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History of Art Censorship

A Short Timeline


There's a name for uncontroversial visual art: decoration. Visual art that challenges audiences also tends to challenge censors, and the history of art is replete with examples of critics who, often with government backing, have targeted the production, sale, and display of visual art whose values conflicts, or appears to conflict, with their own.


Under orders from the Pope, Daniele de Volterra, a pupil of Michelangelo, revises his controversial Sistine Chapel fresco titled The Last Judgment. Michelangelo had been harshly criticized for the nudity in the fresco, most notably by the poet and satirist Pietro Aretino, who 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...
This 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." de Volterra's revision of the masterpiece, which took place after Michelangelo's death in 1564, earned the promising young artist the nickname "Il Braghettone" ("the britches-maker"), and tainted the rest of his career.


Édouard Manet's Olympia scandalizes the Paris Salon, not because of the nudity—a common theme in artwork of the period—but because it depicted its subject, fellow artist Victorine Meurent, in an ordinary and earthy way. The nudity of other contemporaneous work was not regarded as pornographic because it depicted the human body in an idealized way—but the nudity in Olympia depicted a naked woman, perhaps even a common prostitute, and did so in a manner that Manet's audience found to be a little too realistic.


The notorious American censor Anthony Comstock orders the arrest of New York City curator Edmund L. Knoedler on grounds of "trafficking in improper pictures." The allegedly improper pictures in question were paintings by the contemporary French painter Jean-Jacques Henner, which included some nudes. Comstock was unimpressed with the idea that classical art should be considered exempt from obscenity law. In his 1883 work Traps for the Young, Comstock condemned such work:
The natural outgrowth of corrupt minds of past ages, [such paintings] are reproduced, and instead of being confined within the narrow restrictions of "art gallery" or "museum," they are now parded before the eyes of the public, flaunting their shame indiscriminately, whether youth are debauched or not. "Fine art" has lent its charms to pictures of lust, intensifying their power for evil, and finding an apology for them before the public. The death-dealing powers of strychnine are the same whether administered as a sugar-coated pill or in its natural state. So no embellishment of art can rob lust of its power for evil upon the human nature. The same black stain appears, whether coarse and lewd or traced in lines of beauty. The latter is the more insidious ...

Recognizing the principle "that whatsoever a man soweth he shall also reap," there are many men who hunt out from the "fine arts" the most lascivious pictures and scenes, in order to cater to this low appetite of the public ... Accordingly Pompeii, the art galleries, and the museums of Europe are explored to find some new work of an obscene character that they can reproduce, which shall possess the quality to satisfy this low taste, and yet shall be labelled "art" for their protection.
Although Comstock's position would be considered radical today, his popularity during his lifetime suggests that it was a sentiment that many Americans shared.


We would be hard pressed to find a more apt modern-day analogue to Anthony Comstock than Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who singled out openly gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in his criticism of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). "There's a big difference between The Merchant of Venice," Helms said at the time, "and a photograph of two males of different races on a marble table top ... This Mapplethorpe fellow was an acknowledged homosexual ... the theme goes throughout his work." Helms' criticism drew more public attention to Mapplethorpe's work, increasing its national profile and cementing his position among the most influential photographers of his generation.
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