Art will always cause offence. That’s just what it does. Especially when it’s mixed with religion. One of the most ‘offensive artworks’ in recent history, as received by public opinion, was Andres Serrano’s Immersion (Piss Christ). This 1987 work is a photograph of a plastic Jesus-on-the-cross crucifix immersed in a container of Serrano’s urine. Although initially well received, a storm of controversy rained down upon it a couple of years later.
Piss Christ was denounced by American senators as blasphemous (despite the artist’s claim that it was born from his own religious belief) and Serrano received numerous death threats. When it went on display at the NGV, it was vandalised and gallery officials also received death threats. Capping the controversy, Cardinal George Pell tried to force an injunction against its display at the NGV; he was unsuccessful.
But art doesn’t have to reference Christ to be offensive. It can also shock when it challenges artistic convention and goes up against authority. These are areas that Warhol and Ai know all about. Making provocative art is something they share – the fallout shapes how we see their art, and sometimes even which of it we are allowed to see.
No Soup for You
Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans were first exhibited in the Ferus Gallery in July 1962. The work consists of individual paintings of 32 Campbell’s soup flavours, arranged in the gallery on shelves, like a grocery aisle.
After the show, art dealer and gallery owner Martha Jackson wrote to Warhol to let him know that there been ‘negative reactions’ to the Warhol work she was already displaying in her gallery, and that the controversy surrounding Campbell’s Soup Cans had clarified matters in her mind.
‘The introduction of your paintings,’ she said, ‘has already had very bad repercussions for us.’
And with that, Warhol’s solo exhibition planned for December at the Jackson Gallery was cancelled.
From today’s vantage point, it’s hard to imagine why the cans caused such controversy. But consider the time they appeared. Warhol painted them in a detached, pedantic fashion – a continuation of his work as an artist for advertisements. Many people thought the paintings were a joke; many others considered them an affront to traditional artistic values (like individual expression, having a unique artistic vision, and so on). But Warhol was unrepentant.
‘I should have just done the Campbell’s Soups,’ he said, ‘and kept on doing them, because everybody only does one painting anyway.’
Flipping the Bird
Some of Ai’s most famous photos consist of a proffered middle finger in the foreground of global symbols of authority, as in Study of Perspective – Tiananmen Square (he also flipped the bird at the Eiffel Tower and the White House). He has also posted a selfie with Julian Assange on Instagram, in which they both gave the finger to Ai’s followers.
This offensive hand signal has proved very problematic for Ai. When he was questioned during his 2011 imprisonment, he was repeatedly interrogated about these images, especially the offensive gesture he directed to Mao Zedong’s portrait at the entrance to the Forbidden City.
Mao in Drag
Speaking of Mao, his image featured prominently in Warhol’s work in the 70s, such as the canvas that featured a Mao image over 4 metres high. In these works, Warhol deployed the same technique (acrylic and silkscreen-ink on canvas) he used to create his images of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and that’s because, for Warhol, Mao had the same star power.
The Chinese dictator was ‘the ultimate star’, he said.
In 2012, the Warhol retrospective, 15 Minutes Eternal, celebrated the anniversary of the artist’s death and toured the world; when it came to Shanghai, Warhol’s iconic images of Mao were removed on orders of the Chinese government. The reason? ‘They stretch official acceptance too far.’ It’s not hard to see why. Warhol used garish colours, and in some of the prints, it looks like Mao is wearing lipstick and rouge, a bridge too far for a country where their former leader is still revered by many.
Smash the State
Ai is famous for the use of ancient Han Dynasty vases in his work: he paints them in fluoro colours, or with corporate logos. Or he photographs himself smashing them. In a further twist, artists buy his art so they can make art about smashing Ai’s art, like Manuel Salvisberg, who purchased Ai’s Coca-Cola Urn and had himself photographed in the act of dropping it, adopting the exact same pose as Ai does when he drops the Han Dynasty urns (in yet another twist, Coca-Cola Urn is a Han Dynasty urn painted with the Coca Cola logo).
Some took great offense at Ai’s smashing ways, such as artist and commentator Jonathan Jones, who complained:
‘For me it is Ai Weiwei’s most provocative gesture. I feel highly provoked. It shows the artist letting go of an elegant object made with intelligence, imagination and love more than 2,000 years ago and letting it smash to bits on the ground.’
When Maximo Caminero smashed an urn from Ai’s exhibit at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, he did so, he said, because he was offended by the lack of local art in the gallery. The hapless Caminero was prosecuted, which just goes to show how some people’s political statements can offend more than others.
Wanted: Andy Warhol
In 1964, ten artists were commissioned to produce work for the World’s Fair at the New York State Pavilion: Peter Agostini, John Chamberlain, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Liberman, Robert Mallary, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol.
For his contribution, Warhol enlarged mugshots of thirteen wanted men from a New York Police Department booklet.
New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and State Pavilion architect Philip Johnson were so offended by the work, and its apparent celebration of criminality, that they ordered it to be covered with silver paint before the event opened, an outrageous move that to today’s sensibilities seems far more offensive than Warhol’s original provocation could ever be (even if there were later rumblings that Warhol agreed to the cover up so as to avoid being sued; after all, one of the men in the mugshots had been pardoned since the booklet was published).
Images: Plenty Thumb and Plenty Finger by Olivia Blackburn from ‘Study of La Trobe’s Perspective’ (2016), part of our forthcoming print publication promoting the Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei exhibition in collaboration with the NGV.