Contemporary Art Controversies

Myra by Marcus Harvey (1995)

'Myra' by Marcus Harvey sits large at 9 x 11 feet, and depicts the infamous 'Moors Murders' killer Myra Hindley. Through the use of imprints from a cast of a child's hand in black, grey and white, the painting is a version of the iconic police photograph that was plastered in newspapers for decades after her convinction.

Harvey stated that "she probably didn't do any of the murders," but nonetheless its showcase in the Sensation exhibit at the Royal Academy in London spurred an outcry, as the mothers of the victims protested, the painting was vandalised, four members of the Royal Academy resigned, and even Myra herself wrote from prison that the art be removed.

In the end, the painting remained for the remainder of the exhibit, albeit flanked by security guards and covered with a plastic shield.

Piss Christ by Andre Serrano (1987)

Andre Serrano's 'Piss Christ' is a photograph of a wood and plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist's urine.

The work won Serrano several awards, including a $15,000 fellowship from Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA), funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). As an additional aspect of this award the work was exhibited in a three-day show, ending in January 1989, which drew letters of outrage from two hundred members of congress, demanding why federal money was used to support blatantly blasphemous artwork. 

More recently, a print of 'Piss Christ' was ruined by Christian protesters in 2011 while on exhibit at a contemporary art museum in France. 

However, the meaning behind this work was distorted, as the artist did not have the intention of denouncing religion, rather he merely wanted to depict the cheapening of Christianity within today's commercial society.

Shark by David Cerny (2005)

Prague-born artist David Cerny is known for his controversial works - babies crawling up towers, Sigmund Freud hanging from the side of a building, and Peeing Statues (surely self-explanatory).

However, his 'Shark', inspired by Damien Hirst's 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' (1991), is an extraordinarily disturbing piece showcasing a startlingly realistic sculpture of Saddam Hussein submerged in a formaldehyde-filled tank.

This artwork was released in 2005, just a year before Hussein was executed, and was subsequently banned from several countries including Poland and Belgium for its shocking subject matter.

How Ya Like Me Now? by David Hammons (1988)

David Hammons intended this mural as a statement against black leaders' assimilation into white politics, but it became furthermore controversial due to the situation in which it was presented.

Hammons depicts a portrait of Jesse Jackson with bleached hair, white skin and blue eyes, with the lyrics 'How Ya Like Me Now?' from musician Kool Moe Dee scrawled below. The juxtaposition of the portrait with the rap lyrics intended to further illustrate the widening gap between the hip-hop generation and civil rights activists. 

It was installed in a city-owned park in Washington DC as part of an exhibition about black culture, but its installation by three white assistants was found by a crowd of young black men, and naturally such a scene discovered without further explanation was presumed negatively: a sledgehammer was taken to the work and it was torn down. It now resides in a private collection in Washington.