Famous Controversial Works Of Art That People Still Argue Over Today

Famous Controversial Works Of Art That People Still Argue Over Today

Artists have been causing scenes for all of history. What do they get out of it, other than that sweet satisfaction of getting attention? Well, controversial artists insist that their epic stunts are more than just vehicles for shock value, but these 10 examples have us feeling pretty doubtful. Honestly, some have us feeling like taking a hot shower.

Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” (1536-1541)

By the time the Vatican had commissioned Michelangelo to work on their fresco, the artist was well into his career. It had been 25 years since he’d painted the Sistine Chapel, and he was growing tired of religious affiliations. So, he decided to have a little fun.

VCG Wilson / Corbis via Getty Images

Censored Immediately

Michelangelo’s painting depicted Jesus with (gasp) no beard. Not to mention, the pagan-inspired piece showcased over 300 fully-nude men. The men were later covered up in the church’s “fig-leaf campaign.” How didn’t the Vatican notice him doing this?

Walter McBride / Corbis via Getty Images

March Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917)

Fasten your toilet seat, folks. Artist Marcel Duchamp submitted an anonymous piece to the Society of Independent Artists, which he co-founded, Some say he did it because the society was getting a reputation for accepting anyone’s work, so long as they could provide the fee. Duchamp wanted to test this.

Man Ray / Wikimedia Commons

Urine Trouble

Duchamp’s submission was a porcelain urinal, which he’d signed “R. Mutt 1917.” He included the handsome fee, yet his piece was, naturally, denied. This stunt created larger discussions about art and profit. The original urinal was tossed out, but if you’d like your own, there are thousands of replicas available online.

Alfred Stieglitz / Wikimedia Commons

Caravaggo’s “St. Matthew and the Angel” (1602)

Caravaggio had his fair share of controversies. However, his unconventional methods bothered no one more than the Roman Catholic Church. His painting of St. Matthew infuriated the critics. But why?

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Poor Example

Caravaggio had modeled Saint Matthew after a homeless man. The church was repulsed by the man’s dirty feet, which seemed to leap out of the frame. They also disliked that an angel was reading to the beggar, implying he was illiterate. Considering the backlash, it’s clear Caravaggio was making a good point.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995)

The name here kinda gives it away. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese activist and artist, had bought and destroyed a 2,000-year-old urn used in ancient ceremonies. Needless to say, the Chinese, who have a deep respect for history, were not amused.

Gabriel Rossi / Getty Images


The public claimed Ai’s destruction of this powerful symbol was incredibly disrespectful. But Ai insisted that letting go of the past is a necessary step toward growth. Even so, many wondered if he really needed to destroy something so valuable to make his point. Well, we’re still talking about it, aren’t we?

Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images

Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” (1974-1979)

What’s for supper? At Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, you can expect quite the feast. Her art installation featured 39 women from history, each given their own place setting at a triangular table. What’s wrong with a little feminist representation? Well, these weren’t ordinary place settings.

Anna Dżabagina / Instagram

Check, Please

The exhibit featured the likes of Margaret Sanger, Susan B. Anthony, and Sacajawea… however, they were each represented with vulvas. Visitors were shocked, disgusted, and perhaps a bit intrigued. If you’re feeling curious, the exhibit is permanently on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

Reg Innell / Toronto Star via Getty Images

Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased De Kooning” (1953)

What exactly are you looking at? This piece was “created” by Robert Rauschenberg. He’d asked the expressionist artist, Willem de Kooning, to give him a drawing he no longer wanted. His true intentions were… interesting, to say the least.

Robert Rauschenberg / Wikimedia Commons


Rauschenberg spent two months erasing Kooning’s entire drawing before presenting it to the world. What did the original look like? Why was it erased? What does it say about abstract art? The answer was a resounding, “Meh.” Even Kooning found it to be a sad stunt.

Photo by Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” (1964)

Everyone loves hating Yoko Ono, but that’s never stopped her from performing over-the-top artistic stunts. After her Cut Piece performance, where she allowed audience members to have-at her clothes with a pair of scissors while she sat in silence, many were inspired to take the concept even further.

Francois Guillot / Getty Images


Marina Abramovic claims she wasn’t inspired by Yoko’s piece, though these stunts hold striking resemblance. In her Rhythm 0 performance, Marina nearly died when she allowed the audience to use 72 object to “do what they desired.” Six hours later, she was bloody, scarred, and held at gunpoint. That’s human nature for you.

Marina Abramovic Institue / Vimeo

Maya Lin’s “Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial” (1982)

When she was just 21, architecture student Maya Lin entered and won a contest to create a military tribute for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Her minimalistic “V” design would be lined with the names of 58,000 soldiers lost to the war. What was the problem?

Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Dear Mr. President

Lin said her design represented “a wound that is closed and healing.” However, some felt it was dishonorable, including 27 Republican congressmen who wrote to President Reagan in protest. Instead, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial incorporated the second-place winner’s design and called it a day.

Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” (1996)

This is what happens when you let artists go wild. An exhibit called Sensation featured an array of polarizing artists whose work included sculptures of sharks in formaldehyde and self portraits finger-painted with blood. Among them was Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, dubbed most-offensive of them all.

artabovereality / Instagram

“Sick Stuff”

Ofili’s collage baffled the public, including mayor Rudy Guliani, who called the whole exhibit “sick stuff.” The piece was covered in clippings from pornographic magazines and heaps of glittery elephant excrement. Today, you can find the resin-coated wonder glittering in the Museum of Modern Art.

DOUG KANTER / AFP via Getty Images

Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” (1875)

Are you easily grossed out? Apparently, people in the late 1800’s were, which is a surprise considering how rural life was back then. Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, which depicted the operating room of Dr. Samuel Gross, was quite-appropriately named. For some, the details were far too real.

Thomas Eakins / Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Bloody Scene

Dr. Gross’s hands, which held a recently used scalpel, were covered in blood. Next to him, a woman covered her eyes in horror (perhaps because he wasn’t wearing gloves). Despite the gore, Eakins’ work would be rated PG these days.

Thomas Eakins / Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” (1503)

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most famous pieces of art ever created. There is so much mystery surrounding Mona Lisa that historians continue to study the painting today, and after all these years she still has secrets to reveal…

Raphael GAILLARDE / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images


In 2015, a French scientist using reflective light technology discovered a portrait of another woman hiding beneath the painting we see now. The underlying portrait is believed to be Da Vinci’s first draft of the famous painting, but it’s difficult to confirm if that belief is true or not.

Jan van Eyck’s “Arnolfini Portrait” (1434)

The Netherlandish artist’s painting depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, an Italian merchant, and his wife, Constanza Trenta. While the renowned work is impressive in itself, there’s more to the painting than meets the eye…

A Look In The Mirror

Take a closer look, you’ll see a mirror centered in the background of the painting. Reflected in the mirror are two other figures who appear to be looking at the Arnolfini’s. Based on our logic of mirrors, one of the figures is presumed to be the artist, Van Eyck, subtly eternalizing himself in the portrait.

Michelangelo’s “David” (1501 – 1504)

Arguably one of the greatest sculptures of all time, Michelangelo’s statue of David stands 17 feet tall. Seriously, we have to admit, David doesn’t really have a bad angle going for him. But looking up at David does distort one thing that might change the way you consider the work.

Brave and Bold to Pure Fright

David is positioned in a heroic manner. Due to its size, when we admire the statue we are forced to look up at him. His body is anatomical perfection, and, paired with his confident stance, David is often thought to be sculpted as “hero.” Looking at David at eye level reveals a different story. His expression shows concern and fear, which makes sense given he is about to engage in a battle with Goliath!

Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” (1533)

This work showcases two rich ambassadors, seemingly healthy and in their prime, surrounded with their fine material goods. While the portrait is strikingly rich in color, the hues defy the underlying message of the work, which is far from vivifying.


Looming at the feet of the ambassadors is an anamorphic perspective of a skull. This piece was intended to hang in a stairwell so, at the angle of ascension, the skull would jump right out at you. The skull was to serve as a memento mori, which translates to, “remember you will die.” So much for a welcome mat, huh?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Netherlandish Proverbs” (1559)

Despite his name, Pieter Bruegel the Elder is not a wizard. Unfortunately. What he is though, is one of the most notable artists of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting. In 1559, he created the Netherlandish Proverbs. It may look more like a Neanderthal-ish bedlam, but this raucous scene is actually telling a story — 112 stories to be exact!

Story In A Story In A….

The artist is known for inserting the absurdity of humanity in his work, and he didn’t miss a beat with this one. The painting literally illustrates 112 different proverbs and sayings from the Netherlands. Some of which include, “To be a pillar biter” and “Armed to the teeth.” But the real proverb here is, if you’re not Dutch, you’re not getting much (at least not much face time in a Bruegel painting)!

Michaelangelo’s “The Sistine Chapel” (1512)

The Sistine Chapel. You may have heard of it — the big, painted chapel in the Apostolic Palace, nestled in the Vatican City. Well, way back in 1512, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the story of Genesis across 9 sections of the concave ceiling. Some speculate that beyond a masterpiece, the artist also left behind a message…

Big Brain

Michelangelo spent many years studying human anatomy. With that deep understanding, the artist was able to depict people with greater realism and insert more cerebral meaning into his paintings. In this famous section, God is surrounded by what looks like a brain. This insinuates that not only did God give Adam life, but also the ability to reason and think.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (1495–1498)

The Last Supper is almost as famous for its rumors of secret meanings as it is for its artistic brilliance. Da Vinci was unique in his genius, and much of that is to due to his vast and diverse passions. Not only an artist, Da Vinci identified as a mathematician, scientist, inventor, and even a musician.

A Hot New Track

And when a fellow musician admired Da Vinci’s work, he noticed something peculiar. When the five lines of a musical staff are drawn across the supper, the bread rolls combined with the apostle’s hands create musical notes. When you follow Da Vinci’s signature style of right to left, the notes make up a 40-second musical composition.

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night” (1888)

This scene’s so charming, you can almost hear accordions. Some art historians have a different take on this painting though. There are theories that posit this café might have a more symbolic impetus, coming from the son of a Protestant minister…

The Last Supper at the Cafe Terrace

There have been many comparisons with Van Gogh’s Café Terrace and Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The central figure in white is thought to be a representation of Jesus, while the dark figure in the doorway is speculated to represent Judas.

Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503–1515)

There is a good story here, but first let’s take a moment to appreciate the name of this painting’s creator, Hieronymus Bosch. Ohhh, it’s so good! Hieronymus Bosch is the creator behind this triptych oil painting titled, The Garden of Earthly Delights. What is even more delightful are the secret, behind-the-scenes notes…

Hell Panel

These notes, found on the bottom of a tortured soul in the “hell panel” of the painting, translate into approximately 28 seconds of what can only be described as a reject Nokia ringtone. This melody is widely referred to as “the butt-song from hell.”

Diego Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads” (1933)

The legendary Mexican painter Frida Kahlo had a husband who was, apparently, a painter as well. Just kidding, Diego Rivera is totally a big shot. Due to his notoriety, in the early 1940s, Nelson Rockefeller commissioned Rivera to paint a mural, Man at the Crossroads for the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Alas, even the richest of the rich don’t always get exactly what they want…

Artistic Payback

Young Rockefeller didn’t appreciate the inclusion of the communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in the mural, so he had the painting destroyed. In response, Rivera re-created the mural in 1943 in Mexico city and titled it, Man, the Center of the Universe. Not only was Lenin even more prominently featured in this mural, but Rivera, not so coyly, painted in Rockefeller’s father below the bacterial illustration of syphilis.