out to promote the recognition of often-forgotten women throughout history, and in the process, Chicago ended up making art history herself. Creating a difficult installation that was made up of hundreds of different components, the finished piece resembled an imagined banquet table that featured 39 of the most iconic women from mythology and history.

The famous guests of honor included Sojourner Truth, Sacajawea, Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and Empress Theodora of Byzantium, among others.

What made this such a controversial art piece was because Chicago chose to represent each woman’s place at the table through an intricate place setting made up of stylized vulvas. Mixing different anatomical images and shapes, as well as various craft techniques, the vulvas had a very kitschy look about them, which led to many parody counter-exhibitions popping up.

However, while the work was labeled as vulgar and crass, controversy also followed The Dinner Party in terms of its racial exclusion. Some critics condemned Chicago’s work for blatantly leaving out important Latin American women like Frida Kahlo, as well as for only giving Sojourner Truth a setting with three faces on instead of a vulva like everyone else.

It was said that despite Chicago being seen as a feminist, many white women in general at the time found it difficult to imagine women of color having vaginas just like them.


Piss Christ (1987) by Andres Serrano

Date 1987
MediumCibachrome print
Dimensions150 cm x 100 cm
Where It Is Currently Housed Unknown

One of the biggest scandals in contemporary art is Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, which he photographed in 1987. Placing a small plastic crucifix with a figurine of Jesus in a glass tank that was filled with his own urine and blood, Serrano took a photograph of the work and presented it as art. It went on to win the visual arts award in the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts competition in 1989 but despite this, Piss Christ was met with mostly controversy. Serrano received death threats and hate mail for ages after the debut of his work.

As Serrano received more than $15 000 from the taxpayer-funded art grant, his work provoked an intense debate about public arts.

Piss Christ was widely considered to be disrespectful to Christians, which was eventually criticized by conservative U.S. Senators. Serrano, a Christian himself, merely said that his work was a religious statement that demonstrated the vague relationship between the divine and the profane. He also highlighted the continued cheapening of Christ, by those who twist his words to fit their own ends.

Despite saying that Piss Christ was just a reflection of himself as a Christian, Serrano’s work was not understood in the way that he had hoped. Both the process of creation and the title of the work continued to enrage many Catholic communities, even though Serrano attempted to provide a reason for his work.

24 years after its creation, the anger surrounding this artwork came to a head in 2011 when a print of the photograph was vandalized beyond repair with hammers by a pack of Christian fundamentalists.


Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met Museum? (1989) by the Guerrilla Girls

Date 1989
Dimensions280 mm x 710 mm
Where It Is Currently Housed Tate Museum, London; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

One of the most iconic art posters ever made was Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met Museum, distributed by the infamous Guerrilla Girls group in 1989. The poster was initially devised as a billboard for the Public Art Fund in New York but was denied for being vague. Instead of designing something else, the Guerrilla Girls rented advertising space on New York busses and publicized their work themselves until the bus company canceled their contract on account of the poster being “too suggestive”.

Known as an anonymous and revolutionary all-female artist group, the Guerrilla Girls emerged in 1984 after a survey at the Museum of Modern Art showed that only 13 women out of a total of 169 artists were included.

The group started a poster movement to raise awareness about the lack of female artists that were being represented in important modern art institutions. The production of these posters was viewed as a controversial move, as the use of bold statistics meant that no one could deny this inadequacy of representation.

By stating that 85% of the nudes hanging in the Metropolitan Museum were female, but less than 5% of the overall artists exhibited in the Modern Art sections were female, the Guerrilla Girls presented a straightforward observation that generated many debates.

The phrase “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”, accompanied by the altered image of La Grande Odalisque (1814) wearing a gorilla mask, was intended to bring great embarrassment and shame upon the museum. 


Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 (1995) by Tracey Emin

Date 1995
MediumAppliqued tent, mattress, and light
Where It Is Currently Housed Destroyed

Installation artist Tracey Emin has also created several controversial offensive art pieces during her career, most notably Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995. Listing the names of every single person she has ever slept with, Emin’s work is initially misleading as she included the names of everyone from both a sexual and platonic encounter.

Sewing 102 names into a tent, Emin’s artwork made up one of the most ridiculed and variously accepted works of the 1990s, as it was mainly controversial due to its sexual content. 

When asked about the artwork, Emin stated that the undertones of sex only formed a part of the concept, as the idea of going to bed with someone was much more complex. Presented with the tent flaps open, as if welcoming viewers inside, Emin’s artwork was criticized as being more of a showing off than a real work of art, as a list of sexual conquests was looked down upon.

The nuance of this artwork lies in the wording of the title, as “slept with” simply referred to sharing a bed with someone and not always in a sexual way.

Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995 acquired a cult status quickly, with Charles Saatchi wanting to buy the work. However, Emin refused to sell her artwork to Saatchi due to his advertising work, but he managed to secure the tent anyway on the secondary market for £40 000. Unfortunately, in 2004, Emin’s artwork was destroyed in a warehouse fire. As the majority of the public disliked her, this event was met with ridicule rather than sympathy, leading Emin to turn down her £1 million insurance as she refused to recreate the work.


The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) by Chris Ofili

Date 1996


MediumAcrylic, oil, paper collage, oil paint, glitter, polyester resin, map pins, and elephant dung on linen
Dimensions243.8 cm x 182.8 cm
Where It Is Currently Housed Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Another of the most controversial paintings of all time is The Holy Virgin Mary, painted by Chris Ofili in 1996. Depicting a black Virgin Mary encircled by female genitalia and buttocks, Ofili’s artwork was met with much scorn when it was first exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. At first glance, the surrounding collage resembles butterflies but upon closer inspection, these images were actually cut out from pornographic magazines, taking away their beauty.

However, the most controversial aspect of this provocative art piece was that Ofili painted his depiction of the Virgin Mary using elephant dung, with her exposed breast made up entirely of a ball of manure.

This glittering painting caused such outrage after multiple media channels incorrectly reported that the canvas was “splattered” with excrement, which led to the mayor of New York threatening to take away the museum’s $7 million funding for the art show. Religious leaders joined the debate and went on to label the painting as “sick stuff”.

By combining outrageous features, Ofili went on to create a truly shocking artwork.

Through using an image that is central to Catholicism, Ofili’s inclusion of the Virgin Mary was intended to shock and challenge viewers. However, even he could not have predicted the violent protests that would erupt in response to his artwork. A 72-year-old eventually damaged the painting with white paint as he was insulted by its profanity. Despite this, The Holy Virgin Mary went on to be sold in 2015 for $4.6 million.


For the Love of God (2007) by Damien Hirst

Date 2007
MediumPlatinum, diamonds, and human teeth
Dimensions171 mm x 127 mm x 190 mm
Where It Is Currently Housed White Cube Gallery, London

The final artist on our list of controversial art pieces is Damien Hirst, who produced For the Love of God in 2007. Presenting a human skull adorned with 8601 pristine and unblemished pavé set diamonds, his artwork cost more than £4 million to make and weighed in at 1,106.18 carats. The title of the artwork was taken from a phrase regularly used by Hirst’s mother on hearing the outrageous and truly shocking ideas he had for his early artworks. First exhibited in London in 2007, For the Love of God attracted many visitors and was heavily guarded.

When Hirst first presented his artwork, two things struck audiences as utterly shocking and controversial.

Firstly, Hirst made use of an 18th-century human skull that he bought from a taxidermist that was thought to belong to a male of European and Mediterranean ancestry. Secondly, the sheer excess of the skull being encrusted with thousands of diamonds was thought to be totally outrageous when viewed. The purpose of For the Love of God was to act as a type of memento mori and to remind audiences about the certainty of death.

Like most of Hirst’s other artworks, his skull ignited immediate and intense controversy. On top of this, Hirst then set the asking price of his artwork at about $50 million, which most people considered to be completely ludicrous. However, in a move that was deemed the most shocking thing to occur, Hirst’s and his bejeweled artwork made international headlines when it was bought by an investment group for $100 million in the same year it was made. Since then, it has widely been thought of as the most expensive contemporary artwork ever made.


The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (2007) by Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst’s shark, which was a commissioned artpiece by Charles Saatchi, an art collector was really shocking. He took a dead shark and preserved its body in a massive tank of formaldehyde. People asked if this is really considered art?

Date Completed1991
MediumShark in formaldehyde
Dimensions213 cm × 518 cm × 213 cm
LocationTate Modern

Shark in Formaldehyde


While all of these artworks were ridiculed at some point, their provocative and brazen nature have helped make them some of the most iconic artworks of all time, a feat that would have further enraged their critics. As the art world has made massive strides in terms of its own development, artworks that were previously considered to be offensive art are not viewed in the same light today. While censorship of artwork still occurs for some works that are seen as controversial in the current progressive age, this does not happen as frequently.



Frequently Asked Questions


Who Is the Most Famous Controversial Artist?

While most controversial artists are relatively well-known, the most famous of the lot is generally agreed to be Marcel Duchamp. Thought to be the most provocative artist to emerge during the last 100 years, Duchamp cemented his name in history when he created his iconic Fountain (1917) and introduced society to the art of the readymade.


Can These Controversial Art Pieces Still Be Viewed Today?

Apart from the artworks that have unfortunately been lost or destroyed beyond recognition, most of the controversial paintings and provocative art pieces can be seen in their respective museums.


Is There Such a Thing as “Too Controversial” in the Art World?

The main purpose of art, no matter its medium, is to convey a message and provoke some sort of reaction and understanding from viewers. As many people do not share the same interest and appreciation of art, it completely depends on the viewer if they feel an artwork to be too controversial or not. The subjective nature of individuals allows them to essentially decide for themselves what to think of an artwork. However, most people are known to be influenced by the opinions and thoughts of those around them to conform to society.


Cite this Article

Isabella, Meyer, “Controversial Art – A Look at the Most Provocative Artworks.” Art in Context. October 12, 2021. URL:

Meyer, I. (2021, 12 October). Controversial Art – A Look at the Most Provocative Artworks. Art in Context.

Meyer, Isabella. “Controversial Art – A Look at the Most Provocative Artworks.” Art in Context, October 12, 2021.

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