Any Press Is Good Press: A History of Controversial Art

A cubist style painting of partially nude women in a vividly coloured room.Image © Christie’s / Les Femme d’Algers (Version “O”) © Pablo Picasso 1955
Rebecca Marsham

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Art has always been a tool for self-expression, social commentary, and cultural critique. Throughout history, artists have used their craft to push boundaries, challenge societal norms, and provoke thought and emotion in their audiences. In this article, we will explore eight artists who aren’t strangers to controversy and how their work has pushed the boundaries of artistic expression.

Art has always been a tool for self-expression, social commentary, and cultural critique. Throughout history, artists have used their craft to push boundaries, challenge societal norms, and provoke thought and emotion in their audiences. In this article, we will explore eight artists who aren’t strangers to controversy and how their work has pushed the boundaries of artistic expression.

Cubist composition of five women painted in hues of pink facing the viewer with backgrounds of muted red and blueImage © The Museum of Modern Art / Les Demoiselles d'Avignon © Pablo Picasso 1907

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, is known for his groundbreaking and controversial work. His artistic style, which shifted dramatically throughout his career, was often met with resistance and criticism from traditional art critics and the public alike. However, his bold and innovative approach to art ultimately cemented his status as a legend in the art world.

One of Picasso's most controversial works is Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. The painting depicts five nude female prostitutes in a brothel, presented in a cubist style that distorted their forms and faces. The painting was shocking to many viewers at the time because it challenged traditional notions of beauty and femininity while maintaining a vulgar, and arguably immoral subject matter.

Large greyscale production of Picasso’s Guernica including animals and figurative objectsImage © National Geographic / Guernica © Pablo Picasso 1937

Picasso’s Guernica, was created in response to the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The painting depicts the suffering and chaos of war, with distorted human and animal figures writhing in agony. The work was seen as a powerful anti-war statement but was also considered controversial for its graphic and disturbing imagery.

One of Picasso's most expensive works sold at auction is Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O) which sold for $179.4 million in 2015. The painting, which depicts a harem of women in a vibrantly coloured and abstracted style, was inspired by Picasso's fascination with North African culture.

Factors that contributed to Picasso's controversial reputation include the changing societal norms of the time, such as the shifting attitudes towards women's bodies and sexuality. Additionally, the rise of modernism and the rejection of traditional artistic techniques and styles played a role in the controversy surrounding Picasso's work.

Despite the controversy surrounding his work, Picasso remains a beloved and influential figure in the art world whose willingness to challenge convention has inspired generations of artists and continues to captivate art enthusiasts around the world.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon is one of the most well-known and controversial artists of the 20th century. Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1909, Bacon is known for his emotionally charged and often grotesque paintings that explore the darker side of human existence.

Bacon's most controversial works include his Screaming Pope series, which features distorted and contorted images of the Pope, as well as his Black Triptychs, which depict scenes of mental anguish- a sensitive theme for Bacon considering he created the series after the death of his lover. These paintings were controversial for their graphic and unsettling content, as well as their critique of religious and societal norms.

Paintings of horrific, unrecognisable grey characters with teeth Image © Tate Modern / Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion © Francis Bacon 1944

Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which sold for a record-breaking $142.4 million at auction in 2013. The painting features three portraits of Bacon's friend and fellow artist, Lucian Freud, with elongated and distorted features conveying a sense of psychological turmoil and existential angst. The painting was controversial for its graphic and unsettling portrayal of the human form, as well as its high price tag.

Bacon's paintings challenged traditional ideas of beauty and morality, and his use of macabre and unsettling imagery was seen as a direct challenge to the conservative values of the time. Additionally, Bacon's homosexuality and his open and explicit portrayal of desire in his work were controversial in an era when homosexuality was still widely stigmatised and criminalised.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol was a leading figure in the Pop Art movement of the 1960s and is renowned for his unique approach to art-making, which involved the use of mass-produced images and techniques from commercial art. His work challenged traditional notions of fine art and inspired a generation of artists to experiment with new forms and materials.

Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans series was criticised for their apparent lack of skill and artistic merit. However, they also challenged the notion of what could be considered art and brought everyday consumer products into the realm of high art.

Electric Chair represented a symbol of death and was considered controversial due to its subject matter, dwelling on capital punishment in the United States.

Many factors contributed to the controversy surrounding Warhol's work, including societal factors such as changing attitudes towards consumer culture and celebrity worship, as well as the emergence of new forms of art and media. Warhol's use of images and different techniques also challenged traditional notions of fine art and raised questions about the role of the artist and the meaning of art itself.

Despite the controversy surrounding his work, Warhol's pieces continue to be highly sought after and have sold for record-breaking prices at auction. In 2013, his painting Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) sold for over $105 million at Sotheby's, setting a new record for a Warhol artwork sold at auction at the time.

One red rectangular figure reaching out and holding a rectangular background with text that reads “we 2 boys together clinging” Image © The David Hockney Foundation / We Two Boys Together Clinging © David Hockney 1961

David Hockney

David Hockney is a British artist who rose to prominence in the 1960s as a leading figure of the Pop Art movement. While Hockney's work is known for its bright colours and bold compositions, he has also produced some controversial pieces throughout his career.

Hockney's paintings have shown two naked men embracing in a seemingly romantic pose, showering even. At the time, homosexuality was still illegal in England, and the painting was seen as a bold statement in support of gay rights. The painting was not exhibited publicly until 30 years after it was created.

Man leaning over poll to watch someone swimPortrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) ⓒ David Hockney 1972

In addition to his controversial works, Hockney has also created some of the most expensive pieces of art ever sold at auction. In 2018, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for $90.3 million, becoming one of the most expensive works by a living artist ever sold at auction.

The controversy surrounding Hockney's work can be attributed to various societal factors, including the changing attitudes towards homosexuality and censorship of sexual imagery in art. However, Hockney's work has continued to receive critical acclaim and recognition, solidifying his place as a change agent in Contemporary Art.

Tracey Emin

British artist Tracey Emin is known for her confessional and autobiographical style art that tackles sexuality and vulnerability. Emin gained notoriety for her installation Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, which featured a tent embroidered with the names of everyone she had ever shared a bed with.

Her top exhibitions continuously put on display her close relationship with her body, how she interacted with it, and how she viewed it. Her success came from not only the themes behind some of her most notable works, but the multimedia technique she lended to her creative process. Emin was able to display the same message be it installation, neon signs, or photography.

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst is a contemporary British artist known for his controversial and thought-provoking works that challenge traditional notions of art and beauty. The king of controversial art rose to fame in the 1990s as part of the Young British Artists (YBAs) movement, which also included artists such as Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. Hirst's works have been highly controversial, with some critics praising them as groundbreaking and innovative, while others have criticised them as vulgar and sensationalist.

One of Hirst's most controversial works is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living also known as “The Shark”. The work consists of a preserved tiger shark in a glass tank filled with formaldehyde. The piece caused quite a stir when it was first exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London, challenging the traditional boundaries of art and raised questions about the nature of life and death. Hirst continued this theme with Mother And Child Divided, challenging traditional ideas about the sanctity of life and the relationship between humans and animals.

Damien Hirst holding a circle-shaped multicolor artworkImage © Heni / Damien Hirst Holding One Of The Beautiful Paintings © Damien Hirst 2023

Many factors contributed to the controversy surrounding Hirst's works, including societal factors such as changing attitudes towards art and the role of the artist in society. Hirst's works were part of a larger movement of contemporary art that challenged traditional ideas about what art is and should be. His works often shocked and offended viewers, which also contributed to their notoriety and fame.

A pile of sunflower seeds on a wooden floor inside a white roomImage © Tate Modern / Sunflower Seeds © Ai Weiwei 2010

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and activist known for his provocative and politically charged works that often critique the Chinese government and its policies. In 2009, Ai destroyed one of his own vases from the Han dynasty as a way of commenting on the value placed on historical artefacts versus contemporary lives. He has also destroyed several other works over the years, including a series of photographs that he dropped on the floor and stomped on.

Sunflower Seeds is a renowned installation artwork made up of millions of porcelain sunflower seeds crafted by skilled artisans in China. First exhibited at London's Tate Modern in 2010, the artwork has since been displayed at various museums worldwide, exploring themes such as mass production, individualism, and censorship in China. Sunflower Seeds is considered Ai Weiwei's most iconic work, applauded for its conceptual depth and remarkable visual impact.


Banksy is one of the most famous and enigmatic contemporary artists, known for his subversive street art and social commentary. His works are often controversial, pushing boundaries and challenging societal norms.

Banksy's Flower Thrower is one of his most iconic pieces. The image depicts a masked protester throwing a bouquet of flowers like a Molotov cocktail. The piece was created in 2003 during the Iraq War and has become a symbol of peaceful protest. Its controversy stems from its message of political dissent and its depiction of violence.

His Girl with Balloon is a stencil graffiti image of a girl reaching for a heart-shaped balloon. The piece was created in 2002 and has become one of Banksy's most recognizable works. In 2018, a version of the artwork self-destructed after it was sold at auction for $1.4 million, which only added to its controversial status.

The Power of Controversial Art

Controversial art sparks controversy and debate due to its political or social commentary, graphic content, or violation of cultural and religious norms. Such art often challenges viewers and can provoke strong reactions. It’s played a significant role in influencing society by shaping cultural norms and public opinion, often at the forefront of social and political movements. However, it has also been subjected to censorship and legal battles over freedom of expression.

Controversial art has always been a powerful tool for challenging social and cultural norms, sparking dialogue, and influencing public opinion. Throughout history, artists have used their works to address pressing issues, provoke strong emotions, and push boundaries. The importance of controversial art lies in its ability to challenge conventional thinking and stimulate critical thinking. By confronting difficult topics, controversial art encourages viewers to confront their own biases, engage in constructive dialogue, and ultimately affect positive change. It is through the power of art that we can continue to push the boundaries of social and cultural norms and create a more equitable and just society.

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