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, 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, 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.