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Most Scandalous Art Shows of All Time

Sex. Religion. War. It’s all here. Crave looks back at the most controversial art exhibitions of all time.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Artwork: Gran Fury for ACT UP.

The best art upends expectations and social mores, challenging the status quo by transgressing the boundaries of polite society. Because, let’s face it, truth isn’t kind to those who lie to themselves. But like the sun and the moon, the truth will always out.

Also: Check Out the FBI’s Top 10 Art Crimes!

Great art is a vessel for truth, allowing artists to speak freely without ever uttering a word. The immediacy of sight and the way it work on the brain allows it to change the way we perceive the world by upending the power of words to articulate and explain. “Seeing is believing” as the old proverb goes, and with that in mind, artists can change your mind without giving you a chance to argue. In celebration of the power of art, Crave has compiled a list of the most scandalous art shows of all time.

Andres Serrano: Piss Christ

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ, 1987. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

To say that Andres Serrano pissed people off with his photograph Piss Christ would be putting things mildly. The artist shook the world in 1987, when he revealed an 60 x 40 inch image of a small plastic crucifix floating inside a jar of the artist’s urine. The mere symbolism of the act sent the public into a furor, especially when they learned that Serrano was the recipient of a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. Christians were up-in-arms, sending death threats, while Senator Jesse Helms stormed Congress, leading the Culture Wars against such use of taxpayer monies.

Time has not healed all wounds. On Palm Sunday 2011, a group of French Catholic fundamentalists attacked and destroyed a print with hammers. For his part, Serrano told The Guardian, “At the time I made Piss Christ, I wasn’t trying to get anything across. In hindsight, I’d say Piss Christ is a reflection of my work, not only as an artist, but as a Christian. The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory. When you see it, you’re not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man.”

Marcel Duchamp: Fountain

Marcel Duchamp, Foundatin, 1916-1917. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Marcel Duchamp, Foundatin, 1916-1917. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s face it: excrement gets the people going. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp set the art world on edge when he removed a urinal from the men’s room, rotated it 90 degrees, set it on a pedestal, and called it art at an exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists. He called the piece “Fountain,” which was rather cheeky of him, to suggest people might be so bold as to either drink from or bathe in this brand new piece of indoor plumbing technology.

In the wake of World War I, Duchamp had a point. What was the purpose of art if not to call out bourgeois notions of respectability politics? Look where all their illusions of “civilization” had gotten them. The ultimate irony of it all? The art world embraced the world, elevating it to the status of a masterpiece, teaching it in introduction to Art History classes without so much as a blink. They say the revolution will not be televised—but it might just be commodified.

Gran Fury: Kissing Doesn’t Kill

Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do bus poster, design by Gran Fury for Art Against AIDS/On The Road and Creative Time, Inc., 1989, Gran Fury, Courtesy The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do bus poster, design by Gran Fury for Art Against AIDS/On The Road and Creative Time, Inc., 1989, Gran Fury, Courtesy The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.

In 1989, the AIDS crisis was out of control as the United States government had allowed the virus to run rampant and demonized those who were sick. In response, a number of activist movements took hold, including Gran Fury, a collective of artists which spawned from ACT UP and initiated a public art campaign to educate the public about the disease.

They appropriated the commercial language of advertising, branding, and public signage to infiltrate the hearts and minds of the disinformed, the ignorant, and the flat-out terrified. The masterminds behind the timeless slogan “SILENCE=DEATH,” Gran Fury also created the first-ever broad public display of homosexual love with their powerful advertising campaign, “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do.” It was a bold and powerful move in a vicious climate that sound to use blame and denial in order to avoid taking responsibility for the mounting death toll that had begun to claim people from all walks of life.

Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment

Courtesy of Artforum

Courtesy of Artforum

Robert Mapplethorpe joined Andres Serrano in the Culture Wars, when, in 1990, The Perfect Moment opened at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Mapplethorpe had died a year earlier of complications due to AIDS, and in his stead a body of brilliant photographs spoke for him.

Of the 175 photographs on view, seven were considered “obscene,” and the Museum was sued­. This lawsuit, the first of its kind in United States history, was eventually dismissed as the Museum was protected by First Amendment’s freedom of speech. If you’re curious, just Google “Robert Mapplethorpe Bullwhip” for one of the less-intense selections of the images that caused a scene.

Pablo Picasso: Guernica

Pablo Picasso. Guernica, 1937.Oil on canvas, 137.4 x 305.5 inches. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pablo Picasso. Guernica, 1937.Oil on canvas, 137.4 x 305.5 inches. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Spanish Civil War raged from 1936 to 1939, pitting the leftist Republicans against the right wing Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco. The Republicans launched a revolution trying to oust Franco from power, casting the struggle as a battle between tyranny and freedom. In response, the Nationalists conducted a counterrevolution using mercenaries along with support from Hitler and Mussolini, and ultimately won the war.

Brutal and bitter, the Spanish Civil War prefigured the destruction that would descend upon the world stage just as it closed in 1939. But from this spectacle of horror and carnage came tremendous works of art, including Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica, which he had completed in 1937. An opportunity to share their work with the world arose that same year in the form of the Spanish Pavilion at Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne. Artists seized the opportunity to reveal the cruelty of Franco’s regime.

Word has it that Picasso was standing beside a Nazi general looking at the work. The general turned to Picasso and asked, “Who did this?” to which Picasso told him, “You did!”


Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.