Controversy in Art or the Art of Controversy?

How Ya Like Me Now - Hammonds

By Ellie Clarke

As seen in Pegasus Pages (December 2012).

Much of the art that, in the past, has sparked outrage has been a product of the artist’s interpretation of an outrageous period of history. For David Hammons in 1988, his work was a response to the Civil Rights Movement. Having received a commission from the Washington Project of the Arts to create a piece of work appropriate for their exhibition on black culture and modernism, Hammons took a central figure of the movement, Jesse Jackson, and manipulated his billboard painting to feature Jackson as white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and juxtaposed with the rap slogan ‘How Ya Like Me Now?’ by iconic eighties rapper, Kool Moe Dee.

Reverend Jackson first commandeered public attention as a close colleague of Dr Martin Luther King, participating in the Selma to Montgomery marches and continuing to become actively, and perhaps too ambitiously, involved in the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Jackson campaigned twice for the Presidency of the United States (1984, and again in 1988), becoming the second African-American to mount a nationwide campaign for Presidency. His campaign policy was strong in the belief of equal rights and the expansion of a welfare state. What is, thus, so vital about Hammons’ controversial work is that he challenges the notion that the colour of one’s skin can accountably change their politics. He argues that it is all very well for a politician to be rooted in the strife for increased Defence cuts, a system of social welfare and the advancement of civil rights, on the basis that they are white.  What he essentially suggests is that, despite having passed a period of so-called ‘radicalism’, racism still interfered with politics.

The painting had originally been a billboard, located near the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. However, having been attacked with sledgehammers by local African-American youths, who believed the whitewashing of a black politician was racism, it was subsequently restored to a conventional gallery setting. Many argue that the framing of an icon of black political solidarity with hip-hop graffiti was a way in which Hammons comments on the disparity between the civil rights generation and the incipient hip-hop generation. Perhaps black leaders, such as Jackson himself, were prepared to assimilate into a predominately white government. In which case, had their struggles been in vain? Yet, Hammons’ ‘How Ya Like Me Now’ conjures an amalgamation of responses. Some find his portrayal an insult to black political history, whilst others recognise a pressing statement made by Hammons, ultimately, urges us to defy and combat the prejudices made in politics.

Controversial art is by no means inferior or talentless; on the contrary, it inspires the viewer to take a more active part in appreciating art. It’s not like glancing over a Rembrandt, where one might, justifiably, drop their jaw to the ground. Instead, the response to controversial art is limited but extreme. The strong opinions that it can inspire can be diametrically opposed: one viewer may find it profound whilst the other might deem it as trivial.

So, what is controversy and why is it so prevalent in the world of art? Controversy is simply an argument against social convention and it is easy to see how art provides the ideal medium through which one can communicate this. For too long, human expression has been rendered subservient to tradition. Through challenging ‘the norm’, an artist can encourage us to see from an entirely different perspective.

Interested in Art? Love controversial conversation-starters? Contact Ellie Clarke you’re interested in writing for us.


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