The Most Controversial Artworks of 2012


This has been quite a controversial year for art, and we’re not talking Jeffrey Deitch making a mess at the MoCA or that work selling for this many millions or some blue chip gallery doing whatever, wherever… Well, I’m not going to talk about that. Not that it’s not relevant — sure it is! — but it’s pretty inside baseball. Instead, why don’t we just take a look at the art that, for better or for worse, caused international controversy, cocked the heads of the masses, and made the art world ponder its relationship with society?

Image credit: Pussy Riot’s Livejournal

When the members of the performance art troupe/self-proclaimed “feminist punk band” Pussy Riot were dancing to their anti-Putin anthem at a Moscow church altar, they knew they’d run afoul of Russia’s despotic and incestuous church-n-state powers. They weren’t counting on being convicted to two years in a hard labor colony for “hooliganism with the intent to incite religious hatred,” nearly starting a revolution, and alerting the entire world that hey, in Russia, shit’s fucked up and bullshit. By the way, the performance video of the action has been banned in Russia as “extremist,” so I’m just going to put this right here. Go nuts.

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We’re accustomed to criticism of Damien Hirst over his taxidermy work, but the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals came down hard on the artist for his In and Out of Love retrospective at London’s Tate Museum. The controversial flower and fruit room was populated with butterflies, their lives shortened from months to days in captivity. The installation claimed 400 tiny lives a week over the course of five months — a reported 9,000 in total. This brought up questions. Was this a battle of animal rights vs. heartless callousness… or militant activism vs. artistic expression? Is one of world’s most powerful artists intentionally provocative or just a power-drunk jerk? Do butterflies have rights?

Image credit: ANIMALNewYork

In broad daylight, in the crowded Tate Museum in London, one Vladimir Umaniec walked up to a Rothko painting worth millions and wrote on it with a black marker, allegedly causing $300,000 in damages, turning it into “a potential piece of Yellowism,” and inflaming the art world. He has since been received a harsh two-year prison sentence, but the discussion on WTF is Yellowism continues. The Yellowists — who decry that they are neither artists nor vandals — explain that by tagging the Rothko, they, like Duchamp, took an object from reality/art and transformed it into an entity of a whole new context of flattened meaning and existence. It’s all bizarre, amusing, and very Vonnegut, but also criminal and incredibly disrespectful to the strict constructs, laws, and behavioral expectations of the art world. Conversations continue, and at this point, it’s borderline ridiculous! Yours truly lost a media friend when she wouldn’t agree that damaging an artwork was as bad as murder or the Holocaust (true story!). Go figure.

After a photograph of Swedish culture minister and hardline anti-racist Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cutting what appeared to be a racist cake surfaced, a media firestorm erupted worldwide. There was also a horrifying performance video of the artist screaming wildly as a crowd cut into “her” genitals for a slice. Shortly after, artist Makode Al Linde gave an interview to Al Jazeera explaining the piece in the context of his Afromatics series — 700 sculptures of “Western” objects painted in blackface as commentary on the lack of diversity in Western culture and its forced blanketing of his black identity. In this over-the-top piece, Al Linde was seeking to bring the crisis of female circumcision/genital mutilation to the fore, aggressively interrupting the ceremony of the privileged, whether or not they were immediately aware of it in the moment. In contrast, he made a potent point world- and Internet-wide, yet, it does still make many uncomfortable. Which is, I suppose, the point.

Photo credit: Jenny Spadafora/Flickr

And now, for the controversy that wasn’t there… What does this mural from famous Brazilian graffiti duo Os Gêmeos, commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston look like? Even if the Os Gêmeos hoodie and head covering motifs aren’t familiar to you, I bet — I just bet — you don’t see “terrorist.” Well, Fox News hit the streets of Boston and — imagine that! — found some people who did, synthesizing a big fearful to-do about it. The response to the “controversy” from the ICA Boston rep? “I believe we have only received one complaint. The feedback we have received has been very positive. People love the mural and the exhibition.” Just another example of a how the media manipulates the appearance of public opinion.

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Yes. Yes we do have to talk about Jon McNaughton, the “Shepard Fairey of the Right,” whose “patriotic paintings” are very much liked by people associated with Fox News, namely, Sean Hannity, who purchased an original version of one of the artist’s pieces. Now, why exactly is the painting One Nation Under Socialism controversial? Well, there’s the fact that it shows the President burning the Constitution. Then there’s the accusations of racism throughout his body of work. (“You hear it so much, it’s like wow, whatever,” McNaughton told BuzzFeed. “I can’t help the fact President Obama is partly African American. He’s fanning the flames … It’s a very dark painting.”) But what we find most egregious is the fact that McNaughton’s art sells for $300,000, or so he claims — as much as a Warhol at Sotheby’s. Think about that for a second.

Image credit: Creative Loafing

When French street artist Roti created an amazing, surreal, complex, vaguely crocodile-themed 240-foot free-hand mural, it was one of the highlights of Atlanta’s Living Walls festival. And then it got buffed and nearly destroyed by a vigilante neighborhood organization. The incident had raised very important questions about mural space ownership, permissions, permits, laws, and social politics. Eventually, the mural was buffed by the Georgia Department of Transportation, but with the commodification of street art and graffiti culture in the recent years, the discussions could not be any more timely.

Photo credit: Marc Adelman

Marc Adel did not take these pictures of gay men posing provocatively at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Germany. He merely poached them from Grindr and dating sites — 100 shots comprised Stelen (Columns), a photo project which addressed myriad issues, from the public vs. the private to physical, history-imbued objects vs. the digital medium. The provocative project went on view at the New York’s Jewish Museum, garnering national attention and controversy in the media. It wasn’t censored, but the artist did get sued and the exhibit was pulled.

Image Credit: Andres Serrano

Seems like every time Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ rolls into town, controversy is renewed and the crowbars and the pundits come out. Honestly, I can’t decided which one of the conservative talking heads’ “artistic” responses to the most controversial Jesus art we’d like to feature. Could it be perhaps, Bill Donahue’s Obama with fake poop or Glenn Beck’s Obama with fake pee? Sigh… Real creative, guys. No, I think we’d rather look at actual urine for a bit. Yup, that’s better.

Image credit: Know Your Meme

Surely, the botched Ecce Homo deserves to be on this list… Not just because the elderly Spanish woman Cecilia Jiménez Elías has endured enough Internet-induced torment for “fixing” García Martínez’s very aged 19th Century fresco Ecce Homo, but for creating a piece of remix folk art, unwittingly committing vandalism and sacrilege, bringing to light the importance of trained art restoration professionals, and, undoubtedly, creating the year’s best art meme! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!