From the sacrilegious to the obscene, these 11 American artworks were so shocking they caused national scandals.
This Beaux-Arts depiction of a joyous woman holding a baby looks rather harmless if not jubilant, but Bacchante and Infant Faun was the subject of a fiery scandal in the late 19th century. Forged by acclaimed Brooklyn-born artist Frederick MacMonnies, the sculpture was originally due to stand in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library before it was met with extreme criticism from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who deemed the artwork an outrage for its promotion of “drunken indecency” (“bacchante” refers to a pagan follower of the Roman wine god, Bacchus). Their ongoing protests successfully halted the sculpture’s installation, and it was transferred to New York City, where it remains housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Boston-born artist Dorothy Iannone rose to prominence in the 1960s for her explicit paintings celebrating the nude body and “ecstatic unity,” which she defines as “the union of gender, feeling and pleasure.” Drawing from elements of illustrated comic strips and folk art aesthetics, Iannone’s psychedelic oeuvre is characterized by bold colors and energetic patterns. But her work was removed from Kunsthalle Bern in 1969 after the museum’s director deemed her paintings pornographic and demanded their censorship. Nevertheless, Iannone continued her mission to promote artistic and sexual freedom.
Controversial American photographer Andres Serrano made headlines (and enemies) when he photographed a crucifix submerged in a cup of his own urine. Part of his Immersions (1987–1990) series, Piss Christ toured several cities, from New York to Los Angeles, without notable incident until it was exhibited down south in Virginia and North Carolina. Members of the public reported complaints, backed actively and publicly by Baptist senator Jesse Helms. Following the outcry, the National Endowment for the Arts saw a decrease in funding, as did Serrano, alongside a series of death threats. Piss Christ is now on view at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston until October 2017, with the latest reaction TBD.
Robert Mapplethorpe’s experimental work was explicit on a never-before-seen scale in fine art photography, but he rose to prominence for his masterful technique. In 1988, just one year before Mapplethorpe’s death, Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Arts organized a retrospective titled The Perfect Moment. The exhibition showcased over 150 black and white photographs, including a selection of the homoerotic and sadomasochistic images from the artist’s X Portfolio. Two weeks before it was set to open at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1989, it was canceled in a conservative effort to censor works deemed too obscene for the general public.
In 1989, a 24-year-old Dread Scott laid an American flag on the ground beneath a shelf containing blank books, situated under a collage of photographs depicting American flags burning and draped on coffins. Titled What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, the installation at Scott’s alma mater, the Art Institute of Chicago, encouraged viewers to tread on the flag to reach the bookshelf and describe, in their opinion, how to properly display the American flag. The installation proved controversial on a national scale, with several attendees allegedly arrested for desecration, and President Bush Sr. publicly condemning the artwork as “disgraceful.”
Jamaican-born, U.S.-based feminist artist Renée Cox shocked Catholics and conservatives in the late 1990s with Yo Mama’s Last Supper, a series of five photographic panels in which the artist posed nude at the center as a Christ-like figure. The artwork was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, and quickly became the subject of a heated controversy for then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, William Donohue. According to The New York Times, “Mr. Donohue accused Ms. Cox of being an irresponsible anti-Catholic propagandist,” arguing that ”there would be no problem if [she] had kept [her] clothes on.” But Cox dismissed the entire argument as “puritanical” and “ludicrous,” thanking the Catholic League “for all the free publicity.”
In the spring of 2013, Emma Sulkowicz filed a complaint against a fellow Columbia University student on the basis that he sexually assaulted her in her dorm room the previous summer. After the university dismissed the charges and ruled to keep her attacker enrolled, Sulkowicz conceived of an ongoing performance piece to protest the decision. In September 2014, Sulkowicz began carrying a mattress with her everywhere she went on campus—even through her graduation ceremony. Mattress Performance came to an end when Sulkowicz left Columbia in May 2015, but the statement left a lasting mark on viewers around the world.
When Paul McCarthy‘s festive Tree appeared in October 2014, Parisians were slightly less than jolly. While the artwork was formally approved by the organizations responsible for the city’s public art projects, it wasn’t received too well at the grand Place Vendôme where it stood. One critic was so offended he slapped McCarthy in the face at the artwork’s unveiling. Soon after, news that Paris had been “humiliated” by McCarthy’s installation circulated social media, and Tree was vandalized almost immediately. McCarthy chose to cut his losses and decided against mending the installation.
Deemed “the most abhorrent” and “most offensive project of 2014” by Art F City, Ryder Ripps’s ART WHORE was carried out at New York City’s Ace Hotel and documented on his LiveJournal. Ripps, who was chosen to be Ace’s artist-in-residence for one night, paid two “sex workers” via Craigslist to come up to his hotel room and draw for him.
As Dazed noted at the time, typically, Ace’s artists-in-residence will photograph hotel guests or set up a small exhibition. Instead, Ripps chose to exhibit the ways in which he’s exploited as an artist by outsourcing the work he was expected to produce and negatively associate it with the sex trade. “How is it exploitative?” Ripps asked on Facebook in response to the slew of negative comments he received. “I paid [them] to draw stuff. Ace Hotel not paying me to make shit is more of an exploitation.”
When 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally lynched in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of coming on to her, his mother held an open funeral to publicize the mortifying state of American racism. Exhibited at the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York City, Open Casket is Brooklyn-based painter Dana Schutz’s interpretation of a press photograph documenting Till’s mutilated body. For Schutz, the project was a gut-wrenching study in human empathy. But for many, the painting capitalized on one of American history’s most shameful tragedies.
British artist Hannah Black led the opposition, arguing that “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun.” In an open letter to the Biennial’s curators, Black called for the painting’s removal and destruction. Artist Parker Bright also protested the painting by blocking it from view while wearing a shirt reading “Black Death Spectacle.” In a fortuitous twist the painting was removed temporarily due to a water leak, but the controversy sparked an imperative discussion about contemporary censorship and artistic boundaries.
In May 2017, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota installed a large-scale wooden sculpture titled Scaffold by Sam Durant. Referencing the gallows from which 38 Dakota men were hanged by the American army in 1862, Scaffold quickly drew crowds of protesters arguing that the installation was a traumatic reminder of the merciless mass-execution of their people. Durant has agreed to transfer his rights to Scaffold to the protesters, who have autonomously decided on its destruction.