Photo of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, by Johnell Pannell on Unsplash. Cover image by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash.
Controversy has accompanied almost every art movement at some point in its evolution.
In 1913, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky debuted his infamous ballet The Rite of Spring in Paris. Considered one of the earliest examples of modernism, the ballet’s unconventional score and modern choreography were considered so shocking that the performance’s opening night devolved into a literal riot and forty people were arrested.
Three years later, Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was unveiled at the Salon d'Antin, where it was received with abject ire by the Parisian bourgeoisie. The flattened and jagged composition, taboo subject matter (i.e. nude sex workers) and references to African masks were a severe and scandalous departure from the pastel gardens and bulcolic fields of Impressionism. That painting, initially reviled by critics as “immoral,” would go on to become one of Picasso’s most important and iconic works—ushering Cubism into the art historical canon.
Pushing culture forward is no small feat and often met with fierce resistance. However, sometimes the opposite is true and culture has already turned a corner, leaving an artwork (or artist) out in the cold.
Culture is moving at a rapid clip these days—exhibitions and artworks that seemed ahead of the curve just a few years ago can now feel insensitive (at best) or downright offensive (at worst). Some topics are so political—or so emotionally-charged —that any artistic engagement at all could potentially result in public backlash. This is the era of cancel culture, after all.
Still, the opposite is also true. Some work that may have been considered too riske just a few decades ago, now seems tame. When noted artist Marilyn Minter first debuted her own "television ads" in the late 1980s, entitled 100 Food Porn, the response was utterly negative, resulting in a major backlash against the up-and-coming painter.
Years later, after her “comeback” during the 2006 Whitney Biennial—and with the confidence that comes with critical recognition—Minter explained to The New York Times that, in those early conceptual adverts, “I was touching on things that were way too loaded and it almost killed my career.” Still, she persisted and is now widely praised for her sexually-brazen subject matter. In fact, paintings included in those same adverts have since hung in museums.
Artists are, of course, only human. They are bound to make some mistakes, to show up early—or late—culturally-speaking, and to “misread the room,” as it were. Same goes for curators, writers, or anyone operating in public spaces and contributing to cultural discourse. Sometimes, a public apology is the best way forward. Other times, however, an apology is not enough.
The art world is currently in an uproar over the scandal caused by this year’s Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany over accusations of anti-Semitism.
In brief, the Indonesian artist collective known as ruangrupa that was tasked with curating this year’s exhibition ultimately invited around 1,000 artists and collectives to participate, many from the eastern hemisphere.
One of those collectives installed a banner that included imagery perceived by basically everyone as clearly anti-Semitic. While this would obviously be deplorable in any country, in Germany (due to the country’s own terrifying history), such imagery is a criminal offense.
The reaction was swift. The work was immediately condemned and, within one week, covered up from public view. According to The Art Newspaper, The Director of Documenta, Sabine Schormann, “who had initially defended the artists, released a statement distancing herself and Documenta from the work.” Schormann ultimately resigned.
Both the curators and the artists released apologetic statements, but the controversy ultimately overshadowed everything else in the exhibition, with German cultural authorities stating that future iterations of Documenta would be highly scrutinized and more greatly controlled by the government.
Ultimately, there is no correct answer for how to weather a cultural-storm of one’s own making, intentional or not. (As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.) Still, there are some precedents that can be analyzed for guidance and which also serve as needed reminders that mistakes, gaffes, blind spots, etc. can—and do—happen.
At one end of the spectrum, in the best case scenario, controversial events could actually cement an artist’s place within the historical lexicon as a provocateur on par with Picasso. The worst case scenario, of course, would be the end of one’s career.
Here's a short list with some of the more exceptional examples of artists whose work was met with extreme controversy (either warranted or debatable), and how they ultimately dealt with the fall-out, for better or worse.
Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ incites a decades-long hotbed of religious controversy.
Back in the 1980s, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) came under major public scrutiny for awarding grants to artists who either appropriated religious imagery or incorporated erotic subject matter into their works.
Conservatives argued that public funding should not be used to support such creative endeavors and/or artistic agendas. At the center of this debate was Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph entitled Immersion (Piss Christ), which shows a crucifix submerged in the artist’s own bodily fluids.
The work had been awarded first place—and $20,000 in prize money—in a juried competition backed by the NEA, whose budget was later cut. Despite his assertion that, “I was born and raised a Catholic and I've been a Christian all my life," the artist received a slew of death threats.
In 1997, the work was attacked by hammer-wielding teenagers in Australia. Later, in 2011, Piss Christ was “destroyed beyond repair” by protestors during an exhibition in France, on Palm Sunday no less. To this day, the image continues to court controversy, with one side arguing that the work is blasphemous and the other side arguing that, actually, society itself is blasphemous—which is what the work reflects, conceptually-speaking.
Serrano, it seems, has never issued a formal apology and has consistently defended his artistic intent and freedom of expression. In this case, one could argue that the controversy ultimately benefited the artist, despite the death threats he received.
Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till ignites a firestorm of protest and calls for its destruction.
Dana Schutz is a white artist born in 1976 who grew up outside Detroit and currently lives and works in Brooklyn. She shows at major galleries where her work generally sells for six or seven figures. Her paintings are in the permanent collections of more than twenty prestigious museums.
In 2017, Schutz’s painting Open Casket was included in the Whitney Biennial. The work, an abstracted depiction of Emmett Till at his own funeral, became an instant controversy, sparking protests and demands for its destruction.
Till, the Black 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman, represents a tragic and horrific moment in the history of the Civil Rights movement. Parker Bright, an artist who protested in front of the painting, deemed it a “Black Death Spectacle” (a photograph taken of him doing so by a French-Algerian artist was later exhibited in Paris, which Bright also protested).
Hannah Black, an artist from the UK based in Berlin (at the time) who self-identifies as Black and biracial, penned an open letter urging the museum to destroy the painting. According to Black, “non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material.” The letter was signed by a number of notable BIPOC artists and curators.
The year before the Whitney Biennial, Open Casket was shown in Berlin, where it “caused no controversy,” according to The New Yorker. The painting was NFS (not for sale), as Schutz had decided to keep it for her personal collection. She was still later accused of seeking to profit from the pain inflicted upon and suffered by marginalized communities.
After the Whitney backlash, an apology letter from Schutz was published online by two major media outlets, but it was later revealed that her email had been hacked—and that the hackers had created the apology email. Schutz was quoted by Artnet as stating, “The anger surrounding this painting is real and I understand that. It’s a problematic painting and I knew that getting into it. I do think that it is better to try to engage something extremely uncomfortable, maybe impossible, and fail, than to not respond at all.”
Scholar and artist Coco Fusco published a very thoughtful, nuanced and informed reaction to the controversy via Hyperallergic. The daughter of a Cuban immigrant, Fusco has a deep understanding of how censorship can spiral out of control and become state-sanctioned oppression.
After the dust settled, Dana Schutz’s career has continued to ascend. She is currently represented by David Zwirner Gallery.
Photo by David Emrich on Unsplash
Ragnar Kjartansson, the Guggenheim (and the patriarchy) miss the beat.
In 2018, Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson mounted a performative happening entitled Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy at the Women’s Building in San Francisco. Three years later, this performance was restaged at the Guggenheim in New York. The political and social climate in 2021, however, was essentially light years away from that of 2018.
In Kjartansson’s performance, women and femme-identifying muscisians play exerpts from famous pop songs over and over and over again. At the Guggenheim, 24 musicians and singers performed songs that included lyrics—many of which can’t be published here—for hours and hours at a time over the piece’s four-day run.
As described on the museum’s own website, the “Guggenheim staff” writes,
Each of the songs features lyrics describing abuse, cruelty, and the objectification of women. Through repetition, these dark messages are exposed, becoming an inescapable presence that the musicians and audience must both confront. This feat of endurance is meant to reveal how gender-based discrimination and violence are embedded in popular culture, while also paving a way toward reclamation and catharsis. For many of the musicians, however, the extreme act they undertook at the direction of Kjartansson—a white, male artist—embodied the burden of the patriarchy they already bear on a daily basis.
The New Yorker often publishes short write-ups as exhibition teasers, and, to their credit, the article published about Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy noted the irony of the work's entire premise. The piece quotes one musician— who ultimately left the production —as stating, “I didn’t want to spend a lot of emotional labor helping a man understand his place within the patriarchy.” Snap.
Kjartansson later told W Magazine that he felt very “conflicted” about the whole situation. “Artistically I feel it’s right, but I don’t know morally if it’s right,” he confessed. “The piece is basically an open wound, there’s no resolution, it’s just showing this wound.”
The fact that he was working with a female collaborator on the work’s “musical direction” may have helped his case. Kendra McKinley, both the musical director and a performer in the piece, said that the artist’s reaction to the controversy was both humble and vulnerable, showing his capacity for growth. In his words, “I feel so embarrassed...Everything I say feels really stupid, which is really good! Which is what it’s about.”
The Guggenheim also didn’t shy away from their complicity, although their efforts come across as a bit weak. They published an essay about the controversy on their website and offered each performer, in that same essay, a digital platform to promote themselves—generally via a one-minute youtube video of a solo performance.
This year Kjartansson has been featured in solo museum shows in Spain and in his home country of Iceland. To date, he has not restaged the piece since the Guggenheim.
Maia Ruth Lee’s billboard offends the same community it was intended to empower.
There is a common theme among the previous examples—artists whose work either appropriates or comments on racial and/or ethnic groups to which they objectively do not belong. But, what if the audience that’s offended is seemingly an extension of the artist’s own cultural identity? That’s what happened when artist Maia Ruth Lee was commissioned to create a billboard in downtown Denver in 2021.
Lee is a highly-praised and accomplished artist whose work has been featured in the 2019 Whitney Biennial and, at the time of the incident, was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Denver. Originally from South Korea, Lee was raised in Nepal. She gained critical attention as an artist while based in New York City, before relocating to Colorado in the early days of the pandemic with her family.
Lee was a natural choice for a commissioned billboard by the nonprofit For Freedoms meant to empower the AAPI community, but her design left some in that same community exasperated by her depictions of what they considered to be Asian stereotypes.
Lee based her billboard design off a 2016 series she had created entitled Women at Work, meant to show the spectrum of professions that women hold, including service-based positions that have traditionally been stigmatized. The 2021 billboard, which showed an Asian massage therapist and Asian nail technician at work, was installed shortly after the gruesome killings in Atlanta in which eight people died. The shootings occurred across three salons and massage parlors and six of the victims were of Asian descent, adding to a disturbing nation-wide increase of hate crimes directed at the AAPI community.
In response to Lee’s billboard, local writer Theresa Rozul Knowles called the piece “a billboard of the crime scene,” as reported by Denverite. The billboard quickly was taken down, which the artist fully supported. As way of explanation, Lee told Denverite, “I wanted to pair the image with the text ‘Stand for Asians’ in honor of the women who had been murdered. But also to shine light specifically onto the women in this vulnerable environment who are invisible in our society, who are neglected by our government.”
Lee’s intentions were admirable, to be sure, but the public placement of the work altered its message. Another Denver local, artist Christine Nguyen, made the point that the audience matters—a lot. Gallery-goers have the advantage of exhibition essays that contextualize an artwork. Once a work is detached from that context, it loses some clarity in the sense that it could easily be misinterpreted by the general public as an advertisement or, as Denverite points out, a political campaign.
For Freedoms remained steadfast in their assertion that they neither control nor censor artists in any way. Lee admitted that the experience taught her a lot about the difference between public art and art created specifically for “art audiences.” Her work is currently on view at the Aspen Art Museum and she recently opened a solo exhibition at Francois Ghebaly, Los Angeles—a highly-respected “white cube” gallery.
Photographer Alec Soth’s editorial assignment sparks local dissent.
Alec Soth is a photographer from Minneapolis who was sent by The New York Times on assignment to Chicago in 2020. The Times had commissioned Soth for a photo essay for $1,500. The essay was intended to address inequality by documenting Chicago’s North and South Side neighborhoods, their racial divides and the economic, health and social inequities that have resulted from years of systemic racism. The photos were supposed to have been published in May. They were not published until September.
In the interim, Black civilian George Floyd was murdered by police and the United States became engulfed in an long-overdue and massive racial reckoning. Once published, Soth’s photo essay quickly drew comparisons across social media to The Folded Map Project, an ongoing project by photographer and social justice activist Tonika Johnson, a “life-long resident of Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Englewood.”
In a since-deleted Instagram post, Soth wrote, “While I had no knowledge of Johnson’s work, I feel terrible for the offense I’ve caused. I apologize to Tonika Lewis Johnson and very much regret accepting this assignment.” Soth then donated his full payment to Johnson’s Folded Map Project. The move was widely applauded.
He also praised Johnson by writing, “Her work is an example of long-term committed work that is precisely what the world needs right now. What it doesn’t need is photographers parachuting into complex situations for quick hits of content.”
While Soth’s response was certainly a lesson in emotional intelligence, Johnson, in her public reply, emphasized the apparent carelessness that created the situation in the first place.“I would never accept a job to document segregation in another location WITHOUT researching to find related work about and/or by the locals,” she wrote. “It’s evident you nor @nytimes did neither otherwise Alec, you would have easily found out about my work with one google search…” She’s not wrong.
The New York Times did not issue an apology, but instead added an editor’s note to the piece: “After publication of this photo essay, Times Opinion photo editors were alerted to Tonika Lewis Johnson’s work, which also addresses segregation and inequality in Chicago. We encourage readers to learn more about Ms. Johnson’s Folded Map project here.”
Soth shows with Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City and has had recent solo exhibitions at the Helmond Museum in the Netherlands (2021), and the Kunst Haus Wien in Vienna, Austria (2020). Johnson recently exhibited her installation “Inequity for Sale” at the 2022 Art Expo fair in Chicago with local gallery Weinberg/Newton, reviewed by ARTnews.
There are many additional examples of artists unintentionally (as well as intentionally) creating a controversy through their work. Life is messy, history is violent, and society can be cruel—art reflects all of it. When art is positioned politically and used as a stepping stone to censorship, however, the consequences can be dire—not only for the artist, but for society as a whole.
On that note, it bears mentioning that, back in 2013, German artist Jonathan Meese was charged with anti-Semitism for his use of the nazi salute during a performance in Kassel (home of Documenta) and brought to trial. Meese was ultimately acquitted after his lawyers argued that his performance was constitutionally protected as an act of artistic expression. At the time, Meese said he was happy with the verdict and would not stop "fighting for the dictatorship of art and the absence of ideology." Yes, you read that right.
In conclusion, many artists have misstepped and faced a public reckoning. If this has happened to you, take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. While there will never be a one-size-fits-all answer to how to restore your reputation and artistic credibility in the shadow of scandal, just know that redemption is indeed possible.
That all being said, here are some helpful tips based on the examples above:
Location, location, location!
If your work is going to be featured in a place that is relatively unknown to you, do some homework and educate yourself. Research the history and culture of wherever your work is going to be exhibited and assess if themes your art engages could be incendiary to the locals. Ask a local for their opinion and be open to feedback.
“Location” is (part of) the reason why a work shown in Germany without incident created an uproar in the United States, as with Dana Schutz. It’s also likely the reason that some artists from Jakarta didn’t realize that a single image in a massive artwork could be considered a criminal act, as was the case with this year’s Documenta.
And, finally the public location of Lee’s Denver billboard was far removed from the conceptual framework of the private gallery context, where it might have been received much differently.
Cultural appropriation: Just don’t do it. If you’re unsure, ask.
Unless you have a personal connection to the culture-in-question (such as Serrano being raised Catholic), you should probably not be “borrowing” from that culture’s aesthetic legacy. As straightforward as that sounds, however, there’s always nuances to consider—resulting in a deceptively simple question becoming quite complex.
If you are unsure about whether your work is committing cultural appropriation in any way, it’s recommended to (at least) get an opinion from a member of that cultural group, and—if they’re uncomfortable—then rethink the piece. Also, if the mere thought of asking said cultural group member their opinion makes you anxious, chances are the work needs to be re-evaluated. Trust your gut, but also get a second opinion from an appropriate source.
Either publicly apologize or don’t, but pick one or the other.
Sincerity matters. If it’s appropriate to return or redistribute funds (as in the case of Alec Soth), do it quickly. Sometimes, it’s necessary to take accountability, even if other people or organizations were equally to blame.
Take some self-inventory and truly assess your culpability. Being hyper-defensive or pointing fingers at others will rarely work out in one’s own favor. An authentic apology that accepts responsibility, within reason, is usually the best course of action.
Give other artists the same benefit of the doubt that you would hope to receive.
Censorship is a very real threat that society should take seriously, so it’s important to extend other artists the same latitude that you would hope to receive in a similar situation. Dialogue is important and an integral part of the creative process.
Difficult subject matter should inspire passionate debate, but the destruction of art is a dangerous precedent (and one usually employed by totalitarian regimes).
Remember: There is always room to grow.
If your work created a controversy and left others angry or incensed, try to see it as an opportunity for some personal—and artistic—development.
Go back to the studio and get back to work.
Explore how your work and your process changes after this experience. Chances are, the art will be better for it.