Slashed, Vandalised, Rejected: Censorship in the Art world

Last summer, contemporary art favourite Anish Kapoor had the honour of creating artworks to exhibit in the grandiose gardens of Versailles, and one of his sculptures in particular attracted a lot of attention. The shape of the large steel structure, surrounded by rocks, was reminiscent of our favourite female body part and therefore received the nickname 'the Queen’s Vagina'. This large statue was vandalised several times by angry, conservative Frenchmen who thought the artwork was sacrilegious. And this wasn’t the only recent case of art vandalism by offended conservatives in France. In 2014 a work by Paul McCarthy, depicting a green, abstract Christmas tree was also vandalised because it’s shape reminded right-wing protesters of a butt plug, which was a form they couldn’t really appreciate.

Artists have fought for the right of artistic freedom for centuries. But apparently artworks in the public sphere that have roused strong reactions and garnered a ‘need’ for censorship are not uncommon. Unfortunately history teaches us that this artistic freedom has never been fully respected. Banning art goes actually waaaaay back. 

Michelangelo’s famous Last Judgement (1541) was seen as unholy by the Catholic Church because there were just too many nudies. A pupil of Michelangelo was therefore asked to paint pieces of fabric onto the nude figures. The naked men were now ‘fully-dressed’ according to the 16th century Renaissance fashion, but Michelangelo´s art was never to be in his true vision. Manet´s nude, Olympia (1863) was seen as very vulgar in the 19th century, due to her penetrating gaze at the spectator and her highly realistic representation. The painting had to be moved to a high spot on the wall because the public kept on attacking the work. Again, nudies were not appreciated.

But if we go forward in time - back to the future if you will - to the end of the 20th century, artworks were hotly debated when it came to freedom of speech. Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ (1987), which depicts a crucified Jesus, submerged by the artist’s own urine, was banned from a museum in the United States because it was said to “dishonour the Lord”. Apparently, artistic freedom wasn’t valued highly enough and Serrano’s publicly funded grant was taken away. Even in present times the work is still surrounded by controversy. In 2011 a group of ‘pissed’ people attacked it with a hammer, not feeling very pleased by the work being shown publicly.

Chris Ofili´s work The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) was also the reason for a catfight, art world style. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made the museum remove the piece, which depicted an African Virgin Marry made out of elephant shit. He proceeded to file a lawsuit against the museum that sought to evict it from a lease it had held for over a century, in addition to cutting the funding it received from the city of New York. In another case of censorship in the arts, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's traveling solo exhibition in 1989 brought national attention to the issues of public funding for the arts, as well as questions of censorship and the obscene. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC had agreed to be one of the host museums for the tour. But due to the homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes of some of the works and the reactions that were expected, the show was cancelled before it even began.

And it’s not only the public or museums that have reacted strongly to the content or visual appearance of artworks; some governments also feel the need to ban certain artworks. Ai Weiwei’s porcelain sunflowers were removed from an exhibition due to pressure from the Chinese government because of the artist’s political engagement and for the way he speaks critically about his country. Ai Weiwei was arrested in 2011, and after having spent 81 days in prison he was allowed to exchange his striped outfit for a ball and chain and wasn’t able to leave China for over four years.

Even today, old master paintings can still be seen as controversial. Exactly 150 years ago, when Gustave Courbet painted L'Origine du monde (1886), a pubic close-up of a female with spread legs; it shocked the public big time. The work was definitely NSFW back then and apparently still considered NSFW today. In 2011, Facebook removed all images of this painting from its website and also suspended the Facebook accounts that had posted it.

So the question here is: who decides what is "obscene" or "offensive" in public exhibitions? And if art can be considered a form of free speech, which is a fundamental right, can revoking federal funding on grounds of obscenity or religion be seen as a violation of human rights? And when a museum is declining to show artworks because it states a certain opinion that is not shared by everyone, isn’t that simply called censorship? To this day, these questions remain very much at issue. At the Public House of Art it is believed that true freedom of expression should be the standard. End of discussion.

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