10 of the Most Controversial Pieces of Public Art


On the spectrum of accessibility and esotericism, public art is often caught somewhere in the middle. It is traditionally commissioned and paid for by a sponsor, which often doesn’t grant artists the creative control they desire, and its open-air setting makes every passerby a critic. As a result, public art has seen its fair share of controversy over the years, as artists clash with local residents and the art world battles government intervention. With an upcoming art installation project in Columbus Circle spurring various debates, the question of who decides what art should be placed in public spaces is relevant yet again. After the jump we’ve rounded up some of the most controversial pieces of public art in America and abroad.

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc (1989), New York

Tilted Arc was at the forefront of public art controversy in the early 1980s. The saga began when minimalist sculptor Richard Serra was commissioned to create a piece of work in the Federal Plaza by the US General Services Administration. Tilted Arc was a $175,000 piece of oppressive black, raw steel. Measuring 120 feet long and 12 feet high, the arc cut the Federal Plaza in half and forced those working in the nearby buildings to redirect their walking path in order to get through the plaza. The work did not mesh well with its surroundings — which, according to Serra, was the point. “The viewer becomes aware of himself and of his movement through the plaza. As he moves, the sculpture changes…. Step by step the perception not only of the sculpture but of the entire environment changes.” Controversy erupted as soon as the sculpture was erected, with detractors claiming it disrupted the public use of the plaza and was an inconvenience to the workers. After a hearing and an appeal by Serra, the arc was dismantled in 1989. The site-specific work is a prime example of the ongoing debate over whether public art should be a work of artistic genius or a collaborative effort between the residents and the artist. “I don’t think it is the function of art to be pleasing,” Serra commented at the time. “Art is not democratic. It is not for the people.”

John Ahearn, The South Bronx Bronzes (1988), New York

Another product of New York in the ’80s, John Ahearn’s South Bronx Bronzes also posed questions of ownership, identity, and rights in a public space. A white sculptor, Ahearn lived and worked in poverty-stricken South Bronx and made life-size castings of neighborhood residents, always giving one copy to his model. His community-based art led the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs to commission him to create a set of sculptures for the local police station. Ahearn chose to cast ordinary people as his subjects as a way to embody the community’s character. But his sculptures immediately spurred a debate embroiled in race and socioeconomics. Residents of the neighborhood thought the artist was relying on tropes, choosing to depict them as poor hoodlums instead of creating positive and inspiring images for the community. Others thought that only black artists should be able to represent black subjects. Genuinely shocked and disturbed by the controversy, Ahearn chose to take the sculptures down a few days later.

Seward Johnson, Forever Marilyn (2011), Chicago

What does a sculpture depicting Marilyn Monroe in a movie that pays tribute to New York have to do with Chicago? The 26-foot installation depicts a partially exposed Monroe from the movie Seven Year Itch. In addition to its irrelevance, many criticized the sculpture for its lewd and anti-feminist connotations. Its placement, meanwhile, prompted many classy photos of people gawking up her skirt, licking her legs, or pointing to her underwear. Before it moved to California, Marilyn Monroe was vandalized numerous times. Many citizens argued that the piece of public art catered more to tourists than to Chicago residents — and they had a fair point. The monument didn’t exactly reflect the city’s character or engage positively with its community.

David Hammons, How Ya Like Me Now? (1988), Washington DC

The apple-shaped eyes, the pencil-thin mustache, and his suit and tie make the subject of Hammons’ massive, 14-by-16-foot billboard look strangely familiar. But the artist mars Jesse Jackson’s recognizable face by bleaching his hair, lightening his skin, and giving him baby-blue eyes. Hammons was commissioned by the Washington Project of the Arts to create a work for their exhibition on black culture and modernism, but soon after it went up, a group of black youths, who viewed the whitewashing of Jackson as racist, tore down the billboard with sledgehammers. The work was largely misinterpreted, however. Hammons chose to juxtapose the whitewashing of a black politician with rap lyrics as a way of highlighting how black identity was being homogenized by popular culture and advertisements. The image was also meant to underscore the way in which cultural fixtures like rap were replacing black politicians as the basis of black unity.

Lei Yikin, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial (2011), Washington DC

From sculptors, to stones, to paraphrasing quotes, the MLK memorial was enveloped with controversy from its inception. When it was announced that Lei Yikin, an artist from China, would sculpt the memorial out of Chinese granite, human rights activists criticized the selection on the grounds that Lei had previously sculpted Mao Zedong. Many other people, most notably African-American artist Gilbert Young, demanded that the memorial be created by an African-American artist with American stone. Another controversy erupted when the Washington Post reported that the memorial paraphrased a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. and consequently misrepresented him and his intentions. Poet and author Maya Angelou, a consultant on the memorial, agreed with the Post. “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit… It makes him seem less than the humanitarian he was… It makes him seem an egotist,” she said.

A mock-up of the unrealized work, via.

David Černý, Nation to Itself (2002), Prague

Sculptor David Černý is the post-Soviet art world’s resident bad boy. From painting a Soviet Union tank pink to creating peeing sculptures outside of the Kafka Museum, controversy follows him everywhere. His work, Nation to Itself, was set to sit atop Prague’s National Theatre, but the institution canceled the installation — probably because of the streaming water in the image above that, again, makes the statue look like it’s peeing.

Maurice Agis, Dreamspace V (2006), County Durham, England

Known for his dreamlike, colorful, and interactive works, Agis was commissioned to create Dreamspace V in a park. The day after it was installed the artwork left its moorings and tragically killed two people. Agis was put on trial for negligent manslaughter. Having witnessed the deaths, Agis was deeply and inconsolably disturbed, and vowed never to create such large works again.

Guerilla Girls, Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met. Museum? (1990), New York

Asked to design a billboard for the Public Art Fund in New York, the political, feminist art-activist group Guerilla Girls set out to critique museums that display paintings of nude women to the exclusion of art by women. They conducted a “weenie count” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, comparing the number of nude males to nude females in the artworks on display. Although its image was based on Ingres’ famous Grande Odalisque, the PAF rejected the work because it was too provocative. The MTA, however, agreed to run the billboards for a limited time.

Victor Pasmore, Apollo Pavilion (1969), County Durham, England

After being appointed the Consulting Director of Architectural Design for the Peterlee development corporation, British artist Victor Pasmore designed a town around an abstract pavilion. The public work of art was revolutionary because it was one of the first times that an experiment by a contemporary artist was the focus of a new town. But the pavilion was soon the focus of local controversy, with residents complaining that the public work became a hangout for youths and attracted graffiti and vandalism. Pasmore suggested that, if anything, the graffiti had humanized the piece, and after a series of compromises the pavilion stayed and was later restored to its original state.

Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill (1989), New York, Chicago, and DC

The art collective Gran Fury emerged during the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. Enraged that the government was turning a blind eye toward AIDS victims, the group created a series of public projects that highlighted prejudice against those living with the virus. For a piece commissioned by Art Against AIDS on the Road, Gran Fury created long advertisement panels that ran on bus and transit station billboards in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. The Bennetton-style ads, featuring same-sex and interracial couples, immediately came under government scrutiny. City officials attacked the pieces, stating that the work did nothing to promote AIDS prevention. The organization that commissioned the project censored the work so that the rejoinder text at the bottom “Corporate Greed, Government Inaction and Public Indifference Make AIDS a Political Crisis” was deleted.