The Most Controversial Art Exhibitions: A Love-Hate Relationship
Art4 Minutes Read

The Most Controversial Art Exhibitions: A Love-Hate Relationship

January 8, 2022 Share

For centuries works of art have been subjected to public and private criticism. It’s simply a part of the creative process. That said, while the creation of art takes talent and vision, so too does the exhibition of masterpieces. 

After all, what IS art without someone to criticize it?

There have been several events that have sparked a feud between artists and art critics that to one degree or another, remains to this very day. 

But maybe this was the point of the presentation, a way to spark conversation and applaud the debate. A way to open our minds up to the other side, whether that’s to the side of the green grass–or maybe the one that needs some rain. 

The Famous Fountain Sculpture by Marcel Duchamp. Photo by Robert Alexander.

It’s these polar opposite conversations that ultimately drive a nation.  

That’s why I love art because of how subjective and personal it can be. This is how artists express themselves to convey their truths and admit their defeats and thrive in their glory.

In 1863, in the famous Paris Au Salon, it was here that art critics huddled together to decide which art pieces did or did not qualify to be displayed in the esteemed exhibit. The jury during this ear was particularly harsh, rejecting more than half of the entries.

It became so controversial that Emperor Napoleon had to intervene once or twice. The manner was solved by creating an alternative display in the Salon des Refuses – French for the exhibition of rejects. How charming.

The Salon des Refusés, 1863. Photo from Artmajeur.

Nonetheless, the new look on the exhibition ended up attracting more interest to the press than the artist would have received anywhere else. So the lesson learnt is that even if you lose, you can still come out as a winner.

At the turn of the 20th century, new art movements were sprouting out all over the place. Revising and even rejecting the modes and styles of the past. This led to even more diverse art and its criticism. 

For example, who remembers Tracey Emin with her controversial installation piece called My Bed? First conceived in 1998 this unintentional piece occurred when Emin spent four days in the same bed after having a complete breakdown.

She was asleep and semi-conscious.

The day she eventually rolled out she “looked at it and thought it was disgusting.” The mess and decay of her life were simply surrounding her. And then realised that this bed had actually saved her life and had kept her safe.


“At that moment I just saw my bed in a white space and realised that it was art. But now the bed has become like a ghost of my past. All the things around it don’t relate to me anymore, they relate to a much younger woman” – Tracey Emin 

The literal unmade bed was placed in the centre of the room surrounded by contraceptive pills, condoms, alcohol, small nickers, belts and more. Everything had been kept the same – right down to the dirty sheets.

Art is not always supposed to be about looking, it is about feeling the emotion once you first see it. Naturally, this installation worked as people who looked at this everyday object, saw disgust. Something that correlated with Emin at the time.

This installation brought about movements of people questioning the very topic. 


What is art? Can a bed be considered a piece of art? Why should we care?

We love art that speaks to us but at the same time cannot seem to come to grips with it. It’s like a wrestling match within our minds, a constant yes or no, do I love it or hate it?

What about artist Michael Landy, also known as the guy who had a breakdown in 2001? Held at an art show on Oxford street, the artist staged a controversial work called Break Down, during which he destroyed every one of his 7,227 belongings.

All in the name of art.

Public reaction was divided: some admired Landy’s commitment, others were shocked at the idea of so much waste. Watching the destruction take place was “deeply unsettling” and “appalling” for some observers.

Others have taken art exhibitions to the extreme by placing art on landmarks or in the middle of the sea like Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s pink Surrounded Islands.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida, 1980-83. Photo by Smart City.

This 1983 installation was completed in Biscayne Bay, in Miami. 11 of the islands were surrounded by 6.5 million square feet of floating pink woven fabric covering the surface of the water. 

For two weeks the outdoor art exhibit was seen, approached and enjoyed by the public.

Controversial art defies against reason and goes against the lateral flow of the world. It asks questions that we mere mortals cannot comprehend. We love it and hate it because it simply confuses us, shocks us and yet enlightens us in some way.

Art Exhibitions are supposed to bring people together to start conversations that matter most.

A debate worth having.

SEE MORE: Amanda Gorman | Cheers To The Young Poet Who Captured America