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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?

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