Culture Shock

A Short Timeline of Controversial Art

by Max Genecov, Joshua Kurtz, Eli Pitegoff, Erin Prinz-Schwartz & Maya Sorabjee

Illustration by Margaret Hu

published April 10, 2015

To simply be offensive in one’s artistic practice is to engage in a hollow act of provocation. It is to be, for lack of a better term, uninteresting. To simply cause a stir will not suffice. Utilitarian ends alone, such as provoking important conversations about, let’s say, appropriation or aestheticization or systematic racism, do not simply redress the ethically fraught act of appropriation or aestheticization or racism that caused them. That would be too easy.

But on occasion the controversial piece succeeds, sometimes even by creating its own metric for success (see Black Square). We might go so far as to say that success for any piece of art depends on at least a minimal degree of controversy. At this point it gets hard to generalize. The controversy provoked by a piece is always a matter intimately bound—to borrow Susan Sontag’s phrase—to the incommensurable task of interpretation. In the brief survey of controversial works that follows, a singular (and damning) interpretation of each respective work tends to dominate its reception. This is then followed by the artist’s conceptual defense of a crossed boundary, or at least an appeal to the plurality of the work’s significance. The conceptual tact and artistic cunning of each piece that follows remains open for debate.


Black Square

Kazimir Malevich (1915)

oil on canvas

So the oft-quoted adage that floats around the Internet goes: art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. But sometimes, the controversy surrounding an artwork doesn’t stem from its vulgarity or shock value. Sometimes, art manages to inflict ire not because it is flagrant, but exactly the opposite—because it is opaque. Take the textbook example (quite literally—I first saw it in my high school Theory of Knowledge textbook), Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square. The Russian painter first exhibited his iconic work at the “Last Futurist Exhibition 0,10” show in Petrograd in 1915. The piece—a pristine square of dense black paint on a white canvas— did what it said on the box, and Malevich had it installed in the corner of the gallery at a height in order to invoke the spirituality of his wickedly simple geometry. While receiving international acclaim for his abstract oeuvre and for spearheading the Suprematist movement, the artist faced increasing criticism at home. The Stalinist regime needed paintings of the Socialist Realism variety, ones that depicted the travails of the working class. They had no time for inaccessible black squares. Malevich was subsequently banned from creating abstract art, and died with the black square suspended above his deathbed and another one on his tombstone. Today, Black Square remains a source of controversy not because it defies the prevailing politics, but because of its epistemological cunning. It sits at the center of the unresolvable debate about what can even be considered art. Is it the minimal technical effort or the sophisticated thought process that defines the painting’s status as art? Some are mesmerized by the impenetrably dark void while others tear their hair out because of the same impenetrability. To this polarity, another rootless Internet proverb might suffice: “modern art = I could do that + yeah, but you didn’t.”–MS



There’s Something about Alba

Eduardo Kac (2000)

Rabbit, jellyfish (?)

The year is 2000, four years after the cloning of Dolly the Sheep, the year of gel pens and glittery Y2K keychains, and Brazilian artist Eduardo Kac presents his newest work, Alba: an albino rabbit with a tiny bit of jellyfish DNA that makes her glow green under specific lighting. Alba, also called the GFP (green fluorescent protein) Bunny, was born and bred at a genetics lab in France and meant to be moved to Kac’s loving homestead in Chicago after reaching adulthood. Kac describes Alba as “transgenic art,” a lovable alien designed to break down our speciesist inhibitions about biotechnology. The international science community, art critics, and animal rights activists describe Alba as unnecessary, unethical, dangerous, and ultimately, bad art. In response to the outcry, Alba was kept in the French facility where she was born, never to trade the white cube of the lab for the white cube of the gallery.

Or was she? A 2002 article in Wired magazine reports that Alba is dead at the age of four, according Louis-Marie Houdebine, the scientist who engineered her. It’s horrifying how the genetic tampering enacted by humans shortens the lifespan of—wait, what? According to Kac, the rabbit was born in 2000, making her two years old if she died in 2002. The discrepancies keep coming: Houdebine maintains that the facility had already spliced phosphorescent DNA into the genomes of not one, but four rabbits. In 2000, Kac had simply chosen the one he liked best, renamed it, and presented it as an art piece. On top of that, there is only one image in existence of glowing, green Alba, and Houdebine maintains that it is doctored—maybe entirely fabricated. Was Alba ever real? Was this just an act of posthuman parafiction? Is it plagiarism if you claim a French geneticist’s idea of combining bunny and jellyfish DNA as your own, then try to take one of his rabbits and put it in a gallery? Which is less ethical, bad art or bad science? We may not have answers in this millenium, but until then, shine a blacklight over the mischievous rabbits in your backyard: what you see might surprise you. –EPS


Immersion (Piss Christ)

Andres Serrano (1987)

Cibachrome Print

“At the time I made Piss Christ, I wasn’t trying to get anything across,” Andres Serrano told The Guardian referring to his 1987 60x40 inch photographic print entitled Immersion (Piss Christ), depicting a small plastic and wooden crucifix, submerged in amber colored liquid—a jar of the artist’s own urine. If there is no iconoclast where there is no icon, then it’s hard to read the artist’s professed naiveté as anything less than pure affect, part and parcel of some conceptual appeal to shock and ambiguity. Had Serrano genuinely not been trying to get anything across, a cross was likely ill advised.

Few works have affected such an enduring onslaught of verbal and physical attacks as Piss Christ. Controversy was born on the US Senate floor in 1989 after conservative members of congress took notice of the piece and its partial funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Senator Jesse Helms attempted to use the incident—an apparent abuse of taxpayer dollars—as leverage for harsh reductionist policies aimed at both the NEA as well as the politician’s own emotional investment in Serrano’s practice. Standing at the center of the cocoon of friendship that is the Senate floor, Helms bravely proclaimed, “I do not know Mr. Andres Serrano, and I hope I never meet him. Because he is not an artist, he is a jerk.”

In recent years a steady stream of polemics against Piss Christ has transformed into an inquisition bent on destruction. The photograph’s appearance in the 1997 Serrano retrospective at the National gallery of Victoria in Melbourne attracted attempted vandalism in the form of two teenagers equipped with hammers. Thwarted, however, before hammer met the cross, the teens’ mission was completed over a decade later at an exhibition in a gallery in Avignon, France. On Palm Sunday of 2011 a group of Christian Fundamentalists held the gallery’s security guards hostage just long enough to smash a plexiglass screen and slash the Piss Christ it protected.

Since the upsurge in violent attacks against the work, Serrano has elaborated on the conceptual fiber of his creation. He suggests that the photograph brings a crucifix that has been shamelessly coopted as commodity in a consumer capitalist society closer to its visceral origins; the crucified body inevitably soils the cross. As inevitable though is the reality that post-modern sophistications amount to a feeble defense of controversial art in the court of public opinion. –EP



“Four Scenes from a Harsh Life”

Ron Athey (1994)

Performance, eight actors

Performance artist Ron Athey enacted his “Four Scenes from a Harsh Life,” the second painful element of his “Torture Trilogy,” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1994. It reinterpreted moments from his childhood in a household full of apocalyptic pentacostalism and mental illness by situating them in a theater of cruelty where actors would ritualistically mutilate their bodies onstage with knives and needles. During one segment, after aping Yves Klein’s “women paintings” that utilized anonymous women’s bodies as paintbrushes, Athey presented a “human printing press,” where he cut into fellow performer Divinity Fudge’s back along his cuneiform-like tattoos and soaked up the blood with paper towels. These paper towels were hung on clotheslines on the stage, threatening the proscenium. Though purposefully shocking in its own right, this moment in “Four Scenes” mutated in the American cultural landscape. Sensationalized news coverage and cultural fears around AIDS as a contagion misrepresented Fudge’s HIV negative blood soaking on paper towels as Athey’s HIV positive blood being thrown on the audience. (Athey is himself HIV positive, though he doesn’t know whether he gained it in the mid-80s from unprotected sex or from intravenous drug use.) This all boiled into a larger controversy when a National Endowment for the Arts grant related to the Walker Art Center, which was as equally removed from Athey as the false story was from the actual performance, became connected to the artist. It was worth $150 and bestowed upon the Center, which was then said to have accommodated Athey, who in actuality had never even applied for federal funding for his art. Athey’s work became a battleground for arguments over what art should be and whether contemporary, extreme forms have any validity. Irrational AIDS fears metastasized into a culture war about the purpose of extreme art in American society because of Athey’s blood and his sexuality as symbolic agents.

As the American gay community seemed headed toward an apocalypse via AIDS, Athey wanted to create rituals that would unsettle his audience and heal them at the same time. The fears around his work, especially early on in his career, almost become part of it, including the misunderstanding over the blood and the NEA conversation. Today, Athey still performs, though in smaller, more contained pieces. He cuts himself, gets pierced with arrows, and buries hooks in his face with messianic fervor, but now his audience seems to know what they’re getting into, in what Athey calls a “post-AIDS world” that takes those with AIDS as people managing an illness rather than walking, infected corpses. –MG


“The Body of Michael Brown”

Kenneth Goldsmith (2015)


On March 13th, at a Brown University conference entitled “Interrupt 3: A Discussion Forum and Studio for New Forms of Language Art,” Kenneth Goldsmith, the poet laureate of the Museum of Modern Art, performed a new work entitled “The Body of Michael Brown.” The poet, whose practice dictates that a “writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world,” performed Michael Brown’s autopsy report to a group of predominantly white academics. The text was unedited (though rearranged). The audience’s applause was tepid at best, and the brief discussion that followed the reading was uncomfortable, yet subtly supportive. Almost immediately, the performance went viral on social media, and within a few days several news outlets such as the Huffington Post, The Guardian, and The New Republic picked up the story, though much of the dialogue surrounding the event has been limited to the very white academics who were in attendance.

Goldsmith has retweeted negative comments with #LovingTheHate but otherwise remained relatively silent on social media. He addressed the outrage days later on Facebook, where he wrote, “Perhaps people feel uncomfortable with my uncreative writing, but for me, this is the writing that is able to tell the truth in the strongest and clearest way possible. Ecce homo. Behold the man.”  But to take a body—a politicized body—and perform its wounds is to claim ownership over it, to embody the very system that executed it in the first place. There is no doubt that there is a productive conversation to be had about appropriation and aestheticization in conceptual writing. However, the more urgent dialogue, that which Goldsmith has refused to address, must focus on the very systems that allowed this event to occur in the first place. Goldsmith has chosen to donate his speaking fee to Michael Brown’s family and has requested (or legally pressured) that the recording of his performance not be made public. –JK