The Value and Impact of Controversial Art

controversial art

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, a powerful anti-war painting that still provokes controversy today

In many areas of life, controversy can carry negative connotations. When something is controversial, you might assume the worst, thinking that it must involve an opinion or action that is hateful, prejudicial, dangerous, or deplorable in some way. In art, controversy is a very different thing. There is a long history of artists and artistic designs that can be labelled as controversial in one way or another. The most interesting thing about this is that many artists will specifically look to be controversial in their work. So much so that controversial art is considered a medium/genre in its own right. 

Naturally, there are all sorts of questions and topics to explore around this medium. Firstly, how do you define controversial art? Furthermore, what is the value and impact of this medium? Is it an art medium that should continue, in any possible form, no matter what the art depicts? Or should we sometimes shy away from controversy? All of these questions will be investigated as we take a deeper dive into controversial art. 

What Makes Art ‘Controversial’?

It’s hard to think of an actual definition for controversial art as so many things can be considered controversial. What is controversial to one person is not to another. There is a high degree of subjectivity and individual constitution involved. The best way of describing the medium is that it relates to works of art that might ‘go over the line’, so to speak. They divide opinions, spark reactions, and get people talking about certain topics. We could also define controversial art as that which upsets or goes against the general culture, expectations, and values at a given time in a given society.

Throughout history, there are countless examples of controversial artists. Pro Hart is one that springs to mind from Australia. A lot of the work at the Pro Hart gallery is deemed controversial because of the topics he covered – usually to do with politics. Hart, as an individual, was controversial because he was a right-wing conspiracy theorist and a supporter of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, an Australian far-right political party, the policies of which have been widely regarded as racist and xenophobic.

Hart expressed his controversial views in his art. For example, his painting Aboriginal Land Rights – which is part of his “masks” period – illustrates his conspiratorial ideas with regards to land rights. A group of people with Aboriginal masks are portrayed holding playing cards with the communist hammer and sickle symbol on them. The figures can also be seen donning ties with the Illuminati logo. 

But controversial art does not include just the expression of unpalatable opinions. It can also relate to images and objects that are shocking, lewd, taboo, or prone to cause disgust. Such pieces may include Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child, Divided, a cow and calf cut in half and placed in formaldehyde for viewers to see. This piece, as well as the other animals he put in formaldehyde (a sheep and a shark), are also controversial because art critics have questioned whether this should count as ‘art’ at all. Many have also dismissed the value of such art and criticised the decision to display these pieces in popular, publicly-funded galleries instead of the promising work of young artists. Indeed, art can be controversial when it challenges our very notions of what ‘art’ and ‘aesthetic value’ mean. (See my earlier post on whether a standard of taste in art is possible or even desirable.)

The Case for Controversial Art

This art medium is widely seen as one of the most interesting of all. In fact, some artists argue that controversy should be at the heart of all art. The purpose of this art form is to ignite conversations about topics that people either don’t know much about or try to avoid. 

Art can be controversial simply by depicting realities in the world, such as immoral behaviour, gore, nudity, sex, sexuality, violence, and death. These are often subjects we avoid talking about openly in everyday conversation, but when confronted with these matters in the form of art, especially with others, this presents an opportunity to face the issues (and our own issues about them). 

Controversial art, moreover, often shines the light on injustices in the world and let the public know what’s going on. Certainly, this happened a lot during the Second World War, with many German artists depicting the realities of Nazi Germany for the rest of the country to see. It was seen as controversial as it went against the government’s wishes and censorship. So, focusing on harsh topics and drawing attention to them can make valuable contributions to society. 

The Case Against Controversial Art

On the other hand, some people worry that controversial art can be taken too far. It’s perhaps too easy for someone to create art that crosses the line and is maybe racist, antisemitic, or misogynistic, but they can then claim it’s controversial art. There is the fear that some artists could hijack the medium to spread views that only serve to foster more division and hatred. This doesn’t mean that such work should necessarily be banned, but the supposed value and impact of such work does make it open to critical debate. 

Speech and the media can similarly perpetuate stereotypes, xenophobia, conspiracies, and hateful opinions, but censoring such expressions merely pushes them underground, outside of the purview of public discussion. If certain images, ideas, and portrayals negatively impact our perceptions of marginalised groups, for instance, then it’s important to explore why this is the case. Art both reflects society and changes it. But this dual process of reflection and change may be frustrated if we become so opposed to some art that we call for it to be banned or destroyed.

There are tricky cases, however, when matters of ethics become pronounced. This is true in the case of the artist Graham Ovenden, a convicted paedophile. Following his conviction, Judge Elizabeth Roscoe ordered works of art and photographs (depicting nude and semi-nude portraits of young girls) created by Ovenden and others to be destroyed. She told the court, “I have very little doubt that sexual gratification is, at the very least, part of Mr Ovenden’s reasons for making these images.” But is destroying Ovenden’s images justified if it avoids moral offence? What is lost in their destruction? 

This throws into question whether we can (or should) separate the character and immoral intentions of the artist from their art. Does ethics have any role to play in art? Clearly, it has some role, since an artist who harms a person, a non-human animal, or vandalises property for the sake of art can be deemed to be engaging in both unethical and/or illegal behaviour. Animal rights campaigners believe this is true in the case of Hirst, whose art has entailed the death of nearly one million animals (and that’s a conservative estimate). However, as the art dealer and blogger Edward Winkleman argues:

None of this makes the resulting objects, which cannot abide by the norms or values of their community, “unethical.” It makes them an object that we can approach with all of our subjective criteria, to judge for ourselves whether we consider them well-made or poorly made, good art or bad art.

Oscar Wilde similarly wrote that “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” We can simply replace ‘book’ with ‘artwork’ here. But perhaps we don’t need to presume that some art can be unethical to make a case against it. Perhaps we can, instead, judge the morality of the artist and their motivations, as well as decide whether unpleasant images or ideas depicted in the art devalue it aesthetically and culturally.

Overall, I would argue that controversial art has been – and most likely will continue to be –  a net positive in society. The key is ensuring that the meaning behind the pieces comes from the right place. Opening discussions on tough topics is beneficial on both an individual and cultural level.

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