Art And Censorship: The Challenge to Democracy

The rise of modesty has brought about the censorship of art forms in their rawest form. Today we track the rise of censorship and its appeals in regards to nudity and provocation in art.

Art; the raw manifestation of human emotion and creativity.

Whilst sculpture and painting are the intrinsic connotations of art, the umbrella term came to encompass various forms of expression over the years such as architecture, photography and theatrical performances. Over the past decade, the term has extended to include digital games and graphic design also.

The earliest documentation of art dates back to AD 77 in the works of Pliny the Elder. His recollection in Natural History was concerned with the development of Greek sculpture and painting throughout the years. Greek art manifested in the depiction of idyllic figures – accurate in proportion and aesthetics – built on perfect symmetry. Artists expressed their idolatry of higher power through nudity. This period brought about iconic pieces such as Venus de Milo and Hermes of Praxiteles. Beside Gods, the depiction of athletes and winners of athletic activities were also depicted nude in order to accurately portray the strength of the human body. In fact, the human anatomy has been a fascination for artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci as it is an intrinsic knowledge for those who aim to portray the raw form.

As time went on, human nature developed values pertaining to modesty. The human form became shunned upon and an object of embarrassment. The church saw nudity as an act of temptation and sin and people guarded themselves from ‘obscene’ works of art to avoid potential seduction. As the body developed into an object of taboo, censorship came into play.

Censorship; the practice of examining material and removing things that are considered to be offensive, immoral and harmful to society for religious, social and political reasons.

A notable instance of censorship in its early stages was the covering of Michelangelo’s David in 1504. David in Piazza Della Signoria, Florence, was wrapped a garland of copper leaves around its waist to conceal the statue’s genitals. This act saw the rise of The Fig Leaf Campaign. The Fig Leaf Campaign (yes, that is actually a thing) was started by Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini and saw that casted fig leaves were moulded to ‘indecent’ three-dimensional works to conceal exposed genital areas. This form of censorship was promoted by Pope Paul IV himself who promulgated the church’s attack on nudity via the support of the Fig Leaf Campaign.

In the book of the Genesis, fig leaves were featured predominantly in the Adam and Eve context. The leaves saw to conceal their nakedness. Theologian Augustine would later argue that the fig leaves were a metaphor of sin and concealment. Implying that, that which they covered was an absurdity in the eyes of God. Pope Pius IX took the attack on expression a step further by desecrating statues and having their genitalia completely removed.

Two-dimensional images were also scrutinised and censored. In fact, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement was originally painted to depict unclothed figures. Following the artist’s death, an apprentice of his – Daniele de Volterra – added loin cloths to the once nude figures to conceal the ‘obscene’ pictorial as commissioned by Pope Pius IV. The figures were perceived as “figures adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.” 

And yet, against all odds, the 1900s brought about the birth of Shock Art.

Shock art; imagery, sound or scents to create a shocking experience and conquer territory that is considered to be taboo.

Whilst Shock Art touched upon long-avoided subjects, the movement came as a silent protest rather than a shift in mentality. This, in turn, led to an uproar and controversy.

Shock art sought to barge through historical boundaries and discuss topics which had been previously untouched. The movement brought about nudity in theatrical performances, and an ownership of sexuality. In fact, Robert Mapplethrope took advantage of the scene to shed light on the topics of homosexuality and BDSM. But this brought about its consequences to the contributing artists and supporters. In fact, a museum director was charged of misconduct for including sexually explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe in his art exhibit.

Whilst some like to believe that we have moved towards liberalism, the ban on human expression persists even in democratic countries like Malta. Activists continue to fight the stigma and strive for freedom of expression. Amongst Malta’s exponents is Adrian Buckle – artistic director and producer at Unifaun who spoke with us about the importance of raw artistic expression.  

“I think it is extremely important that artists portray quotidian realities in their work.  An artist’s work should comfort the troubled and trouble the comforted.  In my line, theatre should comment and ask questions about contemporary society.  Theatre that does not do so is a transaction, not a piece of art. 

Theatre should be free to comment on what it feels it should be talking about.  Theatre however, is not there to give answers.  It is there to ask the questions.  It is the audience that must answer those questions.  This makes theatre something of a loose cannon in society and institutions might seek to muzzle it.  We have seen that in the recent past in Malta and we see it all over the world.  But a society that censors theatre is not a democracy.

I think that Art should break all taboos.  It is not the artist that needs to censor himself.  Rather, if a patron does not feel comfortable with certain content, they are free to avoid the piece of art.  But no one has the right to impose his values upon others.”

We’re not sure about our movement towards liberalism and freedom of expression but we acknowledge that the raw form is yet to be appreciated and welcomed as human nature.



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