Controversial 20th Century Artists and their Most Famous Works

Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” are the immortal words of Mexican poet and activist Cesar A Cruz. For many creating art is a form of self-expression, of social commentary and of protest, and it is there to provoke a reaction in the viewer. Here are some of the most controversial contemporary artists of the 20th century and their most notorious works.

Tracey Emin

Known for her painfully honest depictions of the messy, uncomfortable and vulnerable parts of life, Emin has always caused uproar whether exhibiting her work or talking about it. Some of her most famous pieces include ‘My Bed’, when the artist exhibited her own unmade bed and all it entailed after several weeks spent living in it, and ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995’, where she appliquéd the names of everyone she’d ever stayed in a bed with onto the fabric of a tent.

She is also well known for her work with neon sculpture. Pieces such as ‘For You’, ‘Meet Me In Heaven I Will Wait For You’ and the recent ‘I Longed For You’ encapsulate the easily accessible but poignant nature of Emin’s work in neon. The personal handwriting and heartfelt words appeal directly to the viewer, bringing intimacy to a harsh medium. They have such wide appeal, that the Cosmopolitan casino in Las Vegas broadcast some of the artist’s neon messages for a period of time in 2014. Emin says that she finds Sin City to be “romantic”.

Damien Hirst

Speaking of Vegas, the city is no stranger to controversial figures from the art world. Perhaps one of the most shocking artists of recent times is Emin’s fellow Brit, Damien Hirst. For $100 000 you can now stay in the Hirst-designed suite at Palms Casino Resort; the décor uses famous themes from the artist’s oeuvre like medication, animals suspended in formaldehyde and lavish amounts of diamonds (here replaced with cubic zirconia) to create a truly unique set of rooms. In a world where you can now access the greatest literature via a Kindle screen, visit Vegas online at PokerStarsCasino or even use Alexa to control your smart home, it’s no surprise that artists are working with commercial outlets like hotels.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst

Hirst has never been shy of courting controversy, whether that’s ‘selling out’ to partner with big brands or displaying works that shock the world such as ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, where he suspended a shark in formaldehyde, or ‘For the Love of God’, where the artist covered an 18th century human skull with platinum and diamonds. His work certainly confronts the human condition, regularly alluding to our fear of death and decay.

Yoko Ono

In 1968, artist and activist Yoko Ono caused global contention by dating one of the most well-loved musicians in the world, The Beatles’ John Lennon, and that is perhaps what she is most well known for. But she has been a radical and subversive force in the art world ever since her move to the USA in the 1940s. Perhaps her most prominent work remains the performance pieces she conducted with Lennon, ‘Bed-Ins For Peace’; taking the idea of a peaceful protest ‘sit-in’ to the next level, the couple stayed in bed for two weeks to protest the Vietnam War.

Bed-In For Peace by Yoko Ono and John Lennon
Bed-In For Peace by Yoko Ono and John Lennon

Her other most controversial work, titled ‘Cut Piece’, predates her work with the Beatle and was a lone performance piece originally staged in Carnegie Hall, NY, in 1964. Visitors to the exhibition were encouraged to cut away the artist’s clothes from her body, leaving her stripped down to her underwear and surrounded by rags. Ono has since staged the piece in cities all over the world, including most recently in Paris in 2003. When it was first exhibited, this work formed a part of the introduction of participatory art into the contemporary art landscape.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

The beginning of Basquiat’s artistic career was inherently controversial as he was a graffiti artist working under the pseudonym SAMO with his friend, Al Diaz. The pair worked illegally, covering neighbourhood buildings with their bold and confrontational work. However, Basquiat, an American-born artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican parentage, then went on to have a fast and furious yet prolific eight-year art career, mostly using the medium of paint. His work was bold, colourful and captivating, using a style that mixed image with text and incorporated symbols, logos and diagrams.

As part of the Neo-Expressionist movement in the 1980s, Basquiat was particularly interested in conveying his opinions and experiences of American society. As somebody who’d experienced homelessness, discrimination and mental illness, he used his art to examine those uncomfortable aspects of the culture he lived in. His most mesmerising work includes ‘Untitled (1982)’ which was sold at auction for a record-breaking $110.5 million in 2017. Many of the themes of his work struck a painful chord with the viewer, but undeniably it is his tragic death at the age of 27 that contributes to his infamy.