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Before you begin reading this paper, look through the appendix. Are you shocked? Disgusted? Intrigued? Viewers of such controversial artwork often experience a wide spectrum of reactions ranging from the petrified to the pleased. Questions may arise within the viewer regarding the artistic merit and legitimacy of this unorthodox artwork. However, art's primary purpose, according to Maya Angelou, “is to serve humanity. Art that does not increase our understanding of this particular journey or our ability to withstand this particular journey, which is life, is an exercise in futile indulgence” (Buchwalter 27). To expand on Angelou's analogy, because everyone experiences a different life journey, art is different to everyone. In other words, art is subjective to the viewer. The viewer creates his own definition of what is art and what is not art. Some may recognize the artistic value of a piece of artwork, while others may find it obscene. Some may praise the artwork, while others will protest it. Censorship is derived from these differing perspectives on artwork. Through censorship, communities seek to establish boundaries and criteria that limit an artist's ability to produce “proper” artwork. However, some artists choose to ignore these boundaries in order to expand the scope of art and, in their view, better serve humanity.
At first glance, Western society appears to have changed significantly since the nineteenth-century. Today, industrialized nations enjoy more efficient transportation, communication, medical care, and manufacturing than they did in the nineteenth-century. But have our core values changed? While the Western world has changed considerably, people's opinions of the core values and morality is well-preserved since the nineteenth-century. This assertion becomes apparent when one compares the standards by which Western society judges what is considered artwork. While today's definition and criteria of censorship in a Western art museum is unchanged since the nineteenth-century, the act of censorship has changed with museums and their role in society.
Societies often struggle to define censorship. Interestingly, the nineteenth-century did not explicitly define the word “censorship” as Westerners understand it today. The nineteenth-century's definition of censorship is “the office of a censor” and the definition of censor is “an officer of Rome who had the power of correcting manners” (Johnson 112).
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A modern definition of censorship is the “suppression of information, ideas, or artistic expression by anyone, whether government officials, church authorities, private pressure groups, or speakers, writers, or artists themselves” (Grolier 246). This definition states that “anyone” can perform censorship, as opposed to the nineteenth-century definition in which “an officer” performs censorship. These definitions already indicate some differences in the act of censorship. The nineteenth-century definition suggests “officers” or governing bodies, while the modern definition states that “anyone,” including the public, has the power of censorship.
Today, one might expect that censorship can not occur because the courts have affirmed personal rights and freedoms, especially through the Constitution's First Amendment declaring freedom of speech. However, obscenity is not protected by First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court defined obscenity in the landmark case Roth v. United States (1957): (a) Sex and obscenity are not synonymous. Obscene material is material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest -- i.e., material having a tendency to excite lustful thoughts. (b) It is vital that the standards for judging obscenity safeguard the protection of freedom of speech and press for material which does not treat sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest. (c) The standard for judging obscenity is whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, appeals to prurient interest. Therefore, artwork perceived by some as obscene can be censored, even though others may not find it obscene. The community in which the artwork is displayed decides the definition of obscenity. In contrast, the public of the nineteenth-century were excluded by the government from the censorship process and did not have the power to declare artwork obscene.
Censorship is not a phenomenon limited to the nineteenth-century and today, in fact, it has been traced as far back as 3400-2900 BC in Egyptian artwork. The rules governing Egyptian art were followed so strictly that they were referred to as “The Canon” (Clapp 15). Since that time, artwork has been censored, restricted, burned, condemned, and banished. When the Roman Catholic Church dominated the Western world from approximately 600 AD to 1500 AD, the church wielded incredible influence over the standards of literature and artwork. However, control of censorship and artwork standards eventually shifted over to the rulers, museums, and the public.
While the criteria for censorship are practically unchanged since the nineteenth-century, artwork styles have certainly changed. The nineteenth-century art styles of Romanticism and Realism are unlike today's Expressionism and Surrealism (Loggia). Despite these changes in artistic styles, throughout history, censorship appears to label the same subject matter as obscene. Looking at specific pieces of artwork that have been censored reveals four major features or themes of artwork that are often targets of censorship: politics; religion; social movements and social problems; and sex and nudity. Analyzing these specific pieces as well as describing how they were censored will further illustrate that the criteria for offensive material is static while the method of censorship is dynamic.
The first group targeted for censorship is that which is politically offensive. Edouard Manet's The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (Appendix 1.1) is an example of a nineteenth-century politically offensive painting. The piece depicts a scene in which guerillas capture Maximilian, a Hapsburg Archduke, and his generals. This ominous scene foreshadows his execution. Manet's painting was considered an attack on Napoleon III's decision to remove French troops from Mexico leaving Maximilian vulnerable to the rebel insurgence. Therefore, the Salon's jury counterattacked with “direct political censorship” (House 185). Manet was informed that if he submitted his work to the Salon, it would be rejected. This preemptive refusal differed from past rejections because his rejected artwork still appeared in the Salon des Refuses. Manet found other channels to display this piece when he submitted it to the Städtische Kunsthalle in Mannheim (186).
David Nelson's Mirth and Girth (Appendix 1.2) and Dread Scott's What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? (Appendix 1.3) are modern examples of politically offensive artwork. David Nelson's Mirth and Girth depicts deceased Chicago mayor, Harold Washington, in a “woman's brassiere, panties, garter belt and hosiery” (Dubin 29). After a stir at an exhibition for the School of The Art Institute of Chicago, an alderman “arrested” the painting and removed it from the building (28). The painting was eventually returned but with a gash across it (28). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an organization founded in the twentieth-century, was victorious in a case seeking damages for violating Nelson's freedom of speech (NCAC). Dread Scott's What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? is an installation piece in which the viewer must trample on the US flag in order to see a patriotic-themed photograph of the US flag. The viewer can write comments in the book below the photograph. The installation appeared at a School of The Art Institute of Chicago exhibition and caused an outbreak of protests because of the installation's defamation of the US flag. Although the artist's First Amendment rights were upheld in court, the School of The Art Institute of Chicago's “government funding was cut from $70,000 to $1 and many benefactors pulled donations” (NCAC). The control over funding has only recently become a tool of control for modern censorship.
The second group of censored artwork is religiously offensive art. The nineteenth-century example of religiously offensive artwork is Courbet's The Return from the Meeting (Appendix 2.1). This painting depicts “drunken cures lurching down a country road” (House 193). The work's censorship can be attributed to its mockery of religious leaders. When Courbet submitted this piece, it was rejected by both the Salon and the Salon des Refuses in 1863 (192). In addition, photographs of the work were censored because it was feared the illiterate “dangerous classes” would be influenced by its apparent message against the Catholic Church (193). This is a case in which all outlets for the paintings display were blocked by those in power. Unable to adequately exhibit his painting, Courbet was forced to sell it. Thus, another type of censorship occurred when the painting was purchased by a Catholic in 1900 and subsequently destroyed (193).
Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (Appendix 2.2) and Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary (Appendix 2.3) are examples of modern artwork that have been censored due to religious obscenity. Andres Serrano's Piss Christ is a photograph of a plastic Jesus Crucifix in a jar of urine (Dubin 96). The artwork did not elicit a public response until it was discovered that his exhibition of photographs was partially-funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a government agency dedicated to “enrich[ing] our Nation …by supporting works of artistic excellence, advancing learning in the arts, and strengthening the arts in communities throughout the country” (NEA). Congress, led by Jesse Helms, punished the NEA for its role in the creation of “obscene” or “offensive” pieces of art by “cutting funding by $45,000” (Dubin 100).
Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary is another modern example of censored artwork that faced scrutiny for being religiously offensive. The Holy Virgin Mary depicts the Virgin Mary as a black woman “spotted with small cutouts from pornographic magazines and with carefully placed, lacquered dung, perhaps a representation of the Virgin as sacred and profane” (Becker 18). The Brooklyn Museum of Art's exhibition called Sensation was controversial even before the exhibition opened. As the public discovered the content of the future exhibition, protests erupted in support of either “religious conservatives and their right-winged political representatives [or] morally suspect artists promoted by elite liberals in the art world” (Rothfield 1). Deeming the Holy Virgin Mary “anti-Catholic,” New York City Mayor, Rudy Giuliani threatened to cut the museum's funding and eject the institution from its building (NCAC). Before the Mayor could destroy the “least elitist of New York cultural institutions,” a federal court reaffirmed the museum's right to free speech and funding (Becker 15). The exhibit finally opened to the public so that they could decide for themselves whether the works were obscene or not. Dennis Heiner, “a seventy-two-year-old devout Catholic,” decided that the public should not have the right to view the painting and covered it with white paint (15). Both Rudy Giuliani and Dennis Heiner attempted to employ censorship to suppress an image that they personally believed to be obscene. Thus, the modern individual, from the politically powerful to the regular citizen, has the power to censor artwork.
The third group of censored artwork brings social movements or social problems to public attention. Usually, the artwork is censored by opposition groups that find the social movement or social problem morally offensive or obscene. The nineteenth-century example of censored artwork that illustrates a social movement is Egg's Past and Present (Appendix 3.1-3.3). Past and Present consists of a series of three paintings. In the first picture, the husband discovers his wife's infidelity. The second and third pictures take place years later at the same moment upon the husband's recent death. One picture shows the children alone in the home; the other picture shows their mother living under the Adelphi Terrace arches in London (Warner 106-107). The paintings “illustrate the tensions in Victorian culture between morality and sexuality” (107). Egg's “moral narrative on social issues” was successful in drawing public attention to the need to address gender roles and their consequences such as divorce (106). The dejected woman in the third picture, most likely contemplating suicide, is a result of legislation that allows a man to divorce his wife without compensation for adultery (107). Egg's Past and Present was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1853 (Tate Gallery). While there was little direct censorship, some critics claimed it was “unhealthy” in its “misery and loathsomeness” and discouraged many viewers from seeing this controversial work (Tate Gallery). The story of this series of paintings conveys how some members of the public can convince other people that a piece of artwork is obscene.
Robert Mapplethorpe's traveling photography exhibition called The Perfect Moment (Appendix 3.4, 3.5) is a modern example of controversial artwork that brings both a social movement and a social problem to public attention. Throughout Mapplethorpe's career, he used his artwork to publicize homosexuality and the gay liberation movement which seeks to “link homosexual freedom to a larger vision of revolutionary change in all hierarchies of social, economic, and sexual power” (Meyer 159). Robert Mapplethorpe also used his artwork to increase awareness of AIDS, both inside and outside the gay community. The Perfect Moment was slated to be on exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art when the director, Christina Orr-Cahall, canceled three-weeks prior to its opening (206). Her decision was a result of pressure from Republican senators, such as Senator Jesse Helms, and the American Family Association, a conservative Christian organization (206). A protest was held outside the museum on the night that Mapplethorpe's exhibition was scheduled to open, and his photographs were projected on the museum's façade near the inscription “Dedicated to Art” (207). The conservative factions of the public did not achieve their goal; in fact, the censorship of The Perfect Moment resulted in Robert Mapplethorpe's artwork becoming more widely known. Ironically, in this case, “the prohibition of homoerotic imagery serves not only to suppress but also to provoke and produce that imagery” (161). A similar event occurred when the same exhibition visited the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) in Cincinnati. The same day the exhibition opened, both the CAC and the director were indicted on obscenity charges. They were acquitted, but the case raised many questions regarding the National Endowment of the Arts' (NEA) funding of controversial artwork.
The fourth group of commonly censored artwork is art which depicts sex and nudity. A nineteenth-century case of censorship due to nudity took place at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Charles Peale, one of the Academy's founders, fought “a running battle with local prudery” because of the nudity of classic sculptures (Clapp 106). About a year later when plaster casts of famous nude statues arrived from the Louvre, the Academy set Monday as a “ladies only” day in which the “indecent statues” were draped in cloth (107). The Society of Artists in Philadelphia condemned the exhibition as “extremely indecorous and altogether inconsistent with the purity of republican morals” (107). A specific group of people can be prevented from viewing obscene material. This response shows how specific groups, such as women, were excluded from viewing controversial material.
David Wojnarowicz's Sex Series (Appendix 4.1) represents a modern example of artwork censored due to its depiction of nudity and homoerotic art. Like Mapplethorpe, Wojnarowicz used his artwork to increase AIDS awareness. Sex Series are several photographs that “contain small circular insets with scenes of homosexual and heterosexual lovemaking, images of technology, military action, money, and blood cells. These are situated within larger images of travel, nature, and domesticity, the whole of which Wojnarowicz printed in the photographic negative” (Spooner 350). In response to this artwork, the American Family Association (AFA) attacked Wojnarowicz and the NEA for “supporting pornographic, anti-Christian works of art” (344). In Wojnarowicz's defense, although the Sex Series “does use pornographic images, that does not make them pornography, since their intended context is one of emotional and intellectual, not primarily sexual, stimulation” (348-349). There is a thin line between the distinction of art and pornography. Artists, such as Wojnarowicz, test these boundaries to expand our perception of art.
Although the definition and criteria of censorship is unchanged since the nineteenth-century, museums have changed internally as well as in their external appearance to society. James McNeill Whistler accurately describes nineteenth-century museum interiors when he stated that “now my [museum] rooms are pictures in themselves.” The basic elements found in the nineteenth-century museum support Whistler's distinctions. The museum's walls and ceilings were usually painted light pastel colors such as pink, blue, and yellow with painted decorations in the walls' corners (The Freer Gallery of Art). Similar in function to the molding reaching around the rooms' perimeter, the thick and gilded frames surrounding the pictures were almost pieces of artwork themselves (The Freer Gallery of Art). The flower arrangements, high seating capacity, fireplaces, and ceiling decorations all catered to the social aspects of the museums (The Freer Gallery of Art). The museum was just as much a place to be seen, as it was a place to see artwork. In the nineteenth-century, artistic merit came second to the quantity of artwork. Quantity of artwork took such precedence that the artwork in these museums was arranged from “floor-to-ceiling in a tapestry-like style” (Prior 29). The audience of the nineteenth-century art museum is also different from that of today. Even though museums were intended for the entire public, they became a popular destination for the emerging middle class. The middle class sought to distinguish itself from the lower class and prevented these “barbarians” from gaining access to the museums. Eventually, these museums did open to the entire public.
Comparing today's modern museum to the nineteenth-century museum, one discovers several differences. The walls are now painted white; the artwork has no frames; there is limited seating; and one finds little social distractions from the artwork (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden). As opposed to the nineteenth-century museum's attention to quantity of artwork, the merit of the artwork is the modern museum's main emphasis. Furthermore, dedicating an entire wall to one piece of artwork is not unusual. Unlike the nineteenth-century museum, the audience of a publicly-owned museum is seldom restricted.
Over time, censorship has changed in the way it is conducted. This transition can be attributed to the evolution of the museum and its role in society. In the nineteenth-century museum, the patron's focus on the artwork was distracted by the museum's social elements and its admiration of the quantity of artwork rather than the artwork's artistic worth. The public's detachment from the artwork resulted in the public's limited involvement in censorship. Instead, the government assumed this role, through force or “democratic” juries. In order to maintain the appearance of being a democratic government juries were tasked with exercising censorship. However, often times these juries were merely an extension of the government. The mostly bourgeois jury's purpose was to “exclude works whose composition would harm morality by expressing or overtly seeking to recall memories or excite passions contrary to the principles of the government and public calm” (Childs 189). Similar to the economy's rapid industrialization, the juries reflect an industrialized, organized method of censorship.
In contrast to the nineteenth-century, the federal government has a limited role in censorship. The Supreme Court took the initiative to define obscene and reaffirm First Amendment rights, but opted to leave the act of censorship to local, city, and state authorities. The government's control over funding of museums and art institutions makes them influential in decisions regarding appropriate content. However, after studying the modern examples of censorship, even these smaller governments have had little success in the actual censorship of artwork. The courts have overwhelmingly ruled in favor of protecting artists' freedom of speech. Today, the power of censorship lies with the people. From one individual to a group of individuals, it is the public that can influence museums, politicians, governments, interest groups, artists, and themselves to label artwork obscene and, thus, perform censorship.
As long as artists continue to create artwork that is both profound in artistic merit and obscene by community standards, censorship will remain controversial. At the core of the debate lies the question: What is art? This question is and always will be unanswerable. For some, art may be a still-life painting of flowers, while for others it may be a painting of Jesus shooting up heroin (Appendix 5.1). Art is a paradox: as artists strive to express their own vision of humanity, the audience conceives unique, varying interpretations ranging from the obscene to the insightful. The individual creates his own distinction of art. Censorship aims to standardize these distinctions. However, limiting art is limiting humanity.
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