How we’re still going through the Dark Ages when it comes to art - Part I in our series on censored art.
“Art is not democratic,” professes, most famously, Richard Serra. When you experience art it doesn’t propel emotion onto you, it evokes something that already lies within. So from that aspect, no one piece of art will be universally pleasing. Despite this, public uproar and disgruntled figures of authority still allow for the censorship of art to the extent of destruction.
Like all pure forms of opinion and rebellion, art is still being censored. To the most faithful of art lovers and freedom fighters, this censorship holds strong resonance to the destruction of non-Christian literature in the Dark Ages and ransacking of beautiful art during the Nazi Era.
Much likethe Victorian censoring of sexual and gender freedom, political commentary is being whitewashed from what could be a rich cultural tapestry of our generation with hands over mouths and social conservatism.
The discernment of censorship is sometimes difficult, because what we now have is a barrier of “appropriate” literature and art to mask that which shakes foundations and parts crowds. Two such works that address different subject matter but have been similarly shunned are the classical L’origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet and an unnamed street art mural by Blu.
L’origine du Monde, Gustave Courbet 1866
This piece was (perhaps more understandably) shunned by society of the late 19th century for its depiction of the origin of the human world – the vagina. While the subject is cut off from the bellybutton as to only view the slightly spread legs and female genitalia, it is not a sexualized image.
Some may argue that the close angle and lack of persona objectifies female sexuality, and if this were the reason for its censorship we would be in a far freer thinking world. However, this little kerfuffle is more to do with the fact that we’re still tender about showing nudity – especially so close up. But the human race does come from women, and unfortunately enough for conservatism, humans can’t reproduce by sheer force of will.
The censorship didn’t stop in the age of Victorian ideals, however, as Facebook banned all pages related to or about the image a couple of years back. Even an article on controversial art has blocked specific, and I would say pretty vital, parts of the image.
Even in this day and age when art galleries can exhibit an artist who has put lipstick on his asshole and “kissed” the canvas, we still try to put classic and really very fundamentally human art at the back of the pile. The anatomical aspect of the painting is no doubt the reason for so much hesitation over its existence, and this fear of exposure and blatant nudity is something we still need to push past for no other reason than the one truth we can all know in this life – that everyone has been naked at some point.
Blu, MoCA 2010
Blu’s mural has a slightly different flavour to L’origine du Monde, and a very relevant geopolitical message. The modernity of the piece no doubt caused a headache for public figures and simultaneously a higher sense of injustice for society because it was so current and relatable.
The piece on the wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, depicted coffins draped by US dollar bills, commenting on the long war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq. The piece approaches the largely recognised and not so largely discussed issue that these casualties of war fundamentally died for US power and wealth – not protection of the country, or honour.
The immediate whitewashing of the piece drew large amounts of attention – a video of said actions can be seen on YouTube. The piece was seen offensive as MoCA is on a historic site, next a monument for those Japanese American soldiers who died in World War II. Art director Jeffrey Dietch reasoned it was inappropriate art in its locational context, which begs the question – how much should certain factors determine the offensiveness of a piece of art?
It might seem like a slap in the face to the Japanese community in the district of MoCA, however perhaps it is better to incite conversation about such things as war, in order to really question whether or not it’s worth losing lives – like those of the Japanese American soldiers – in order to allow countries to win a race towards power vacuums made available in times of distress instead of providing real aid.
The truth proved time and time again with the censorship of art is that a) there is nothing in the world that is truly great that is universally inoffensive and b) censorship (except, unfortunately in the case of Blu’s work) only makes the artwork more sustainable. Perhaps there is small value in censorship because it incites discussion and involves more people in the art world, however it is not worth physically losing culturally poignant images.
Controversy will always be good for art, because art is meant to evoke emotion. As long as there is a debate and a clutch on freedom to deliver images like the two above then the art world will remain culturally relevant – with the rawness that our society desperately requires and contains. We just have to hope that the awareness and will of the people is strong enough to stop destruction and whitewashing of art deemed too controversial to exist.
Read more on censored art here.