A Brief History Of Art Censorship From 1508 To 2014

Miriam Webster defines censorship as “the practice of officially examining books, movies, etc., and removing things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.”

The art world — a realm populated by masterpieces often hailed for their transgressive, controversial and taboo characteristics — regularly butts against standards of decency and good taste in the fight for freedom of expression. Throughout history works of art have been altered, silenced and even erased due to unacceptable content, whether the motivations for censorship were religious, social or political. Yet artists have long pushed boundaries of “offensive” through their imagery and content, presenting everything from portraits of a vulva to a performance replicating 19th century “human zoos.”

After last week’s brutal attack on Paris’ satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and in many ways on free speech in general, censorship remains as crucial an issue as ever. While sources like The Telegraph and the Associated Press self-censored images of past Hebdo covers in the wake of the tragedy, blurring out potentially “immoral” images of the Prophet Mohammed, other outlets defiantly published the same works. It’s clear that the phrase “harmful to society” is still a contentious qualifier.

In light of the events in France, and this critical moment for artistic expression, we’re revisiting some of the most impactful moments in the history of art censorship (and attempted censorship), from the 16th century up until the recent events of 2014. Let’s begin:

1565: Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement”
michelangelo the last judgement

Although it may not look like the most racy of works to contemporary eyes, Michelangelo’s famed Sistine Chapel fresco was deemed unholy and immoral by many proponents of the Catholic faith, including Pope Daniele de Volterra. The scene depicts (unclothed) human souls who rise or fall to their otherworldly fates; some critics could hardly concentrate on the religious message through all the naked parts.

Poet Pietro Aretino wrote of the work: “Is it possible that you, so divine that you do not deign to consort with men, have done such a thing in the highest temple of God? Above the first altar of Jesus? Not even in the brothel are there such scenes as yours…” A pupil of Michelangelo’s later added loin cloths to the once nude figures.

1865: Edouard Manet’s “Olympia”
manet olympia

By this time, classical nudes had been integrated into the language of art, with painted bodies like Michelangelo’s becoming not only accepted but revered. Lounging nudes and odalisques popped up without complication in works by Titian and Giorgione, yet…

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