Art and censorship

By Francisco Oliveira


Perhaps one of the best ways to look at art should be to understand the artist’s foundations for his creations and the world that goes beyond his aspirations and inspirations. Nevertheless, when the artist touches last with his brush on the canvas, his work is no longer a personal possession. No longer expresses only his motivations and ideologies. It is, from then on, for the world to appreciate, interpret, and to own, in many different ways.

After a crescendo of a public and generalized idea towards the limits of the artistic work, trying to define them as clear as possible, and ultimately aiming to censor, it also became clear that there should be a response to these movements. As it has happened many times before, the confrontation between art and the currents that strive to limit her results in discussion, controversy, and – too often – in art’s defeat.

Image result for bronze statue of eros sleeping
Bronze statue of Eros sleeping, artist unknown, 3rd–2nd century B.C.

Pablo Picasso once said that “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls”, and although the poetry of his wisdom speaks about the most mundane things, the importance of what is said lies on the accurate description of art’s role. The role of providing its appreciators with an endless world of escapes from everyday life.

By limiting the limitless reaches of art, we are limiting the vast possibilities of the human minds, impoverishing the knowledge and the awareness and fencing the pathways that may lead to a better world.

Mann und Frau (Umarmung), by Egon Schiele, 1917

To exhibit and to encourage an infinite art, is not to be in favor of the evil and the ugliness that it may inspire her. On the other hand, the opposite is truly an act of weakness and frailty, and it has never been better to hide the wicked thoughts just to let them grow in the dark. To bring them to light is to fight them in the most effective way, by learning about them and eventually finding the best way to nullify them.

Image result for French Loafs, Iiu Susiraja, 2017
French Loafs, Iiu Susiraja, 2017.

The Artists

Reality has always been, from the beginnings of artistic expression, an essential vehicle for creation. The depiction of what the eyes see, and what humans feel and think, is one of the main themes for art.

Being so, it seems pointless to abbreviate those depictions, or, even more so, to consider them harmful, when they represent what an artist wants to transmit. Of course, when we look at art, we need to understand that there are different artists from different times and with different ideologies.

We may need to take a step back and contextualize it. It may be not very easy to accept something or the way that something is represented. However, in the end, the challenges and tendencies of an observer do not make the value of the work or the ability and intelligence of the artist. An opinion is not defining the person, and that works both ways: for the audience and for the artist.

Image result for The Shirt Withdrawn, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1770
The Shirt Withdrawn, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1770.

Mario Vargas Llosa explains this more lucidly when he writes, in his book La civilización del espectáculo: “culture can be experiment and reflection, thought and dream, passion, and poetry and a constant and deep critical review of all certainties, convictions, theories, and beliefs. In the end, the cultural and artistic way is the way of the people that try to go further and farther in many different ways. To do so, there will be moments that they will be misunderstood, and there will also be moments when they are incredibly necessary and there is a quote from Tolstoi’s Letters (1828 – 1879) that seems to be appropriate when speaking about this necessity: “The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations”.

Image result for Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, by Ai Weiwei, 1995
Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, by Ai Weiwei, 1995.

The Art

Art has a way to reach people that may never be fully understood.
From the mysteries of creativity to the power of the message, works of art have always managed to diverge and converge.
To shock and to overwhelm.
To inspire and to depress.

However strange or misplaced a piece of art may sound or feel to us, there is a difference between who created it and what we, observers, think about it.
This fact is of utmost importance since it represents both freedoms of speech and thought, but also encourages and compliments the possibility of intelligence. A work of art, as it is not limited to interpretations or appreciations, it is also not limited to the artist or the observer.

However strange or misplaced a piece of art may sound or feel to us, there is a difference between who created it and what we, observers, think about it.
This fact is of utmost importance since it represents both freedoms of speech and thought, but also encourages and compliments the possibility of intelligence.

A work of art, as it is not limited to interpretations or appreciations, it is also not limited to the artist or the observer.

Image result for Fountain, by Marcel Duchamps, 1917
Fountain, by Marcel Duchamps, 1917.

The Polish writer Jan Korzinsky once wrote “The principle of art is to pause, not bypass. The principles of true art are not to portray, but to evoke. This requires a moment of pause – a contract with yourself through the object you look at or the page you read. In that moment of pause, I think life expands.” and it seems to be an interesting outlook towards art.

The thought that people should timely contemplate a work of art in an almost solemn moment of stillness, of separation regarding the surroundings, solely absorbing what they see or hear eventually collides with this movement of extreme sensibility and radical reaction.

Image result for Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse, 1896
Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse, 1896

One can wonder if these conservative, oppressive ideals of censoring art can be the result of a too fast way to deal with artistic pieces, just looking rapidly, instead of calmly trying to apprehend and understand what is really in front of them.

The museums

Do women to be naked to get into the museum?, Guerrilla Girls, 1989.

Recent events, against works from renowned artists, often from the 19th and 20th centuries such as Degas (in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), Gauguin (in an exhibition at the National Gallery in London)  or Schiele (whose exhibition advertisements suffered censorship in Vienna) are proof of mean-intended puritanism and total disregard of the value of the pieces.

Nevertheless, these strangely old-fashioned ideologies are also affecting more recent and contemporary artists like Damien Hirst (whose piece “The Virgin Mother” got taken down from a high-end square in New York), or Paul McCarthy (who seen his sculpture “Tree” attacked and destroyed at the Place Velôndome, in Paris) and even Bansky (who had his mural in Clacton-on-Sea, in the U.K., painted over. One of the most recent cases is the censorship involving Stéphane Simons naked sculptures, a work inspired by classical pieces, depicting contemporary scenes of people using their phones – the exhibition was altered by UN’s cultural agency, by putting underwear on the previously uncovered bodies.

On the age of technology and a world of globalization seems odd that the steps taken are more regressive than progressive and more scared than confident.

The reaction from museums and institutions to sensationalism and aggressive criticizing – mainly from unaware and ignorant masses – seems to be to accept the defeat cordially by removing and censoring “inadequate” art, even if the grounds behind this definition are as thin as ice.

However, there have been some interesting responses to this uptight attitude.

Image result for balthasar klossowski de rola
Thérèse Dreaming, Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski), 1938

In 2013, the MET museum, in New York, introduced the exhibition “Balthus: Cats and Girls: Paintings and Provocations” by warning his visitors with this message: “Some of the paintings in this exhibition may be disturbing to some visitors.”. This action seems to be quite a smart way to alert people that the contents might be too much for them, while also preventing some undeserved criticism.

Censored advertisements in Vienna, 2012.

One year before, in Vienna, advertisements for an Egon Schiele’s exhibition that used some of the artist’s paintings were censored because they had images of human genitalia. In response, Vienna’s tourism services covered the “disturbing” parts of those painting with the hashtag #ToArtItsFreedom and a very suitable message: “Sorry, 100 years old but still too daring today”.

Image result for Barbarian Tales, Paul Gauguin, 1891
Barbarian Tales, Paul Gauguin, 1891


For a museum, to have a clear discourse behind a possibly controversial exhibition is to defend themselves against ill driven audiences, stating what may be obvious but, for the times we live, necessary.

Even so, the public has some duties regarding art. Moreover, although not everybody needs to be an expert, there should be some knowledge and openness when expressing opinions towards artistic pieces.

The appreciation concerning a piece might have notions of taste about the colors, the techniques, and even the themes, but sometimes a work of art has more to it than what meets the eye.

In fact, censorship might have the contrary effect. To obscure something, by prohibiting something, creates an almost mythic halo to it. Slavery, racism, unhealthy sexuality should not have a halo of fright protecting them. As the expression of sexual desire – often related to the feeling of love -, of political or religious opinions, the representations of suffering – in all its forms-, should be part of an overall conversation and understanding of such themes. To hide them is, eventually, to let their enigmas grow.

Image result for My Bed, Tracey Emin, 1998
My Bed, Tracey Emmin, 1998

The ways of art are to remain a mystery – secret known only by the artists, passable of being scrutinized by whoever wants and feels able to do so.

The possibility of wondering about these exceptional abilities to create, to criticize and appreciate should be peered with the opportunities to exhibit, to express.

The length of freedom should be defined both ways, by who gives and by who takes, without harming one another. The artist is not the art, and the art is not the artist. They are not symbiotic. They live separate lives. In the same way, the observer is not the message or the meaning. The content is not the observer, nor it necessarily represents it.

La Maja Desnuda, Francisco de Goya, 1790-1800

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Jones, J. (2019, Oct. 3). Gauguin Portraits review: A buttoned-up, nervous and nude-light cop-out of a show. The Guardian. Retrieved December 17, 2019, from
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