Home Magazine Art that Makes Noise: When Expressive Freedom Becomes the Stone of Scandal

Breaking established conventions, creating scandal, and sparking debates is not solely the prerogative of contemporary art. There are numerous creations from the past that have left a similar impact on the history of art. We will explore some of the most controversial works of the last century, analyzing their ability to provoke and transgress, as well as their cultural impact and role in the development of contemporary art.

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Marcel Duchamp - Fountain, 1917 A porcelain urinal laid on its back bearing the signature "R. Mutt 1917." Marcel Duchamp anonymously presented it to the Society of Independent Artists, of which he was a member and co-founder, with the title "Fountain." However, the work was excluded from the Society's inaugural exhibition. Duchamp left in frustration, perhaps not imagining that "Fountain" would soon change the course of art history, igniting a debate that continues to this day about the concept and meaning of art. The piece was never publicly displayed and was subsequently lost. The numerous reproductions displayed in prestigious collections around the world are authorized and date back to the 1960s. All that remains of the original is a photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz for "The Blind Man," the Dada magazine founded by Duchamp.

Piero Manzoni - Merda D'artista (1961) - panoramio - via Wikimedia Commons

Piero Manzoni - Artist's Shit (1961) - panoramio - via Wikimedia Commons

Piero Manzoni - Artist's Shit, 1961 "If collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there's the artist's shit," wrote Piero Manzoni to artist Ben Vautier in 1961, two years before his death. In that year, the Milanese artist sealed 90 tin cans, each numbered, on which he placed a label printed in various languages: "Artist's Shit. Net content 30 gr. Preserved at natural state. Produced and canned in May 1961." Manzoni then sold one to the poet and critic Alberto Lùcia for a value equivalent to the weight of his excrement: 30 grams of 18-carat gold. No owner of "Artist's Shit" has ever verified the contents of the can, as simply opening it would render it commercially worthless, adding another layer of provocation to one of the most controversial works in art history. Prices today? In 2016, specimen number 69 was sold in Milan for 275,000 euros.

Andres Serrano - Piss Christ, 1987

The work in question is a photograph taken in 1987 by artist Andres Serrano, depicting a small plastic crucifix immersed in a glass containing his own urine. In 1989, the piece won the Awards in the Visual Arts prize offered by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, an institution funded by public funds, leading to the outrage of two American Republican senators, Al D'Amato and Jesse Helms. The two, after accusing the work of vulgarity and blasphemy, deemed it necessary to bring the debate into the United States Senate. However, the public anger aroused by Serrano's work reached its peak during an exhibition in 2011 in Avignon, where, during a demonstration with more than a thousand people, four young Catholic fundamentalists broke the protective glass and irreparably vandalized the photograph. Despite the inevitable controversies in recent years, "Piss Christ" now ranks among the top 100 most influential photographs of all time, according to Time Magazine.

Marc Quinn - Self, 1991

To create "Self," the author self-extracted approximately 5 liters of blood in multiple sessions, pouring it into a cast that faithfully reproduces his head. Subsequently, the mold was placed in a plexiglass cube filled with frozen silicone, allowing the plasma to remain frozen at a temperature of -18°C and thus stay in a solid state. In an interview, Quinn claimed that "Self" is "made from my own substance, and therefore, I consider it the purest form of sculpture to sculpt one's body from one's body." This self-portrait is part of an unfinished series, as the artist, following the same procedure, "self-portrays" every five years using an updated cast of his face. In this way, Quinn claims to represent the passage of time and the changing self of the artist, addressing the meaning of life's transience. In the meantime, the sculptor has revealed his intention to donate his own blood even at the point of death: a final necessary act to pass on his last sculpture to posterity.

Ai Weiwei - Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
The work captures three frames depicting Ai Weiwei dropping an ancient ceremonial urn dating back 2000 years, an artifact of significant economic, symbolic, and cultural value, shattering it at his feet. In the face of those who labeled the performance an act of desecration, the controversial Chinese artist provocatively responded, "Chairman Mao told us that we can only build a new world by destroying the old one," thus parodying the policy implemented by the Chinese revolution in rejecting its ancient culture. The performance generated a lot of controversy, and to this day, there is ongoing debate about the authenticity of the urn, as if to avoid the thought of the destruction of such a rare artifact. It is certain that the emotions stirred by "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" continue to give the triptych great power of suggestion and a lasting fascination.

Tracey Emin - My Bed, 1998
When "My Bed" was first exhibited in 1999 at Tate Britain to compete for the Turner Prize, it caused a great sensation, attracting many visitors. Criticism and public reactions were immediate: some were disgusted and deeply critical of the installation, while others were profoundly moved by the author's courageous approach. The work, with a pronounced anti-aesthetic character, helped propel Tracy Emin among the most controversial and celebrated British artists of the 21st century. "My Bed" represents a period in Emin's life during which the artist was confined to bed by depression. The installation features a rumpled bed, along with various objects such as vodka bottles, cigarette packs, dirty tissues, used condoms, and assorted debris, symbolizing a state of total psychological and material decay. "My Bed" remains a very personal representation of human vulnerability, a sort of self-portrait in which many viewers have recognized some of their own painful experiences, eliciting not only outraged reactions but also warm and personal responses. "My Bed," considered by some critics as one of the most important British artworks of the 20th century, was sold at auction by Christie's in 2014 for 3 million euros.

Written by Kooness

Cover Image: Marcel Duchamp - 1917 - Fountain, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz - via Wikimedia Commons

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