By: James Smith
As we are constantly being reminded by controversies both home and abroad (for example: outrage surrounding cartoon artists in Iran), art has the power to enrage as well as entertain and enlighten — and sometimes those two can be exactly the same thing. But the most controversial artworks can also sometimes become the most influential, changing the course of art history and reflecting changing cultural values at the same time. Here are some notable examples of artwork that was both controversial and seminal.
Donatello was one of the great sculptors of the Italian Renaissance, but his greatest contribution may not have been the quality of his art (though he was certainly a master). Rather, Donatello was among the first to fully realize the possibilities offered by looking back towards ancient Rome for inspiration. He also wasn’t afraid to court controversy. The result of that combination was his most famous and important artwork, a small bronze statue of David that was the first nude statue sculpted in Europe since antiquity. In courting controversy with the bronze, Donatello challenged medieval restrictions on what art could depict and paved the way for the triumphs of the Renaissance — including, most notably, Michelangelo’s freestanding David in Florence.
A century later, German painter Albrecht Durer took on religious control over art by going in the opposite direction. His Self-Portrait, one of his most famous works, represented the artist as Christ himself, borrowing traditional religious iconography for the depiction of Jesus to portray Durer. Beyond being a thumb in the eye of a controlling Church, though, that depiction also represented the growing individualist values of the Renaissance. Religious themes anchored the bulk of European art from the fall of the Roman Empire until well past the Renaissance; Durer’s self-portrait, placing himself in the role of Christ, emphasized that art would begin to encounter other subjects as well.
Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon
As much of a sea change as the Renaissance represented in art, the modernist movement of the early 20th century was just as significant, challenging traditional themes and values and introducing new concepts of how art could be made. One of the most significant announcements of the coming of that challenge was Pablo Picasso’s painting Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, which portrayed a group of prostitutes directly confronting the viewer and painted in a flattened, informal style that abandoned traditional uses of perspective. Both the style and the subject matter were revolutionary: in rejecting the formalist tradition, Picasso was paving the way for the chaos of modernist and cubist art, and in depicting a group of women as un-sexualized and confrontational, he offered new areas of subject matter for artists to explore.
Where Picasso challenged the rules of what was the appropriate subject matter for art, Duchamp challenged the very nature of art was. Fountain is, quite literally, nothing more than a porcelain urinal laid on its side and signed along the base. In 1917, presenting that as a work of art was tantamount to heresy, both because it was a found object and because that object — a urinal — wasn’t one that was considered appropriate for artistic representation. (In fact, many people would still not consider it appropriate for artistic representation.) The boldness of its assertion, though — that anything can be art, and that, indeed, everything is art when viewed a certain way — helped set the course of artistic expression in the 20th century.