Flash Points

Introducing Flash Points: Controversy & Contemporary Art

FLASH POINTS is a monthly conversational series that focuses on issues relevant to the state of the art world at large, contemporary art education, and issues artists face today. You can participate by contributing feedback, posing a follow-up question, sharing anecdotes, or suggesting new topics in the comments area below.

Art21 often gets asked about the provocative nature of artworks by some of our featured artists. At the same time, we find conversations taking place, online and off, that touch upon how we—as educators, producers, viewers, and citizens—can make sense of the images we see.

Our comfort level with depictions of nudity, (homo)sexuality, prolific violence, political unrest, and the grotesque may waver from one work or movement to another. But art that instigates controversy nonetheless remains in our midst—difficult and perhaps irritating on one hand and psychologically expansive, moving, and even beautiful on the other. And clearly, the context and reception of art changes over time.


Otto Dix’s Stormtroops Advancing Under Gas (1924) and Nancy Spero’s Search and Destroy (detail, 1967)


Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) and Ida Applebroog’s Modern Olympia (after Manet) (1997-2001)


Anonymous cartoon courtesy of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia and Michael Ray Charles’s (Forever Free) Tommy Hilnigguh (1999)

Though now taught as key works on a modern art history syllabus, Courbet’s Origin of the World (1866), Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), and most everything Warhol-related (but especially his car crash/electric chair silkscreens) once shocked their viewing publics to the core. And on it goes, from Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc (1981) and the controversies it raised around the nature and purpose of site-specific work; to the inflammatory tactics of the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the 90s; from Jeff Koons’ massive depictions of explicit sexuality with his then-wife (1989-1991); to Kara Walker’s room-sized installations reflecting her alternative vision of a sexually depraved and cruelly violent antebellum south.

So what is it about art and its capacity to shock us? Well, we were thrilled to find Color theory 8, A Shocking Negress?, a video by an educator and artist in Philadelphia named John T. In the video, he chronicles his “experiment” introducing the work of Kara Walker to his students, particularly her painting Negress Notes (Brown Follies) (1996-7). John’s engagement with Walker’s work prompts the questions: “Can a mere picture be shocking?” and “I very much like Kara Walker’s work. Does that make me a racist?” We hear from both him and his students as they debate the viability of the work and Walker’s intention to provoke or unsettle the viewer. Watch it here and if you have time, read the divisive comments on YouTube.


In tackling the issues surrounding controversial art, many additional questions echoing what John T. asks are raised. Over the next month, we will unpack some of them by introducing related posts by other writers weighing in from institutional, educational, and personal perspectives. In the meantime, let’s distill all of this inquiry down to a simple question:

Have you ever been shocked by a work of art and if so, why? What’s your take?


  1. Leonardo Ayres says:

    Drawing With Rosary Beads by Marcia X was censored in an exhibition in Brazil. The work showed many penises drawn with rosary beads on the floor.

  2. Thanks so much for featuring my video about Kara Walker on your blog. She is an amazing, and amazingly controversial, artist.

    The video itself has a few issues. For one, the sound is pretty terrible (I made it with a Canon Powershot camera that is really meant for still images, the motor hum is pretty annoying). Students at my art school study the applied arts (as opposed to fine art) so I am not sure whether they are typical of art students generally. Most in that class were female and fashion marketing majors. They are not generally as aware as fine art students might be about aesthetic/ political/ artworld issues.

    On the other hand, because they are more like normal non-artworld types, I was even more interested in seeing their reactions to Kara Walker’s work. In my opinion, the real star of my movie was the young woman who appeared around the 5 min. 30 sec. mark and ended up with such an incredibly heartfelt response to the work. She wove into her critique this amazing story of her own biracial family and the heartache that entailed.

    Another issue was my incredible and obvious sense of trepidation, on so many levels. Scared of getting fired. Scared of being considered racist. Filled with white guilt and pathetically trying to get some kind of pass. Feeling some guilt about “Michael Mooreing” my own class for my own personal artistic desire to make a film.

    As you duly noted, the comments left on the youtube site about this film are filled with various issues ranging from the obvious white racism to the condemnation of Kara Walker’s work by other artists of color.

  3. James Horn says:

    Interesting video – Thanks John T.

    I think the key thing with shocking art is whether or not it challenges the viewer in a meaningful way. If it’s an image of extreme violence, sexual acts or race, does it provoke thought (as I believe this work does) or is it merely there for shock value?

    I think the most shocking work I’ve ever experienced could well be the play “Blasted” by Sarah Kane – it featured some pretty gross things and led me to consider the base animal instincts of man and what it means to be human.

    At the other end of the scale, I have seen pictures which have featured gratuitously abused religious imagery which I am sure have been created purely for shock value (I do appreciate though that this is purely subjective…)

    I guess the question I always ask of a shocking work is – does this make me question or think about an aspect of life or the world, or is my response purely visceral?

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  5. Thanks for sharing. What was the response to this decision to censor the show – from the artist? From the public? Do you agree with what happened or not, and why?

    This situation also reminds me of Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary painting. Google this and you’ll find any number of other stories about it. More to come on the Sensation exhibition in a few weeks.

  6. John, so what were the reactions to your film and Walker’s image you showed outside of class? Any feedback from your school’s administration, parents, etc.? Any follow up interest or concern from your students? Are you still teaching with Walker’s artwork? Have you showed our Art:21 film?

    I have so many questions! Would be great to hear more about this. Maybe even have your students weigh in here if they’re interested!

  7. All good points, James, and I definitely feel, at least for me, that my reaction to a work can evolve over time. I may simply be shocked, or even irritated at first, but sometimes the work nags at me until I realize there’s a lot more that’s going on than at first glance. A good thing, for sure. Kara Walker is an obvious example of course. Seeing her show at the Whitney was horrifying, stimulating, and just really really intense. For mostly flat work, it hit me in 3-D.

    It’s true, though, that if art is simply shocking for shock’s sake, rather than art’s, then it’s easier to pass it off as trivial. But there’s also something to be said for visceral reactions. In his Art:21 segment, Richard Tuttle speaks at length about art’s ability to move the viewer. Can a visceral response to work (think Olafur Eliasson) be moving too?

    Are there any works or artists on your mind that have first shocked, but ultimately moved you? Also, can appropriated religious imagery ever be shocking in a meaningful away? Again, it’d be great to know of some examples here…

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  10. Jason D. says:

    I can appreciate John T.’s trepidation with his experiment. I’m and Art Educator of grades 5 & 6 at an Intermediate school and I generally try to expose them to different types artists and the types of works that they concentrate on. Unlike several Art Educators, especially at that age level who are continuously getting the kids to produce “cookie-cutter” works where the outcome is so calculated, I try to provoke more thought within their work. For example, when I’m introducing self portraits to the students I show them images from Cindy Sherman or Tim Hawkinson’s “mechanical self portrait”. Last year I worked with a small group of students and our focus was on “Picture Writing” and we talked a great deal about Kara Walker’s work. Now of course I was careful with my image selection, but didn’t necessarily sugar coat the intention of her work.
    I would have to say that the most shocking work, not to be confused with offended, was the “Cremaster” series by Matthew Barney. It was shocking in the sense of an instilled fear that my worst dreams had become a reality. When we dream obviously we tend to remember bits and pieces and when we wake up we trace back to those images. Barney’s work just surrounds you when viewing it in a venue. We do have the luxury of leaving, but curiosity tends to hold me in place.

  11. Kelly,
    I just recently saw the student whom I mentioned in my earlier comment and e-mailed her the link to this website. Hopefully she will check it out and maybe even comment.
    She is a wondeful person.
    John Thornton

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