In 1917 Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) shocked the art world by displaying a urinal in a New York art exhibition. The organisers convened an emergency meeting and voted to remove the "immoral" and "unoriginal" object from the exhibition. Whether or not this object is a work of art remains controversial even today, but it had a powerful effect in challenging us to reexamine our beliefs, "What is art?"
Throughout history, pioneers have often been the centre of controversy because they challenge established orthodoxy. Marcel Duchamp was not the first and certainly not the last.
The impressionists and post-impressionists were the iconoclasts of their day. Even a painter like Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) was not appreciated, for he never sold a single painting during his lifetime, except those "bought" by his own brother who took pity on him.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) also shocked the establishment with his highly distorted images of women.
Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) provoked ridicule with his splash paintings, and he was nicknamed "Jack the Dripper".
The Tate Gallery in London is certainly no stranger to controversy, in large part due to their staunch support of avant garde art. In 1966 the Gallery bought a large comic based painting by Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) entitled "Whaam!" The New York Times art critic described Lichtenstein as "one of the worst artists in America." His paintings of blown-up comic strips have been disparaged as cheap advertisements and merely tedious copies of the banal.
In 1976 the Tate Gallery was the centre of another controversy. They bought a sculpture by Carl Andre (1935- ) called "Equivalent VIII" in 1972. It was on display for four years before it caught the attention of The Sunday Times. The work, which consisted of 120 firebricks arranged in a rectangular formation, provoked an almighty uproar. The Tate was ridiculed by the public who saw the curators as being hoodwinked into buying "a pile of bricks".
On 27 August 2004, the Tate Gallery came into the news again. This time one of the gallerys cleaners accidentally threw out a bag of rubbish which formed part of an artwork. The bag of rubbish was transparent, filled with newspapers, cardboard and other bits of paper. It is actually the work of artist Gustav Metzger (1926 - ), entitled "Recreation Of First Public Demonstration Of Auto-Destructive Art." The mistake was quickly realised, but unfortunately it had already been crushed by the Gallerys crusher. And when fished out from the machine, Metzger declared that it was beyond rescue. The Guardian newspapers tongue-in-cheek headline was "How auto-destructive art work got destroyed too soon"!
My philistine friends would convulse in hysterical laughter and gibe: "All modern art is rubbish!"