5 of the Most Controversial Artists

From Picasso’s prostitutes to Hirst’s shark – throughout the ages, art has been used as a device to challenge conventions, tackle authority, explore taboo topics and comment on society. 

As time goes by, what each generation finds controversial will inevitably change. But, while we’re generally pretty open-minded and liberal nowadays – or so we’d like to think – art still has the ability to shock us. Here are some of our favourite boundary-pushing artists of all time…

Chris Ofili 

The English painter caused a scandal in 1996 when he painted the world’s most famous virgin (hint: we’re not talking about Britney circa the nineties) in black. He created the paper collage using oil paint, glitter, porn mag cuttings and elephant dung on linen. The then-mayor of New York City called it ‘sick’, but some of Ofili’s works have since gone on to sell for millions of dollars. Guess it’s a matter of personal taste…

Paul McCarthy

His most renowned piece has to be ‘Tree’; a giant inflatable butt plug. What a romantic. Erected in Place Vendôme, Paris as part of last year’s International Contemporary Art Fair (FIAC), the 79ft installation piece made a helluva statement, and hit a bum note (sorry) with many a Parisian resulting in vandalism and even a slap in the face for the American artist. 

David Černý

One of Czech Republic’s most well-known artists, Černý likes to ‘piss people off’ (his words, not ours) and he certainly managed to do just that in 2002 with ‘Nation to Itself’ – a large sculpture of a golden man with steam bursting from his ‘nozzle’ at random intervals. It was meant to be displayed at Prague’s National Theatre but was never installed due to fears that it would freak theatre-goers out. 


Copyright: www.davidcerny.cz

Tracey Emin 

A messy, unmade bed is nothing to brag about, unless you’re Tracey Emin. This work of art – which includes condoms and a pair of worn knickers – evokes all the things one might associate with a bed including sleep, insomnia, sex, dreams, birth and death. First exhibited 16 years ago, ‘My Bed’ not only continues to shock but was recently sold for £2.54m by Charles Saatchi. Dreams can come true…

Marcel Duchamp

Entitled ‘Fountain’, this porcelain urinal repositioned on its side may seem relatively ordinary to you, but those who first saw it in 1917 would disagree. While the French artist simply saw it as an everyday object that he produced as art, it sparked debate about what should be recognised as art. Luckily, he wasn’t just pissing in the wind with this one – after all, we’re still talking about him now.

Copyright: www.sfmoma.org