In an interview with the A.V. Club posted on 16 September 1999, Yoko Ono said, “Controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity.” The American artist who is most famous for her perceived involvement in breaking up the Beatles is certainly no stranger to controversy, but it seems there may be instances where controversy could be detrimental to the appreciation of art and the artist who created it. An example of such would be the March 2015 claim by renowned portrait artist Nelson Shanks that he surreptitiously included the shadow of Monica Lewinsky’s dress in a portrait of President William Jefferson Clinton he was commissioned to paint for the National Portrait Gallery.
There are certainly multiple considerations to ponder following this highly respected painter’s bizarre claim. One of the first which comes to mind is that Shanks was commissioned to paint this portrait — paid to produce a work fitting in quality and decorum to hang among other portraits depicting past leaders of the free world in this prestigious gallery. Considering that Shanks’ painting of President Clinton was a commissioned work, Shanks’ revelation comes off as unprofessional if not downright nefarious. The best analogy which comes to mind is if you hire a baker to create your wedding cake, which he does, except that a few years later he holds a press conference where he tells you and everyone else that he spit in it. Anyone seeking to commission a high-profile portrait in the future will not be calling on Mr. Nelson Shanks.
The Last Judgment
But if it is true as Yoko Ono stated, that “controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity,” then what is the precedent for the actions of Shanks— for deliberately infusing controversy in commissioned artwork? Perhaps the most famous example would be Michelangelo’s fresco above the altar in the Sistine Chapel. Entitled “The Last Judgment,” Pope Clement VII commissioned the legendary artist and sculptor Michelangelo to create this piece, which Michelangelo began working on 30 years after his work on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was completed. The controversy surrounding “The Last Judgment” is arguably what gives this fresco much of its notoriety.
In “The Last Judgment,” Michelangelo combines Christian imagery with characters from Greek mythology to depict the second coming of Christ and the judgment of man which follows. The fresco was generally controversial due to the nudity of its subjects; however, particularly harsh criticism of the unfinished fresco from one critic in particular, Baigio da Cesena, led Michelangelo to immortalize him as Minos, one of three judges of the underworld. The unflattering nature of this depiction was rendered complete with a snake biting the groin of Minos. Apart from this depiction, Michelangelo also immortalizes the likeness of Pope Paul III as St. Peter, and includes his own self-portrait more than once. But it is the unflattering depiction of Baigio da Cesena, a papal master of ceremonies, which comes to mind as analogous to the mockery of President Clinton in the portrait painted by Nelson Shanks.
According to Yoko Ono, “Controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity.” One seeking an example of this arguably should look no further than Nelson Shanks’ inclusion of the shadow of Monica Lewinsky’s dress in his portrait of President Clinton. The legendary artist and sculptor Michelangelo similarly painted controversy into his commissioned fresco known as “The Last Judgement.” Even so, the fact that Shanks intentionally painted something unflattering in a commissioned work — something he knew would be considered inappropriate — should still serve to garner the attention he must have been seeking, as well as make patrons think twice before offering him another serious commission.