Art Censorship Controversies: A Brief History [NSFW]

After raising criticisms from the Catholic League and members of the House of Representatives, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has removed a video from an exhibition called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, which explores, among other things, homosexuality. The video, called “Fire in My Belly,” was made by David Wojnarowicz in the 1980s and depicts a crucified victim with ants crawling over his body. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992. With Congress stepping in and the debate of how taxpayers money should be used to promote the arts rekindled, some think we’re back in the famed cultural wars of the 1980s. Here’s a quick refresher on past controversies; be sure to let us know what you think in the comments.

Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1989)

Piss Christ is the name of a photograph taken by Andres Serrano in 1987. As the name implies, the photo is of a plastic crucifix submerged in Serrano’s urine. When it was exhibited in North Carolina in 1989 with money from the National Endowment of the Arts, Senator Jesse Helms said the work “dishonor[ed] the Lord” and that he “resent[ed] it and I think the vast majority of the American people do.” Ultimately Serrano received death threats and lost grants as a result of the work, but also enjoyed a rise in fame.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Perfect Moment (1989)

In 1989, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania organized a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography shortly after the artist’s death. The exhibit, curated by the ICA’s director, Janet Kardon, and designed to tour the country, sparked a controversial debate when the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, fearing a loss of funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, canceled its stop on the tour. When the exhibit went on display at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, the museum and its director, Dennis Barrie, were charged with “pandering obscenity,” but were eventually acquitted. Later, the FCC would receive complaints when some of the images were shown on late night news programs. In February of 2009, the ICA hosted a two-day symposium in honor of the exhibit’s 20th anniversary.

“Dread” Scott Tyler’s What is the Proper Way to Display the US Flag? (1989)

Scott Tyler, at the time a student School of the Art Institute of Chicago, raised quite a controversy with his installation What is the Proper Way to Display the US Flag? in February 1989. As you can see above, viewers of the participatory work found it difficult to look at the book on the shelf and photographs of flags burning, which were parts of the work, without stepping on the flag. Viewers were asked to answer the titular question in the originally blank book. Veterans and Congress alike were upset. Bob Dole, a disabled veteran of World War II, was quoted in the New York Times saying, “Now, I don’t know much about art, but I know desecration when I see it.” Some visitors were arrested by police for stepping on the flag.

An ensuing political and legal battle between Chicago’s City Council, Tyler, and the ACLU resulted in a local ordinance banning the desecration of a flag in that manner, however this was later ruled not applicable to artists, since their work is protected by the first amendment. Despite the ruling, the government seems to have gotten the last laugh. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s government funding dropped for $70,000 to $1 soon after.

The NEA Four (1990)

In 1990 four performance artists, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes learned their proposed grants from the National Endowment for the Arts had been vetoed. Since their grants had passed a peer review successfully, it was clear that the veto was due to controversial subject matter. The artists took the NEA all the way to the Supreme Court and won. The NEA would decide to stop funding individual artists. Finley, who coincidentally collaborated with Wojnarowicz in New York, would perform a new piece called The Return of the Chocolate-smeared Woman as a response to the NEA controversy, a work that involved her covering her nude body in chocolate.

Dayton Claudio’s Sex, Laws and Coathangers (1992)

The Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act, passed in 1976, aimed to get art in to federal buildings. In 1992 artist Dayton Claudio obtained a permit to display a piece called Sex, Laws and Coathangers, which features a nude woman, in a federal building in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can probably infer from the title which hot-button issue the painting spoke to, and also that Senator Jesse Helms was not a fan of controversial art. Claudio’s permit was quickly revoked by Steven Grant, an administrator, who cited the work as “political” and “controversial.” Claudio sued, but the district court ruled the building “non-public,” and therefore the government was within their rights to disallow the 12-foot-tall display.

Sally Mann’s Immediate Family (1992)

Emmet, Jessie, Virginia by Sally Mann (via)

When Sally Mann’s series of photographs of her three children called Immediate Family went on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, some called it child pornography. Mann had simply photographed her three children in the nude. When one of the photos appeared in the Wall Street Journal, her four-year-old’s eyes, breasts, and pubic area were covered with black bars.

While she didn’t aim to be controversial, Mann said in an interview that she showed the photographs to an FBI agent before publishing them and even introduced her children to him, all to find out whether they would charge her for pornography. The agency said no. Overall the collection, which is available in book form, was well-received critically and Time magazine named Mann “America’s Best Photographer” in 2001.

David Nelson’s Mirth and Girth (1998)

Not quite ten years after the Scott Tyler flag uproar, a student at the School of Art Institute of Chicago caused another stir. In his work Mirth and Girth, David Nelson depicted the recently-deceased Mayor of Chicago Harold Washington in women’s lingerie. Three aldermen from the City Council attempted to take the painting from the campus, but were stopped by security. When the Chicago police got involved, the alderman were allowed to take the painting. Nelson sued the aldermen, claiming his first amendment rights had been violated. Nelson won and the city picked up his tab of $95,000 in legal fees.

Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1999)

When Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary debuted at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, Mayor Rudy Giuliani called the exhibition “sick stuff.” He was most likely referring to the fact that the painting depicting the Virgin Mary was purposefully covered in elephant dung. Even though Sensation was culled entirely from private collections and the Brooklyn Museum used no public funds to host the show, Giuliani threatened to freeze funds to the museum and evict it from its city-owned building if it didn’t cancel the exhibit. In the end the museum won out, and the city was order to repay the withheld funds, plus $5.8 million for refurbishments.