Art that Angers People: From ‘The Fountain’ to ‘Piss Christ'

The YouTube film that sparked the Middle East unrest isn’t the first “art” designed to provoke.

AP Photo (top left); Getty Images (3)

AP Photo (top left); Getty Images (3)

The current unrest in the Middle East all began with an obscure, offensive, and ridiculous YouTube video insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Throughout history, art (if you can call this bit of viral schlock "art") has provoked by design. From a crossdressing pope to a serial killer’s portraits, here’s a look at the most bizarre installations that stirred up controversy.

Sergei Supinsky, AFP / Getty Images

Sleeping Beauty

Ukraine’s recent “Sleeping Beauty” exhibit brought an old fairy-tale theme to life in a surprising way. The installation displayed girls who had signed contracts swearing to marry whichever visitor could wake them with a kiss. A girl did wake to a kiss, only to discover it had been given by a woman (same-sex marriage is illegal in Ukraine). Other displays showed a man kneeling and weeping when one Sleeping Beauty didn’t awaken to his kiss, and other who left a girl an iPad, his email address, and $400 to buy a ticket to visit him in Amsterdam.

Ben Stansall, AFP / Getty Images

The Fountain

It's been nearly a century since Marcel Duchamp’s wildly controversial sculpture Fountain made its debut, but it remains a standard-bearer in the world of edgy art.

Roberto Serra, Iguana Press / Getty Images

Rhythm O

Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic has guts and a lot of faith in humanity. In her 1974 installation, she used herself as a subject. Laying out 72 objects in front of her, she allowed the audience to do whatever they wanted to her body. There were nails, knives, flowers, perfume, and even a loaded gun. For six hours, the initially gentle audience used the tools in harsher and harsher ways—one even aimed the gun at her head.

Steve Eichner, WireImage / Getty Images


Serial killers painting portraits of other serial killers? It’s a little creepy. John Wayne Gacy, who tortured and murdered 33 teenage boys in the 1970s and stashed their bodies in his crawlspace, took a turn for the artistic once he was behind bars. In 2011, a Las Vegas gallery exhibited “Multiples: The Art of John Wayne Gacy,” a show filled with the serial killer’s paintings of Charles Manson, Jesus, Ed Gein (upon whom The Silence of the Lambs was based), The Seven Dwarves, and the incredibly terrifying Pogo the Clown, a character Gacy used to play at children’s birthday parties. The paintings were priced in the thousands, which begs the question: which is creepier, the artwork or its use as a decoration piece in someone’s house?

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In a similar vein, British artist Marcus Harvey created “Myra,” a seemingly innocuous portrait of a blonde woman comprised of hundreds of children’s handprints. But Myra is Myra Hindley, who, along with an accomplice, carried out the “Moors murders,” killing five children between 1963 and 1965. The combination of little handprints and a child murderess didn’t please the crowds at the Royal Academy of Art, who attacked the canvas with ink and eggs. It was soon restored and put up behind glass.

Ohio Historical Center

Pieces You Don’t Normally See

Ohio’s Historical Center rounded up the state’s most unusual historical relics for “Controversy: Pieces You Don’t Normally See.” The exhibit included such morbid displays as a cage used to restrain mental patients and an electric chair that executed 312 men and three women during its time in use. Museum-services director Sharon Dean rejected the idea that the objects were controversial in and of themselves, saying, “We give objects meaning by projecting our own memories, emotions, or prejudices onto them. And those meanings change over time.”

Courtesy of the National Museum of Funeral History

Fantasy Coffins

Ever fantasize about what your coffin will look like? (Let's hope not.) Ghanaian artist Kane Quaye specializes in unusual coffins, some of which he displayed at the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston. From a chicken to a shallot to a Mercedes-Benz, some people got really creative with their funerary wishes.

Kathy Willens / AP Photo

The Birth of Baby X

Only in New York. Artist Marni Kotak gave a very, very intimate performance to a few spectators at Brooklyn's Microscope Gallery. Her son, Ajax, was born live in front of the crowd in a water birth within the gallery. The 2011 exhibit transformed the gallery space into Kotak’s ideal birthing center and included the rocking chair her mother used to rock her to sleep in, the bed upon which the baby was conceived, and videos relating to her pregnancy.

Michal Cizek, AFP / Getty Images

Grave Robber

Back to the morbidly disturbing: Czech artist Romany Tyc displayed 19 portraits in a Prague gallery. So why was his show deemed “inappropriate” by reviewers? Because each piece was made of surplus ashes taken from the city’s crematoriums. The gallery agreed to disperse the ashes after the exhibit, and Tyc defended his work as a look into “our strangely biased relationship to death.”

Vit Simanek, isifa / Getty Images

The Pope in Drag

Controversy surrounds death, religion, and sex, and especially a combination of those three within the art world. But above all, as the world is seeing right now, nothing incites anger like defaming religious leaders. A sculptural depiction of Pope Benedict XVI in drag—complete with a blonde bob, high highs, and a stole—whipped up a storm of fury. The lady pope was soon removed under pressure from Catholic organizations.

Sipa Press

Piss Christ

Jesus Christ is a favorite subject of artists looking to incite debate. One of the most enduring scandals in the art world was Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photo of a plastic crucifix floating in a glass of his urine. First displayed 1987, it drew furious protests, and was attacked with hammers and destroyed just last year by Catholics in France. In 2010, a video of ants crawling over Jesus caused U.S. lawmakers to consider pulling funding from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and was soon removed. In the Philippines, a 2011 exhibit featuring Jesus with a dildo protruding from his head was defaced by vandals, criticized by the president, and finally shut down.

Oli Scarff / Getty Images


Critics called the exhibition “shock art,” and it certainly was. In “Sensation,” which first premiered in London in 1997, a variety of artists displayed gruesome and provocative pieces. Among them was Damien Hirst, whose display consisted of a cow head, maggots, and flies and, separately, a sawed pig carcass. Mat Collishaw reproduced a close-up of a bullet in the brain, and Marc Quinn created a bust of himself out of nine pints of his own frozen blood. Two years later, when the exhibit moved to the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared a piece depicting the Black Madonna covered with elephant dung and sexual photos “anti-Catholic” and tried to revoke the museum’s funding and lease.

Michal Cizek, AFP / Getty Images


In a creepily realistic portrayal, artist David Cerny fashioned a display of a handcuffed, roped, and almost-naked Saddam Hussein floating in a tank of formaldehyde as a critique of American foreign policy and titled it Shark. Worried about the shock factor and, as one mayor said, “response from certain populations,” Poland and towns in Belgium banned the exhibit.