Censorship in Art February 6, 2020

Did you know that many of the greatest works of art were once the victim of censorship?

By definition, censorship is “the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and removing things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.” Although it may be commonly thought that censorship affects mainly film and literary works, here are a few examples of censorship in art that may surprise you.

Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgement’

Not the most racy of works to contemporary eyes, in 1565, Michelangelo’s beloved Sistine Chapel fresco was deemed unholy and immoral by many proponents of the Catholic faith. Even the Pope, Daniele de Volterra, was appalled by it. This famous fresco depicts naked human souls rising (or falling) to their eternal fates. Critics of the day thought the work to be immoral and obscene. 

16th century poet, Pietro Aretino, said of Michelangelo’s fresco: “Is it possible that you, so divine that you do not deign to consort with men, have done such a thing in the highest temple of God? Above the first altar of Jesus? Not even in the brothel are there such scenes as yours…” So incensed were authorities, that they commissioned one of Michelangelo’s pupils to paint loin cloths on the nude figures.

Edouard Manet’s ‘Olympia’

Of course, public sensibility changes over time. Eventually, nude figures such as in Michelangelo’s fresco became socially accepted, and even admired. Lounging nudes would be seen in works, for example, by Titian and Giorgione. But even so, it was assumed the nudes were to be portrayed in an iconic, Grecian style, rather than as ‘real’ looking people.

However, 1865, Manet chose to portray nudity in the ‘everyday’, realistic style. In his painting, Olympia, the nude figure stares head-on at the viewer, displaying her form in all its natural beauty. The work was allowed to be exhibited in Paris’ in 1865, but two policemen had to be assigned to protect the canvas from possible defacement by public outcry.

Frederick MacMonnies’ ‘Bacchante and Infant Faun’

In 1894, MacMonnies’ bronze statue, Bacchante Holding a Child’, sparked outrage when an architect attempted to install the work in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union expressed disapproved at the “drunken indecency” on display. Their protests led to the piece being relocated to New York city. Today, it resides proudly in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s ‘The Perfect Moment’

Nearly a century later, Mapplethorpe’s 1989 sexually explicit black-and-white photography sparked a national controversy over artistic merit and freedom of expression. The scheduled exhibit, The Perfect Moment’ ended up being cancelled before it even began. A posthumous, 2013 exhibition, entitled “Saints and Sinners”, commemorated the 25th anniversary of the controversial moment.

Scott Tyler’s ‘What is the Proper Way to Display the US Flag?’

Also in 1989, Scott Tyler, an art student at the Chicago Institute of Arts, organized an art installation in which viewers could not reach a photography book at the center of the show without stepping on an American flag. Some viewers were even arrested for doing so. The installation had its high-profile critics. President Bush called the work “disgraceful”. Senator Bob Dole exclaimed: ”Now, I don’t know much about art, but I know desecration when I see it.” The artist himself was subsequently arrested for burning an American flag.

2014: Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B” censorship

Bailey’s controversial 2014 installation replicated the “human zoos” that existed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The intent was to force viewers to confront a heinously racist moment in history. However, many accused the exhibition, which featured black actors in cages and chains, of being racist itself. The piece was to run at London’s Barbican Centre. It was cancelled due to protests.

“It has not been my intention to alienate people with this work,” Bailey wrote in The Guardian soon after. “To challenge perceptions and histories, yes. Explicitly to offend, no.”

I suppose there will always be calls for censorship in art. After all, one of art’s most valuable function is to ‘push the boundaries’. This is what I love about art. Incredibly powerful, it has the ability to strike emotion and passion in the viewer. More importantly, it compels the viewer, and society at large, to confront and question the nature of beauty, morality, and the human experience. I hope you’ll discover that my art moves or inspires you in some way, too. Click here, to find even more examples of art censorship.  

« Snow Art
Sea to Sky »