Banned Art: Historical and Modern Insight into Artistic Censorship

Throughout history, artists have often pushed the boundaries of artistic and social standards through their work, advocating for freedom of expression while addressing social taboos, indecency, and the true definition of art.

Throughout history, artists have often pushed the boundaries of artistic and social standards through their work, advocating for freedom of expression while addressing social taboos, indecency, and the true definition of art. However, society has often found ways to censor vulgar pieces of art in order to assure the public that humanity is inherently decent. Artistic controversy became a prominent feature of the Italian Renaissance. While the Renaissance was a period known for artistic individualism and realistic depictions of the world, it also saw the creation of many contentious pieces of art. For example, Italian sculptor Michelangelo’s painting, The Last Judgement, created sometime between 1536–1541, was “met with immediate controversy from the Counter-Reformation Catholic church,” due to its exposure of nudity, according to History Channel contributor Heather Corcoran. The mural, commissioned by Pope Clement VII, depicted 300 or so nude figures. After Michelangelo’s death, it was put under the fig leaf campaign, where fabric and flora were painted over the offensive anatomy by Michelangelo’s student Daniele da Volterra in an attempt to censor the religious work. The Council of Trent declared that nudity was prohibited in religious art and “all lasciviousness be avoided; in such ways that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.” Religion has long held standards of modesty, and such standards are often imposed onto modern art. Andres Serrano’s Immersion or Piss Christ, created in 1987, ignited animosity among Christians for being offensive. A photograph of a crucifix plunged into a vat of Serrano's urine, Serrano’s piece represents how the overuse and misuse of the cross as a fashion statement or accessory undermines the underlying truth that it represents: a man’s crucifixion. “So if Piss Christ upsets you, maybe it's a good thing to think about what happened on the cross,” Serrano told The Guardian.

Artists even challenge the meaning of art itself through avant-garde pieces. Marcel Duchamp achieved this through the most unconventional of installations: a urinal. His piece Fountain marked a sparked fierce debate, both artistically and intellectually. Duchamp introduced the idea that art is more of an idea or concept rather than a physical item with his upside-down urinal installation. His piece along with many other avant-gardes raise the question: What is considered art? Who gets to make that distinction, the artist or the viewer? Fountain was quickly rejected on the basis that it was not true art as it did not conform to traditional norms.

While artists have often embraced controversial political messages in their art, not all politically inspired art has received criticism. In 1937, the acclaimed artist Pablo Picasso produced his most contentious piece, Guernica. Depicting the devastation caused by the Nazi bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, the painting became a symbol of the tragedy of war, depicting its destructive impact on innocent civilians. Throughout history, artistic censorship has silenced the voices of artists, thereby limiting overall artistic style and content. With the intention of shielding audiences from harmful or inappropriate images and messages, censorship has resulted in art being evaluated based on its appeal to viewers rather than its empowerment of the creators themselves: artists. Despite being bold statements, these pieces we see as unconventional can hold weight and legacy. Guernica, for example, went on tour in Europe, helped raise funds for refugees, and became symbolic of Dresden, Berlin, Hiroshima, and other instances where civilian life was at risk. By uncensoring work, these controversial yet powerful artistic messages allow artists to highlight the complexities and beauty of humanity.

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