Vault of Expression – Censorship of Nude Art

by Sheila Moore

Up until 1835 when Louis Daguerre invented the first practical process of photography, depictions of nudity consisted of paintings and drawings. At this time, the culture’s morality allowed for nude photography only if it was created for artists’ studies, which led to the still pertinent question – what makes a photograph, drawing, painting, or sculpture ‘art’ versus ‘pornography?’

Photo by Roger Wollstadt of Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Accademia de Bell’Arte in Florence; censored by yours truly.

Public outcry of perceived “immoral” art often leads to knee-jerk reactions from private and public organizations, and governments who immediately ban their display. Charges are sometimes dropped, or the decision is over-turned after authorities take time to investigate the facts accordingly.

In 1969, US customs agents in Baltimore confiscated works containing images of genitalia en route from Europe for an exhibition. Later, both the trial court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the works had artistic value, and were not legally ‘obscene.’

In 2008, police seized photographs of naked adolescents, taken by the critically acclaimed artist, Bill Henson, from an exhibition at Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and from the Albury Regional Art Gallery in New South Wales. Authorities planned to charge Henson under the Child Protection Act until the country’s Classification Board ruled that Henson’s art was suitable for general release, including on websites.

Early History of Photography Censorship

Photography censorship dates back to the late 1800s when picture-postcards allowed people to send images across national borders.  From 1873-1874 alone, Anthony Comstock, Special Agent of the US Post Office, seized 194,000 “bad pictures and photographs” (and 5,500 indecent playing cards.)  The legal availability of a postcard image in one country did not guarantee that the card would be considered “proper” in the destination country, or in the intermediate countries through which the card would have to travel. Surprisingly, similar issues still occur today, some one hundred and thirty years later.

For example, on June 12, 2007, Flickr.com implemented a three-part user rating system for filtering out potentially controversial photos. Simultaneously, users with accounts registered with Yahoo subsidiaries in Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Korea were prevented from viewing photos rated “moderate” or “restricted.” Many Flickr users, particularly in Germany, protested against the new restrictions, claiming unwanted censorship from Flickr and Yahoo.

Image from Andréia Bohner.

Currently, Flickr clearly states, “If your login ID is based in Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Korea or with Maktoob.com, you will only be able to view safe content based on your local Terms of Service (this means you won’t be able to turn SafeSearch off.) If your login ID is based in Germany or Romania, you are not able to view restricted content due to your local Terms of Service.”

Censorship in the 20th and 21st Centuries

In 1966, a Gustav Metzger exhibition was raided in London. The artist was charged with putting on an ‘indecent exhibition’ and fined £100; works by Eduardo Paolozzi were confiscated from London’s Robert Fraser Gallery, and Fraser was charged under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 and fined twenty guineas.

In 1989, an exhibition by Robert Mapplethorpe at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Philadelphia, led to a lengthy court case in which the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and its director were charged with exhibiting pornography. The exhibition was cancelled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and Congress declared the ICA ineligible for National Endowment for the Art (NEA) grants for five years.

In 1992, The Wall Street Journal censored one of the photographs from Sally Mann’s controversial book, Immediate Family, by covering up the four year-old subject’s eyes, nipples and pubic area.

In 2007, in Gujarat, student Chandra Mohan was arrested after his paintings were deemed ‘obscene’ because they featured male nudes. The dean of the arts faculty at the university was also suspended for opposing the student’s arrest.

In 2010, Savannah College of Art and Design removed a photograph of a sitting male nude holding and partially covering his genitals photographed by fourth-year student Nicole Craine. College administrators said the content would be ‘unacceptable’ for a ‘family event’.

For more, see Art Under Fire by Aubrey Beardsley in the Index on Censorship Magazine, and Caslon Analytics.

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Banned Books in Tucson Give Rise to Librotraficantes

The book-banning debacle that occurred in Tucson earlier this year has garnered wide attention and criticism, so I won’t spend much time here explaining the ins and outs of what happened, only to say it’s astonishing to me that an entire school district has banned books whose topics pertain to Mexican-American history. I’m reminded of the slaves who populated this country hundreds of years ago but not that long ago—an entire class of people forbidden to learn how to read lest they discover the injustices already carved in their souls sanctioned in the written word; lest they learn that not everyone believed, as did their “owners,” that slavery was a just and right system.

In college I had the good fortune to enroll in a course called “A History of Mexico,” where I learned of the rich, thousands-years history of our neighboring country: pyramids to rival those in Egypt; the oldest university–National University of Mexico–in all of North America; the amazing giant heads sculpted by the Olmecs; the brain surgery performed by the Aztecs. Mexico is one of the most culturally rich nations in the world, and the following summer I traveled there as a translator, delighting in my newfound ability to recognize landmarks and monuments, the features of famous men eternalized in bronze. I have a weakness for revolutionaries, so it should come as no surprise my favorite Mexican hero was, and is, Zapata, a man who led an uprising against a terribly unjust debt-slavery system.

Here, in the states, we have a plethora of Mexican-American icons: Lori Piestewa, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Ester Hernandez, Martín Ramírez, Carlos Santana, Jimmy Baca Santiago and Ana Castillo, to name but a few. If students in Tucson aren’t granted access to their own history, aren’t taught the countless contributions made by these fine people and others, gifts that have enriched this country—a land traversed by their ancestors long before a European ever set foot in North America—how will they know that deep inside them lives a reservoir of the same great potential?

This is my biggest fear. It’s also the reason the people responsible for the book-banning caravan, a group of librotraficantes that have bussed in $20,000 worth of books in the form of an underground library, are my new heroes. The movement has been likened to the civil rights movement of the ᾽60s, and the historical import can’t be lost on anyone paying attention. I can only hope the politicians in Tucson are paying attention too—and that when the next election cycle rolls around, those who stood in the way of progress, liberty and justice will find themselves without a platform to foist their bigotry into the very place where equitable pursuits should always reside: in our schools.

Timeless Notes ~ Censorship in Music

by JV Myka

America in the 1950’s dealt with the coarse issue of “Rock” music and the consensus was split on whether said material was dirty, obscene or simply expressive. In those days, radio was dominant and conservative. For example, Billy Holliday’s song “Love For Sale” was banned because of its underlying prostitution theme. Stations across the country censored a laundry list of Rhythm and Blues (or black) artists because they were considered controversial. In 1957, producers of the Ed Sullivan Show made sure the camera angle only shot Elvis from the waste up for fear of public outcry. Many in those days labeled Elvis’ moves and dances “obscene.”

In retrospect, America in the 1950’s would likely be aghast by what is considered mainstream today. In an article by Scott Barry Kaufman, published in Psychology Today (2011), he asserts promiscuity and themes of a sexual nature are reoccurring leitmotifs in R&B and Pop music, and refers to them as “reproductive categories.” Kaufman lists four frequent reproductive categories in pop songs: 1) sex appeal, 2) reputation, 3) short term strategies, and 4) fidelity assurance. Yet, the FCC asserts content is obscene if “[materials] depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law.” The law appears to be very gray, but the FCC says “the community” can file complaints if they consider broadcasted materials offensive. In reality, radio stations do censor specific words because the FCC fines stations and can suspend their licenses, but innuendo and sexual inferences (or reproductive categories) are the norm on commercial radio throughout the country. In 2000, the FCC responded to 85 radio complaints and handed down fines totaling $48,000. In 2006, there were 389 and fines totaling nearly $4 Million (which are still pending). Which begs the question: are stations knowingly playing risqué music and challenging social tolerance because profit margins exceed fines?

With a vast amount of music and videos available on the Internet, it is simply impractical to attempt censoring music like in the 1950’s, at least in terms of lyrical poetic license. Some subject matters promoted in music range from basically pornographic to blatantly violent. In 1966, John Lennon commented that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus Christ.” This lead to a boycott of the band, the burning of Beatles’ records in public protest, and the banning of Beatles songs from radio airplay around the country. In March of that same year, the band released their album “Yesterday and Today,” which featured the band sitting atop of butchered meat and dolls with their heads chopped off. The record company removed this album from store shelves and immediately replaced the cover with a much safer photo of the band. But it seems little shocks America anymore enough to warrant CD burnings. Besides, a Strategy Analytics study found CD sales continue to drop another 40% in 2012, whereas digital downloaded music is expected to reach $2.8 Billion in sales, just edging physical mediums. What could people burn in protest even if they wanted to?

Though shock value is a strong strategy in music, the exception is in the case of live music.  Recorded music doesn’t really feel any effects of censorship because even a pop song with words like “shit” can get extensive radio play by simply taking out the word (such as Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”). Live performances, however, require some arbitrary code of decency, especially if artists wish to perform for general audiences. Hollywood, Florida musician and venue owner, Kilmo Doome (nativeflorida.net), asserts, “censorship is more under the radar” in terms of venue preferences. He says, “certain venues don’t want particular bands/musicians to play” and the reasons vary greatly. Then again, if a venue is going to make substantial money, business is business. Ronald Wisler, an A&R and road manager working with La Lirica group (www.lalirica.com), says when performing live, artists are told beforehand of what is allowable and not. For example, an artist he represents, Buk City Boyz, appeared at an open event with families and teenagers in attendance and was told during performances there was “no cursing allowed –no bad words whatsoever.” They obliged by playing the “radio edit” version of their soundtrack.

It may be that raunch and circumstance are ok in the car, on the ipod, on the computer, and in certain social settings. But out in the open, at a festival or event where everyone converges, when all eyes and ears have their moral compasses on for social endorsement, censorship is indispensable.


Writers Corner ~ Literary Censorship Today

Schools and libraries are institutions that still regularly find themselves embroiled in literary censorship debates.  Those debates often include discussions about the acquisition of literary materials and access to them.  Acquisition of literary content, such as books, is the heart of many censorship debates but the face of these debates is access where we’ve seen dramatic change.

The primary challenge faced by school and library boards in terms of acquisition is that boards must weigh public sentiment about the materials they acquire and render decisions.  Little has changed since the Supreme Court granted that latitude in 1982 when it handed down its decision in Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 versus Pico.

Other aspects of these debates, such as the rationale offered by censorship advocates, have also remained fairly static.  Targeted materials are often described as offensive, threatening, subversive or blasphemous because they contain sex, profanity, violence, racism and, curiously, magic.  Yes, it seems the character of that miscreant, Harry Potter, stoked the censorship fires.  So it seems that at least that much has changed.  But even though the censorship of Harry Potter is laughable to some, that reaction underscores what is inherent in every censorship debate: Censorship advocates feel offended or threatened and censorship opponents, if not merely amused or ambivalent, may feel compelled to resist.

Resistance to literary censorship rises when it strikes people as egregious.  But all of us are not struck in the same way, to the same degree, or even about the same things.  There may be examples of censorship that would rise to that level for the majority, such as book burning, but individual perspectives still vary to a significant degree.  That hasn’t changed and likely never will because we come from different places, cultures, schools, churches, families, communities and experiences.  But rather than lament that fact we hold different opinions, we might consider celebrating it.

The challenges associated with access have been dramatically impacted by technology.  The amount of digitally-stored literature being consumed has soared.  Schools and libraries now use Internet filters to control access to literary content and the management of access to that material involves administrative personnel, standards, configuration and monitoring.  It’s no longer a matter of simply putting a book on a shelf.

The challenges of access have also pulled corporate censorship into the debate.  Much of the Internet is owned by private companies which are not bound by the laws that limit government censorship.  Literature, therefore, is vulnerable and literary censorship based on profit margin rather than politics, religion, or ideology is not likely to make anyone feel more comfortable.

Issues with corporate censorship to date could be characterized as minor flare-ups.  Paypal has backed off their recent ultimatum to ebooksellers that they refrain from selling books containing rape, incest, underage sex and bestiality.  But all the conditions exist for what could amount to a giant wildfire.  Those conditions include the fact that media conglomerates, harboring their own bias, control significant content as well as infrastructure that supports Internet access for both wired and mobile devices.

The changing face of censorship presents new challenges related to technology and corporate censorship that we must tackle but the heart of censorship remains much the same which suggests there may be little to do on that front but acknowledge the opinions of others and champion our personal positions.