Artists have been turning heads for centuries; from portraying images of religious, or rather sacrilegious connotations, to perceived pornographic content, to the way that art can stand in open defiance against the socio-political norms of the time. Yet, when we think of controversial art our minds wander to the likes of Damien Hirst, or Tracey Emin or other contemporary artists, but we rarely think of French musketeer Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault artist of The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819). Géricault recorded the wreck of the Medusa, a French naval vessel that ran aground off the coast of Mauritania in 1816. The vessel was said to be carrying twice the amount of personnel that it should have and attempted to evacuate 146 people on a lifeboat that was poorly and hastily constructed, resulting in cases of cannibalism, suicide, and throwing people overboard. When a rescue mission was launched only 15 people had survived.
In the newly-founded French Republic, fresh from the horrors of the French revolution, the permanency of this political controversy reflected with full potency in the power of the painting. On one hand it might seem to be the case that recording such a controversial event in a nation’s history can be seen to be insensitive, or exploitative and denies the people the chance to grieve or for the nation to recover, especially as this was first exhibited in 1919, a relatively short period of time as far as paintings are concerned. However, controversial art such as this piece can prevent events such as the wreck of the Medusa from falling into obscurity and out of history. ‘Offensive’ art can ensure that atrocities are prevented from happening again through the testimony it provides.
That being said, there is one for certain regardless of which side of the fence you might sit on; art gives rise to the question of art’s purpose. Should art simply be there to record historical events or to preserve the likeness of aristocracy? Should it provide ‘cultured’ decor to a magnolia walls or challenge our views of society through exposing it?
There are many occasions where art that was considered as ‘controversial’ at the time of their creation that are not surprising, and are often forgivable in contemporary terms. For example, John Singer Sargent’s 1883-4 creation Madame X was considered as obscene due to the subject; Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau a renowned socialite of the time. Sargent depicted the ‘celebrity’ in deathly pallor (Something that, in itself, was considered in bad taste) and scantily clad; originally with one dress strap fallen loosely over her shoulder, but later repainted in its appropriate position. In contemporary art, the depiction of a person with pale skin, and revealing too much chest is not considered inappropriate and will often be scoffed at in terms of controversiality.
However, modern works such as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) offer examples of contraversial work that are less forgivable. It goes without saying that blasphemy in art has never been a popular option and therefore comes as a surprise that artists continue to do it, especially to the degree where an artist would submerge a crucifix into a container of his own urine. When this photograph was unveiled in the 1980’s it was widely considered as an attack on Christians, one so potent that it was still felt 24 years later in Avignon, France where a copy on display was destroyed by Catholic fundamentalists.
There is no denying that this image has the capacity to shock the viewer, much like instances were artists have used pages of the Bible as a canvas for their art, or use the wafer-thin paper from a Gideon Bible as rolling paper for their cigarettes. However, it can be argued that this reaction is entirely the point of the image’s existence: to appall. For years I thought that this was the case with Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), so you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that I agreed with the artist’s intention for creating the image. Andres Serrano, a Christian, created the image to showcase an increasing societal pattern for ‘cheapening’ Christ’s image. Next time you’re in a high-street outfitters and you see a crucifix available for purchase in the accessories section you can begin to understand his point. Despite Serrano’s photograph’s status as potentially controversial, it acts as the perfect example of how hype and media presentation can warp art’s focus and intention.
Finally, an article about controversial art couldn’t come to a close without discussing the role of sexuality in art. The parameters of what makes art pornographic have been so widely disputed since humanity learned to create images. Kelly Dennis’ book Art/Porn: A History of Seeing and Touching engages with those parameters and challenges them within the context of modernity. She contends with the claims that pornography can be too explicit, whilst erotica can be too implicit and where the duty of art lies to conquer the middle ground.
Overall, the issue of controversy is one that is ever-present and ever-changing. There are many who hold the opinion that art is designed to challenge, to be obnoxious to our sensibilities and therefore offer us the opportunity to expand our thinking. However, the real solution… Lies with you.
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Image: Madame X by John Singer Sargent (1883-4)