Scandalous! Our Guide to the Most Shocking Art Ever

most shocking art damien hirst shark

What’s the most shocking art you’ve ever seen? People make art for many reasons – sometimes personal, sometimes political and sometimes to deliberately shock the establishment! Throughout history, works of art (some of which seem tame by today’s standards) have caused riots and provoked outrage among the general public and the art world as a whole.

In this blog, the team here at Pencil Kings takes a look at some of the most scandalous and controversial works of art ever and gives you an insight into why they were so shocking at the time.

However, because we have members of all ages, we’re going to keep it clean and not show you anything too disturbing. The really interesting thing about many of these pieces is how they have stood the test of time and continue to inspire many artists working today!





We know what you’re thinking – this is just a urinal, right? How can this be in a collection of the most shocking art? It may seem a little tame now, but when it went on show in 1917, this humble piece of porcelain shocked the art world to its core.

The French artist, Marcel Duchamp, belonged to an art movement called ‘Dada’ whose members sought to challenge convention and change our view of what can – and can’t – be considered as art.


Having been invited to display his work at the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York, Duchamp’s subversive sense of humor (and a long, leisurely lunch with friends!) led to him buying the urinal from JL Mott Ironmongers on Fifth Avenue, turning the item on its side, signing it ‘R Mutt 1917’ and exhibiting it in the show with the title ‘Fountain’.

The rest, as they say, is history. Newspaper reports at the time deemed the word ‘urinal’ offensive and referred to it instead as a ‘bathroom appliance’, while leading artists such as realist painter, George Bellows, condemned the work as ‘indecent’. In the end, the exhibition’s governing body decided to show the piece hidden by a screen.

And, to add to this elaborate art hoax, Duchamp had paid the $6 exhibitor’s fee under the pseudonym, R Mutt, and accompanied this with a false address in Philadelphia!

While it may not seem much to look at today, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain changed the art world forever and is credited by many as being one of the most important works of the 20th century.

In short, it changed perceptions of art and paved the way for many conceptual artists in the years that followed. No longer did art have to look like something obvious to be considered worthy – thanks to Duchamp’s practical joke, people visiting an exhibition could now appreciate the thinking behind an artwork too.

most shocking art olympia manet


Boy, did this famous painting rock the boat when it went on show at the Paris Salon in 1865! Critics at the time described this oil painting as ‘vulgar’ and ‘immoral’ thanks to the nude subject’s confrontational gaze (looking directly at the viewer) and the artist’s allegedly ‘blatant’ depiction of a prostitute! They also complained the woman’s slender physique made her look like a young girl and that the numerous objects featured in the painting were clear signs that she was indeed a ‘lady of the night’.

The critics didn’t stop here, though. Many of them also poured scorn on Manet’s painting style, which – with its flat colors and broad brushstrokes – presented a radical departure from the accepted style at the time.

We think Manet probably wasn’t too surprised at the reaction his painting provoked – after all, he’d deliberately set out to depict nature as honestly as possible minus the smoothed out skin tones, soft lighting and idealized image of womanhood seen in many other paintings in this era.

By calling his painting Olympia (a name associated with prostitutes in 1860s Paris), Manet was challenging established attitudes about how females should be portrayed. In fact, if he were alive today, we think he’d be a strong critic of airbrushing and any other creative techniques which gloss over the reality of the human body.

Most Shocking Art And Cultural Impact



While we’re on the subject of portraying the female form in a different light, this painting by the Spanish master and co-founder of Cubism provoked widespread outrage when it was originally exhibited in 1916, with critics and members of the public describing it as ‘immoral’. We think that makes it a likely candidate for our ‘most shocking art’ list, don’t you?


According to reports at the time, Picasso’s main art rival, Henri Matisse, was furious after seeing the painting and claimed his own work had been overshadowed and devalued by Picasso’s ‘hideous whores’!

Not only had Picasso painted five prostitutes, his revolutionary style of depicting them using geometric shapes and bold colors was simply too much for critics and the public at the time, who initially described this now-famous painting as ‘grotesque’.




Feeling squeamish? This frozen sculpture, called Self, was created from nine pints (or 4.5 litres) of the artist’s own blood and caused waves of disgust when it went on show in 1991.

It’s part of an on-going project, where Quinn makes a new blood sculpture every five years in an attempt to record his own ageing process.

Marc’s work explores themes of immortality and death and, despite attracting controversy on a regular basis, continues to be a best seller in the art world.

He is part of a group called Young British Artists, who aim to challenge convention and change the way we see things.

Another famous member of this group is Damien Hirst, who we’ll come to next…

most shocking art damien hirst shark


Created in 1991 and sold to American hedge fund dealer, Steven A Cohen, for a fee rumoured to be as high as $12 million dollars in 2004, this 14ft shark preserved in formaldehyde caused a tsunami in the art world when it went on show.

Art critic, Robert Hughes, described the piece as a perfect example of how the international art market had become a ‘cultural obscenity’, while many others questioned if a dead preserved shark could even be considered art at all!

As with his contemporary Marc Quinn, Hirst likes to explore themes of life and death in his work and has regularly attracted controversy for his provocative approach. When this preserved shark went on show, Hirst’s response to the criticism that ‘anyone could have produced it’ was allegedly: ‘But you didn’t, did you?’

This is only a small list of the many controversial works of art that have made critics and viewers gasp in disbelief and shock throughout the centuries. What do you think about these most shocking art pieces we’ve chosen? Are they purely created to provoke reaction, or do they help break down barriers and change the way we see the world around us?