Controversial Art

This month we’re reviewing and discussing Terry Barrett’s “Interpreting Art” Chapter III: “Interpretation and Judgment: Controversial Art.” In this chapter we begin to recognize that reviewers and critics do not always observe and interpret art impartially. For many viewers and reviewers of art, our personal and societal values and beliefs influence our observations and interpretations, so the judgments we make about a body of work or about an artist are not necessarily unbiased.

Barrett divides controversial art into a number of subcategories in this chapter that include religious, sexual, ideological and racial. He presents a number of works and artists that illustrate each category of controversial art and then describes the different and often conflicting critical opinions about each artist.

Religiously Controversial Art


Chris Ofili’s work, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” created indignation and outrage when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 because of the way materials like cow dung that were used to create it were interpreted. As you read about the reactions of the officials to this piece, many of whom hadn’t even seen the painting, what were your first reactions? Were the descriptions of this piece accurate or inaccurate? Once you read the statement by the artist, did your opinions change? Overall, do you agree with the judgments made against this piece?

Sexually Controversial Arteric-fiscchl-the-sleepwalker.jpg

This is a painting called The Sleep Walker by Eric Fischl (1948-), in which he portrays a young male masturbating in a wading pool. Fischl creates portraits of a contemporary America with issues that include sexuality, incest, desire and hostility. Paintings with such subject matter are not often openly displayed in American public art institutions. In 1997, Robert Hughes included two of Fischl’s paintings in a PBS documentary called “American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America.” The entire documentary was shown in England: before they aired it in the United States PBS removed two of Fischl’s paintings from the film as potentially objectionable to the American general public. The author asks this question; does Fischl promote what he depicts? Does viewing such works of art actually encourage the behaviors that they depict?

Ideologically Controversial Art


In sharp contrast to accusations levied again Fischl for his explorations of the dark side of human nature, Norman Rockwell, a hugely successful and popular illustrator, has been criticized or overlooked for presenting nothing of substance at all in his paintings for critical interpretation. Over the course of his career Rockwell produced more than 4,000 images, including 800 magazine covers, 322 of which were for The Saturday Evening Post. This piece, called “After the Prom”, appeared on a Post cover in 1957.

However revered his work may have been by everyday Americans, art critics and art historians completely ignored him or criticized him for creating a stereotyped and sugar-coated vision of American life. Among his supporters is contemporary art critic Dave Hickey, who considers Rockwell “the last, best practitioner of social painting that began in the seventeenth century.” Is “After the Prom” a simple sugar-coated platitude of a desired American way of life? Or is the painting, as Hickey states, “one of the most complex, achieved emblems of agape, tolerance and youthful promise ever painted?”

Racial Controversy


Barrett presents a discussion in this section of the very explicit and controversial art works of Kara Walker, whose Camptown Ladies is shown above and Michael Ray Charles, whose paintings often include blackface figures and other racist stereotypes in an effort to confront the brutal mythology of the “happy darkie.” In a similar and even more graphic vein, Kara Walker cuts 18th century style silhouette shapes out of black paper to create large murals with very explicit violent and sexual content. Both these artists have been criticized by members of the black community who find these artists’ works offensive because they believe they perpetuate negative stereotypes about African-Americans. Do you feel, as some critics do, that neither of these artists has transformed the racist symbols and images enough to make them obviously satirical? Do they perpetuate the very racism that these artists are trying to address?

This chapter raises some worthwhile questions about how moral values and attitudes impact descriptions and interpretations of art — and affect judgments about them.

By Jeanne Beck,


7 Responses to “Controversial Art”

  1. 1 Jeff Whelan January 7, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    I would like to point out the civil rights illustrations that Rockwell did during the sixties. His rhetorical stance as a custodian of American values gave him the platform from which to speak very powerfully to the difficult and pertinent issues of that day.

  2. 2 Jackie August 21, 2008 at 9:09 pm

    It’s interesting regards of racist controversial art. It would seem it’s become popular of late, to just slap a Swastika on a piece of artwork and claim it controversial.

    Now aside the obvious insult and demeaning of what the Swastika represents, a time in our history when people have been at their worst to each other. It cheapens the idea of controversial art. Any teenaged moron can slap a Swastika on something, and think they’re a rebel.

    A certain artist I corresponded with in regards to one of his artwork depicting Nazi imagery, claimed that by being offended by his artwork I’m participating in the same facism that the Nazis did. I don’t recall threatening him, with being thrown into a oven or into a chamber filling with Zyklon B.

    Aside from that, if he wants to pretend he’s such a big controversial rebel by going, “Oooh, look I can put a Swastika up, hahaha..I’m so unique!” then the joke will be on him in the end.

    I feel in a sense that most racial based controversial art, is based on a cheap ploy for attention. It it is neither original nor interesting when someone tries to raise negative press for themselves, by opening old wounds regarding man’s inhumanity to it’s fellow man.

  3. 3 Victor Mavedzenge April 10, 2008 at 12:27 am

    A rather late response but an interesting one,I hope.My first reaction to Ofilis work was simply a shrug of the shoulder.If one looks at the background story,surely one would find dung in a manger-so what is the big deal there? Secondly,in Africa,cow dung was used and in most cases is still being used as floor covering,this is because it drys hard and is resistant to insects when dry. My point here being,where you stand depends on where you sit.It is necessary to broaden our understanding of different cultural references. Ofili also painted her as an African woman,once again,this is fitting. I am very offended when I see pale images of the virgin,she was in Africa for crying out loud.
    Personally,I see no need for an outcry on this one. Lighten up,”straighten up and fly right!” as Nat King Cole would say

  4. 4 eileen doughty May 16, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    A couple of brief observations on this subject.

    I wonder if Rockwell’s art would’ve been taken more seriously if it had been in a major art gallery and not on a magazine cover. Venue lends credibility. Think of the Whitney exhibition in the 1970s that was essentially the first to hang quilts.

    conversely, many art quilts about ‘dark’ subjects basically look out of place in your average guild quilt show.

    Pat said, “Come to think of it, one purpose of art is to “disturb” the viewer.” Yes, indeed. What are some other ones? To show beauty, to share emotions, to record a moment in time…? Are any more valid than others? I think not, but we do have our own preferences and priorities among them.

    it was shocking to me that “The Holy Virgin Mary” shocked people who didn’t even go see it. Yet I wonder if it does have a bigger impact in person. It is perhaps relatively tame as a picture in a book. Dung reduced to 2D shapes. I may not like the picture much, but i will defend the artist’s right to exhibit it, even with public money. Maybe public money is best – that really gets the public’s attention!

    I was disappointed in Barrett’s chapter only in one thing, that he did not discuss the racially controversial art as much as the others.

    And I’m with you, Clairan, I thought the kid was peeing in to the pool water. Which is an unforgivable sin in itself!

  5. 5 June May 15, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    I read a rather funny definition of art by Peter Schjeldahl in last week’s “New Yorker.” And a description of an art work called “Doomed” that caused me both discomfort and revelation.

    Here’s Schjeldahl’s definition: “In pragmatic terms, art is a privileged zone of gratuitous activity, with boundaries maintained by the agreement of the vested authorities.”

    Schjeldahl is discussing Chris Burden, an artist whose aim (at least in the 1970’s) was to violate (“efface”) the boundaries of the authorities and cause those boundaries to be redrawn. In the name of (performance) art, he had himself shot, he had his hands nailed to the roof of a Volkswagen, and did a bunch of other self-destructive things, things that I can barely stand to read about, let alone recite. In 1975, in “Doomed” he lay down on the floor under a leaning sheet of glass and stayed there for 45 hours and ten minutes. Then a young museum employee placed a container of water within his reach, Burden got up, smashed the clock with a hammer, and, according to Schjeldahl, “never again undertook a public action that imperilled himself.”

    “Doomed”, according to Schjeldahl, “unmasked the absurdity of the conventions by which, through assuming the role of viewers, we are both blocked and immunized from ethical responsibility. In [the case of the museum employee] the situation was complicated by his duty to maintain the inviolability of the art works” which he violated by calling Burden’s bluff — moving beyond art to a higher duty, perhaps.

    I find the story about “Doomed” to be fascinating, in that museum goers were willing to watch, in the name of art, a self-immolation, but one man, specifically charged not to interfere, couldn’t bear it any longer. (Burden says he probably wouldn’t have lain there until he died, but after 45 liquidless hours, who knows.)

    Burden is now doing completely different kind of art, physical objects that can be placed in museums. Some of these are social commentary, but others are simply sort of silly.

    Schjeldahl ends his article with his usual enigmatic kind of statement: “The history of the avant-grade comes down to this: a boyish gimcracker diverting us by diverting himself. Worse things have happened.” (quotes from the May 14, 2007 New Yorker, “Chris Burden and the Limits of Art)

    Beyond Burden, or alongside of his “violations” is the definition of art (pragmatically speaking) that Schjeldahl gives us: “a privileged activity, with boundaries maintained by the agreement of the vested authorities.” An interesting take on the subject.

  6. 6 Pat Shaer May 15, 2007 at 4:59 am

    It seems to me that any opinion about anything that is created as art…it may be “art” to one and “trash” to another… is judged with bias. We see in a manner that may be foreign to others, even those who are close to us or who have had the same training to “see” something.

    We are either comfortable is viewing an artwork or not.

    Come to think of it, one purpose of art is to “disturb” the viewer.

  7. 7 clairan May 14, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    I have looked and looked at The Sleep Walker, and to me it looks like he’s peeing, which is the kind of thing a sleep walker might do. Am I just impossibly naive?

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