In Depth

8 of the Most Shocking Artworks Throughout History


8 of the Most Shocking Artworks Throughout History
A prayer vigil outside the National Gallery of Victoria in protest at the controversial photographic exhibition by Andres Serrano. Picture: HWT library.

In a series of mid-aughts round tables on the subject of creative controversy, New York Times mainstay Roberta Smith wrote that, more often than not, viewers “deliberately choose to be shocked and to use their shock in divisive, irresponsible, sensationalizing, not to mention politically manipulative ways.” Jon Caramanica, the paper’s chief music critic, penned an even pithier response to the topic. “There’s something hopelessly middle class about shock.” This statement is as charming as it is accurate; shock, and it’s parent, shame, stalk the borders of collective identity with canine dedication, prepared to pounce on interlopers or escapees at a moment’s notice. Righteous indignation issues cultural correctives while reaffirming individual conscription, simultaneously teasing out the contours of groupthink and actively rewarding mob behavior through safety, clout, or dopamine. 

 John Waters via Dreamland

Historically, art has served to telegraph the values ensconcing its creation, whether as  blow-by-blow prescription for an illiterate citizenry or a form of esoteric institutional critique. Objects tell us who we are, what we care about, and what we won’t put up with. Filmmaker John Waters has long opined that shock isn’t a sufficient way to ensure an artwork’s success—surprise is the key. This sentiment, like Smith’s, highlights shock’s strategic underpinnings; instead of an inadvertent reflex, it’s best understood as a punitive deployment, a calculated, pride-inflected contextualization of initial discomfort. Even the medical establishment’s definition of shock, an “emergency in which the organs and tissues of the body are not receiving an adequate flow of blood,” unfolds in stages, starting with “compensation.” When perfusion is first detected, systems activate to restore the status quo. The heart beats faster, the blood vessels tighten, the kidneys retain fluid, all concerted attempts to reroute blood to the places that need it most. The body actuates shock as a biological protest, a desperate series of misfired attempts at late-stage maintenance. The body politic does the same thing. 

So, can art still shock in 2019? That depends, really. The advent of social media has steeped us in a relentless stream of insurmountable human tragedy, all while facilitating the global rise of far-right neo-fascism. As we teeter on the edge of environmental collapse, lambasted by algorithmic outrage and abstracted from our own best interests by corporate forces we can’t see, it’s hard to remember a time when shock was less than central to our everyday communications, or pinpoint the moment survivalist callouses had to grow. Tech giants aim to “disrupt,” marketing companies debate the ROI of “shockvertising’s” virality, and Alex Jones... well, he exists. If anything, consumers seem exhausted. Contemporary art may feel hyper-political, but it’s actionability falls under increasing scrutiny as interconnection shrinks our shared existence. Work designed to shock the average viewer must cut through endless noise before it encounters any real opportunity for judgement; if and when that judgement comes, it’s rarely about the art itself, but the conversational maelstrom at its borders. Manufactured or not, scandals get clicks. 

Critic Walter Benjamin employed shock much in the way Brecht did, as a symptom of modernity’s over-stimulation. In his writing on film, Benjamin declared that while Surrealist Dada could only hope to invoke “moral shock,” cinema contained the potential for “physical shock,” since its breathless succession of frames left audience members no time to properly react. While he never identified cinema as the harbinger of cultural decay, he did imply that the immersive chaos of moving pictures might erode audience faculties over time, eventually weakening onlooker’s resolve against outside provocation. “The shock effect of the film,”  he wrote, “should be cushioned by a heightened presence of mind,” or consciousness, in simpler terms. It seems that Benjamin’s predictions not only came to pass, but have also borne witness to a seismic shift in what shock can and can’t accomplish over the course of the last century. Our consciousness is compromised, to say the least. Art might offend us, for sure, but offense implies a different power dynamic than shock. Shock is a privilege in 2019. Offense is just a casualty of being alive. 

 Dana Schutz, Emmett Till, 2016 via artnet News (the piece sparked protests at the 2017 Whitney Biennial)

The American ethos fetishizes free speech in the highest ethical regard, so much so that our obscenity laws have almost always operated on a case-by-case basis, when they operate at all. If fast-fizzling outrage is cheap and easy to orchestrate, authentic shock, or rather, what we imagine authentic shock to be, proves far more elusive in practice, largely because shock precludes authenticity as a basic tenet of its rationale. Viewers must perform shock to mirror and then synthesize the transgressions disposed through artistic intent. It might be possible to aggravate, anger, or incense an everyday art-goer in 2019, but shock functions almost exclusively as an advantageous tool of political coercion. The average viewer isn’t afforded the luxury of shock, which has evolved from a type of aesthetic sublimation into an avenue for recourse all its own. This is by design. The Catholic Church can be shocked, the GOP can be shocked, but you and I? That’s up for debate. 


Below is a list of 8 art works that raised institutional eyebrows over the course of the last four hundred years. Who, exactly, was shocked? 



 Death of a Virgin, 1606 via Caravaggio Gallery

Baroque master and 17th century bad boy Caravaggio was known for his inexorable gaze and moody, brazen depictions of the human body. His 1606 masterpiece “Death of a Virgin” was no exception. Devoid of the illustrative pomp expected of religious tableaus, Caravaggio’s composition emphasizes the deeply human mourning process embedded in Mary’s story, dressing her in a simple red frock and articulating the close, dingey room housing her deathbed. The papal lawyer who commissioned the painting for the Carmelite chapel of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere, Rome was unmoved, however. Famed Renaissance collector Giulo Mancini even spread the rumor that Caravaggio modelled a sex worker, potentially his mistress, as the Virgin, a breach of decorum that led the fathers of Santa Maria della Scalla to reject the painting, replacing it with a piece by Carlo Saraceni. Fortunately, Caravaggio sold it to the Duke of Mantua the following year upon recommendation by Peter Paul Rubens, but the scandal besmirched his already tainted reputation. Notably, this is the last painting of the time period to depict Mary’s ascent to heaven as predicated on her death; Assumption dogma entered the Christian canon soon thereafter. 



 Luncheon on the Grass, 1862, via

This landmark Impressionist work caused quite a stir when it was exhibited at the Salon des Refuses, an alternative exhibition space established by artists who were refused entry to the official, state-sanctioned annual expo. Manet’s rejection from the French Academy was occasioned not necessarily by his subject’s nudity, but by the proximity of her nudity to contemporary posture; her male companions are fully clothes, her pose is casual, her gaze direct, her face specific. The composition, while referencing Raphael’s Judgement of Paris, did not couch the subject’s naked body in mythological or allegorical precedents. Her physical frankness scandalized the Parisian establishment, prompting one critic to describe the subject as “fairly scabrous.” 


 Madame X, 1884 via Met Museum

Sargent’s brazen, elegant portrayal of Virginie Amelie Gautreau, American expatriate and socialite wife to French banker Pierre Gautreau, started as a pet project of the artist’s; every major painter in Paris was chomping at the bit to paint Gautreau, but she only acquiesced to Sargent’s request in February of 1883. While work progressed slowly, both sitter and Sargent believed they were making history. Upon debuting the piece, however, both soon realized it was the wrong kind of history. When the painting appeared at the Paris Salon in 1884 under the title Portrait de Mm ***, the public was utterly scandalized by her immodest garment and haughty stature. Gautreau’s mother requested that the painting be removed to save face, but Sargent refused, more or less declaring that her salacious reputation wasn’t his problem. While Sargent soon renamed the piece Madame X and repainted a precarious shoulder strap, Gautreau was humiliated by the whole affair, and Sargent moved to London to avoid further fallout. Interestingly, Gautreau sat for another, similarly immodest painting for artist Gustave Courtois seven years later, which was granted a warm reception by the Parisian elite. 



 Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, 1912, via Artsy

A Modernist classic, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 had a rocky start to its tenure as a turn-of-the-century masterpiece. Duchamp depicted human motion through successive superimposed frames, in a similar vein to stroboscopic motion photography. His subject is ambiguous, conical, nested and indiscernible, figural almost by default rather than design. As such, his was asked by his brothers to withdraw submission to the Cubist section of the 28th Societe des Artistes Independants in Paris, based on its Futurist influences, “literary title” and “disrespectful” depiction of the nude. It’s American debut in 1913 was similarly problematic, as audiences across the pond were more accustomed to naturalistic fare, prompting New York Times art critic Julian street to characterize the piece as “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Even President Roosevelt hated it, comparing the piece unfavorably to a rug hanging in his bathroom at home. 



 Piss Christ, 1987, via 100 Photos

Piss Christ, a photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, came to exemplify the American conservative distaste for the National Endowment of the Arts, which still exists in full force to this day. Serrano has always maintained that his intentions were ideologically ambiguous at worst, but never based in blasphemy; if anything, he was commenting on a perceived commercialization of Christian icons in the contemporary visual archive. The GOP didn’t take his word for it, however. When the piece was exhibited in 1989, Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms were outraged that Serrano received $20,000 in NEA grants for his work, launching a detraction campaign against the artist that led to an onslaught of death threats for Serrano and budget cuts for the arts in congress. The piece lives on a symbol of free speech in art, inspiring Christian protestors to ask President Barack Obama to denounce the piece as recently as 2012 in the wake of the white house’s condemnation of the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims



Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995 via Sotheby's 

Never a stranger to controversy, legendary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei made a huge statement in 1995 with his piece Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, in which he smashed a priceless piece of Chinese history on the ground on film. The act was orchestrated to provoke an emotional response, leading viewers, critics, and government officials alike to wonder exactly what his point was. Weiwei maintained that his penchant for destruction was a condemnation of the Mao regime, and he was commenting on the systematic erasure of heritage preservation practices in Communist China. Most interpreted the artifact’s destruction as a postmodern inquiry on artistic value in the commercial age, but whatever his intentions, public outrage ensued. Weiwei had bigger fish to fry, anyway. 



 Myra, 1997 via HSC Visual Art Resources

Marcus Harvey, a lesser known member of the 90’s Young British Artist collective, is probably most famous for his notorious portrait of Myra Hindley, serial child murderer and iconic villain in the eyes of the British public. The piece, created from paint-dipped casts of children’s handprints, was allegedly designed as a site for viewer catharsis, imbued with implicit commentary on the obsessive cycle of imagistic media reproduction. When it was included in the controversial Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1997, however, all hell broke loose. Four members of the Royal Academy resigned, the police attempted to prosecute the artist under the Obscene Publications Act, Academy windows were smashed, the piece was twice vandalized on opening night, and parents of the victims began picketing the exhibition in protest. Even Myra Hindley herself wrote from prison to ask that her portrait be removed from the exhibition. The piece was shown stateside in 1999 to limited opprobrium. 



Tree, 2014 via Reddit 

Multidisciplinary artist McCarthy has always courted the rumpus of dissension, but his taste for scandal got him into a bit of hot water back in 2014, when his huge inflatable sculpture, tree, was erected as a Christmas display on the Place Vendome in Paris. The piece, which resembles a hilariously enormous butt plug, was toppled by vandals and deflated in the street; even more amusingly, an outraged passerby at the sculpture’s installation approached McCarthy and slapped him three times in the face upon witnessing the enormous sex toy. (At no point were any actors involved called the Butt Plug Bandits in the press, which seems like a huge missed opportunity). 



Paul McCarthy on the Messy, Lonely Turth Behind How He Got His Start As An Artist

7 Controversial 21st-Century Artworks You Need to Know Now


a treasure trove of fine art from the world's most renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. We offer exclusive works you can't find anywhere else.


through exclusive content featuring art news, collecting guides, and interviews with artists, dealers, collectors, curators and influencers.


authentic artworks from across the globe. Collecting with us means you're helping to sustain creative culture and supporting organizations that are making the world a better place.


with our art advisors for buying advice or to help you find the art that's perfect for you. We have the resources to find works that suit your needs.


Artspace offers you authentic, exclusive works from world-renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. Collecting with us helps support creative culture while bringing you art news, interviews and access to global art resources.