The naked truth: A history of art censorship

   |  26 September 2013  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Paris, 26 September 2013, Art Media Agency (AMA).

Art is often understood as a comment upon, or a reflection upon our society. As observers, artists are capable of showing us a mirror of our own actions, beliefs, or political systems. Directly engaged with aesthetics, they are also capable of influencing the way we see our surroundings, or challenging the beliefs of their predecessors.

Placed on public display, art has a particularly potent ability to polarise and offend. Whilst the broad success of artists such as Tracey Emin or Marina Abramovic might suggest we are in a daring era of uncompromised free speech, artists continue to face censorship by political and religious authorities, protestors, and – occasionally – gallerists themselves.

The recent ban of works in countries including Syria and Russia highlight the ongoing difficulties faced by artist who – whether intentionally or not – produce works which provoke. Art Media Agency explored the history of censorship, and its continued impact upon our relationship with art.

Historical examples of censored works

Many works which today are regarded as exemplary or outstanding, were originally subject to censorship by political or religious figures who deemed their content inappropriate or offensive.

In fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy, the strong influence of Catholicism saw a number of artists denounced as irresponsible proponents of the immoral or unholy. In 1565, under orders from Pope Daniele de Volterra, a pupil of Michelangelo made revisions to the Sistine Chapel fresco, The Last Judgement, adding loin cloths to figures which Michelangelo had originally left unclothed. The act earned the promising young artist the nick name “Braghettone” (“the britches-maker”) – an unfortunate diminution of his broader capabilities which would follow him for the duration of his career.

To modern observers, the former Pope’s direction seems amusingly prudish – an admission of an uncomfortable awareness of nudity – and perhaps sexuality – which is far surpassed by the skill, colour, and indeed every other aspect of the work. It seems highly unlikely that contemporary visitors to the Sistine Chapel leave the ancient building with an overwhelming sense that they have been visually assaulted by a surfeit of nude bodies.

And yet, during the 1600s, Michelangelo’s frescoes received a barrage of outraged comments from visitors who saw not skill, but obscenity. Commenting on the work, poet and satirist Pietro Aretino wrote:

“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…”

Though the style of the satirist perhaps demanded Aretino exaggerate his outrage – and the last phrase appears to be an uncensored admission of his propensity for brothels – the writer’s voice was not  isolated. His criticism was echoed by Biagio Cardinal da Cesena, who described the fresco as “a stew of nudes, better suited to a bathhouse or roadside wine shop than the Pope’s chapel”.

The ongoing shock of the nude
Centuries after Michelangelo’s figures were forcibly clothed, nudity continued to shock the public, with new styles of production and differing approaches to the figure perpetuating the idea of the body as a battle ground.

Thought to have been commissioned by Turkish diplomat and collector Khalil-Bey, Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866) has become one of the world’s most famous examples of censorship. Originally part of a collection dedicated to the female figure, the piece was not exhibited in a public institution until 1995, when it joined the permanent collection at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, a flutter of excitement still following the controversial artwork.

Originally thought to have been displayed behind a curtain, the painting passed through several private collections, with its last individual owner being psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Representing the female body as no other “Salon” artist had dared to, The Origin of the World gained mythical status in the arts circles of 19th century Paris, with M. Du Camp, a contemporary of Courbet describing the work as “the final word in realism” – a comment to which he added, facetiously “the artist, who had copied his model in a naturalist manner, had forgotten to render the feet, the legs […] and the head.”

In 1865 – a year before the creation of Courbet’s work – Edouard Manet’s Olympia similarly scandalised Paris, when it was exhibited at the city’s annual salon. The piece depicts a reclining female nude, draped across cushions in a pose which had previously been seen in Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (c. 1510), and Francisco de Goya’s La maja desnuda (circa 1797–1800), known in English as The Naked (or Nude) Maja.

For outraged observers – who described the work as “immoral” and “vulgar” – it was not the nudity of Manet’s subject which was offensive – perhaps because of the classical, conventional arrangement – but her arresting, unwavering gaze. Yet some commentators praised the artist for his honesty, with writer Zola stating:

“When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Edouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.”

Zola’s description of Manet’s work as the “the truth”, heard against voices which described the piece as immoral, encapsulates the complex relationship which observers of the period had with artistic representations of nudity. By this period, Michelangelo’s censored figures had comfortably entered art history tomes as classical – perhaps aspirational – figures. A “classical” understanding of painted nudity had developed, which Manet’s Olympia and Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde directly negated, offering depictions of the human body which acknowledged it’s reality with an offensive pragmatism.

Political censorship
Whilst works depicting nudity have sparked outrage for centuries, works of art which are stifled or destroyed because they offend those in power suggest a desire to control, not just representations of the human body, but of the ideas of a collective group.

Censorship often accompanies pieces which present an uncomfortable truth, responding to, or representing political injustice, conflict, or morality. In regions where political rule is accompanied by tightly-controlled propaganda, artists who seek to veer away from accepted forms of image production present a dangerous unknown, capable of undermining governing forces whilst acknowledging unspoken truths.

Perhaps one of the most prominent contemporary examples of an artist persecuted for political reasons, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei produces works which directly criticise his native government’s approach to democracy and human rights. In April 2011, he was detained for 3 months, with Chinese state media describing the artist as a “deviant and plagiarist” – description prompted by works such as ” 草泥马挡中央 – grass mud horse covering the middle”. Depicting the artist leaping into the air naked, the caption – perhaps abstract or non-sensical to the Western observer – gains a sudden meaning in Chinese, where it sounds dangerously like 肏你妈党中央 – or “Fuck your mother, the Communist party central committee”.

The China Daily subsidiary, The Global Times, released an editorial in response to the arrest on the 6 April 2011, acknowledging, rather than defending, the dangerous nature of Weiwei’s production:

Ai Weiwei likes to do something others dare not do. He has been close to the red line of Chinese law. Objectively speaking, Chinese society does not have much experience in dealing with such persons. However, as long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day.”

The artist’s detention sparked an international protest, with both The United States and the European Union condeming his detention. The international arts community began “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei” – a series of petitions which called for artists to bring chairs to Chinese embassies and consulates across the world on 17 April 2011 to “sit peacefully in support of the artist’s immediate release”.

A street art campaign, incorporating slogans including “Free Ai Weiwei” and “Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei” (the latter acknowledging art’s potential to intimidate and threaten) travelled across Hong Kong and further afield. One of the most prominent proponents of the campaign was London’s Tate Modern, which still has “Release Ai Weiwei” emblazoned across its glass tower in giant lettering.

The censorship of politically-motivated art works can paradoxically increase their visibility. Where work is censored, media bodies may initially respond with a broader focus on the implications for human rights and a right to freedom of expression. This initial investigation, however, will inevitably highlight what it is that censoring bodies originally wished to cover up – a desire to erase which often points towards a significant truth.

In 1982, Syrian doctor and artist Kamal Al-Labwani witnessed the Hama massacre, in which the country’s government crushed the uprising by the Muslim brotherhood – an event which led him to oppose the ruling Ba’ath party and establish the Syrian Liberal Democratic Union. He was arrested in September 2001, after attending a political seminar in the house of fellow activist Riad Seif, before being released in 2004 – a period which allowed him to briefly travel to the US and through the EU, before he was once again arrested upon his return to Damascus in 2005.

Al-Labwani’s paintings reflect upon his experiences in prison, and the Emergency Laws which have been in force in Syria for the past 40 years, focusing on the human rights abuses which affect citizens of the country. His paintings have been exported to the United Kingdom, and he has been supported by bodies such as “Freedom to Create”, which seeks to promote creativity as an essential component of human expression and “just and fair societies”.

Whilst the Syrian artist’s paintings initially sought to respond to the political situation in his country, Al-Labwani’s incarceration increased both the prominence of his works in international media, and the unjust sentence imposed by the Syrian government. His case came to the attention of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in 2009, the body concluding that Dr. Labwani “had been condemned for the peaceful expression of his political views and for having carried out political activities” that are protected under international law, also deeming his trial unfair.

In Russia, a spate of recent arrests and instances of censorship in the art world have paradoxically increased international awareness of the country’s intolerant laws, and the government’s attempts to control its citizens’s free speech. Earlier in September, the Saint Petersburg police were the target of criticism across international media when Vera Donskaya-Khilko’s painting Wrestling – which depicted Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama fighting to prove their manliness – was removed, and the director of the museum which held the work was detained for 24 hours.

This was recently followed by the arrest of performers from the group Pussy Riot, the Moscow-based collective, established in 2011, which seeks to promote women’s rights in Russia, and which has broadly opposed Putin’s leadership. In a period preceding the 5th Moscow Biennale – described as the “La semaine de la censure” (the week of censorship) by the Journal des Arts, t-shirts made by Pussy Riot members Artem Loskutov and Masha Kiselva depicting the group as religious icons were censored, and images of the works were banned online. In the same week, an exhibition at Marat Guelman’s Moscow gallery, featuring photographs of the city’s destroyed buildings, was threatened with closure by authorities who deemed the show’s content offensive.

Open-minded censorship
Whilst examples of censorship in Syria, Russia and China are the direct results of a political regime’s desire to stifle artistic expression, incidences of censorship continue to appear in regions ordinarily connoted with the active promotion of free speech.

In 2010, MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who became renowned for showing some of the most innovative and interesting contemporary art in his eponymous New York gallery for a period of around 15 years, attracted attention after the decision to censor a large-scale work – which he himself had commissioned – by Italian street artist Blu. The latter was asked to produce a large-scale mural at the museum’s entrance, and presented his initial idea in a preliminary sketch: a huge painting of the coffins of war casualties draped, not with American flags, but with dollar bills.

The artist began work whilst Deitch attended Art Basel, though rapidly grew unpopular with the director, who requested Blu paint a different mural over the coffins – an emblem which would be more likely to invite people to come into the museum. The artist refused to compromise his practice, responding to Deitch by stating that he had simply chosen the wrong man for the job. The work was whitewashed shortly after its completion, with LA MoCA justifying its action by stating:

“The Geffen Contemporary building is located on a special, historic site. Directly in front of the north wall is the Go For Broke monument, which commemorates the heroic roles of Japanese American soldiers, who served in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, and opposite the wall is the LA Veterans’ Affairs Hospital”.

Directly engaged with the link between Capitalism and warfare, however, and coinciding with the controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the piece was more prominently a critique of approaches to contemporary conflict, rather than a trivialisation of the actions of war veterans. The work, however, was covered before debate, or critique, could begin.

Nor have we quite overcome the ability to be shocked by the naked form – even in an age which has seen works by Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville. In 2011, experts who carried out the restoration of a mural depicting a 13th century “Tree of Fertility” were accused of attempting to sanitise the piece by scrubbing out the 25 phalluses which had happily hung from the tree’s branches. Restorers denied accusations, stating that the affected areas had been removed due to compromising deposits of salt and calcium. Others, however, were more sceptical, with town councillor Gabriele Galeotti commenting “Many parts of the work seem to have been arbitrarily repainted”.

For those who feel that art should be a forum dedicated to the freedom of expression, censorship is nothing other than problematic. In cases of political censorship, artists are revealed to be socially responsible figures, whose practice seeks to highlight and change the society it comments upon. For others, censorship might represent a means of correcting works which outrage, or which show a purposeful disregard for accepted cultural practice. This was the argument against Blu’s piece from LA’s MoCA, and is often the reaction to controversial pieces by artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman.

The controversy which censorship attracts ultimately raises the question of the artist’s role in society, and the idea that they might have social responsibility. Censorship opens up much broader questions about the role of art as truth, and the problematic implications of forcibly constrained expression. Commenting on the complex nature of the issue at a May conference on censorship, Tate director Nicholas Serota stated:

“We can probably all agree on many of the principles that we seek to uphold. What’s actually much more difficult is to recognise that there are no easy paths, that there are no guarantees by which, and through which, we can preserve this hard fought-for right for the freedom of free expression.”

That art is still capable of provoking political unrest, violent debate, and protest is an attestation of its value and power. It is also an admission of its complexity; inextricably linked to notions of liberty, truth and justice, art seems set to continue to attract the attention of those who would prefer it to be silenced.

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