Censorship in the Arts

September Morn  by Paul Chabas.

September Morn by Paul Chabas.

As the importance of the essence of a work of art varies from period to period, so also does the acceptability of certain subject matter. Responses to certain things are based on the taste of the individual or society. However little consideration is given by the individual society to an objective distinction in taste based on logic, aesthetics or law. Fouquet's painting of a Madonna completely outraged the people of 15th century France for his model was quite plainly Agnes Sorel, mistress king. Today the painting is a Work of Art. The illustration for February in the "Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry" caused no concern for its 15th century viewers, although it clearly showed men warming their private parts over a fire. This illustration is also one of the earliest paintings to indicate snow in its setting. In response to the taste of 20th century American middle-class society these private parts were dis­cretely air-brushed out in a recent issue of Life Magazine.

Detail from the illustration for February in the  Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry .

Detail from the illustration for February in the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

The Victorian 19th century had its share of "obscene" art, based however on other than 20th century standards. Gustav Courbet's "les Endurneuses" of 1866 inspired the wrath of his contemporaries not because he portrayed two lesbians making love, but because his models were from the lower social classes, and were realistically depicted. The lower classes were not fit subject matter for a work of art. (cf. "The Stonebreakers", 1851, with a non-erotic subject matter, which caused the same type of furor).

On the other hand, one of the most popular and frequently reproduced paintings of all times is the 19th century nude, "September Morn." In contrast to the realism of Courbet however, she is romanticized and idealized into utter innocence and therefore "safe" for societal consumption.

The state's concern for moralistic self-righteousness, which can be traced throughout history, was given special emphasis by the French encyclopedist, Diderot who espoused the cause of private concern with public morality, or, censorship for the public good. This concern seems to reach its apogee in a totalitarian state, resulting in gov­ernmental support of conventional art forms; those which appear ponderous inoffensive, accepted and which lend an air of legitimacy to governmental action; those which, stylistically as well are "morally uplifting." Thus, Nazi Germany could form Ebsenberg's Arts Council for the regulation and control of art, could hold an exhibition of German expressionism and abstract art (1937) and declare it "degenerate" (degenerate being the same word employed by James Clancy, one of the authors of Proposition 16 to describe the moral status of today's American society and undoubtedly art). Modern paintings were destroyed or sold (and the money pocketed by Nazi officials) or found its way into the private collections of the heirarchy, unbeknownst to the public. Painters themselves were forced into exile, forced to stop painting or exterminated--as much for their art as for their racial background.

It can be asserted that architecture is expressive of those who sponsor it; that values of the state are values that are expressed or are capable of being expressed through architecture. Under the Nazi regime it fared better than did the sculpture and painting, and many of its positive and powerful architectural elements (the Olympic Stadium) have been carried through in contemporary constructions--such as those around the U.C.L.A. campus.

The contrast between the concepts or free and authoritarian states be cited in East Berlin's, Memorial to the Russian's war dead located near the Brandenberg Gate, which embodies the watered down neoclassicism of an authoritarian goverment, and the CongressHall (designed by Hugh Stubbins, an American), also located near the Brandenberg Gate, which was commissioned as an expression of that function which best characterized the democratic concepts of a free people. Both countries consider their monuments an expressive transmission of their governments.

Back Seat Dodge  by Ed Keinholz.

Back Seat Dodge by Ed Keinholz.

On the local scene, Ed Keinholz has caused much concern for those those committed to the "private control of the public morals." His "Untitled American President," composed, of milk can, American flag, and bicycle seat, could be considered particularly offensive by such individuals, for its obvious, but not specific, degrading political references. By title alone "I'm not a Fig Plucker nor a Fig Pluckers Son but I'll pluck your figs 'til the Fig Plucker comes," could be condemned. "Back Seat Dodge," when freely exhibited at the Dwan Gallery in 1963, caused no furor what so ever; it was not until those in local government pointed to what they con­sidered obscene that it received any-particular notice outside the art world. As Phil Spector and others have said, "It's all in the mind" as to what is or is not offensive.

Harold Paris admits to a conscious sexuality in his work. The colors black and white embody the male/female paradigm, the concept of yin and yang, as well as principles of dualism. The central piece in the current exhibit at UCLA, although composed on an architectural scale, tarries these elements in its eight aluminum panels sensually buffed, in the distinctly phallic aspects of the molded form, the stretched material over protruberances, the textures of Naugahide, aluminum and rubber.

The question as to whether or not art is that which is confined to a gallery can be raised by Playboy magazine nudes (60% of Playboy subscribers are female--which raises questions of a different nature...).

The last example presented is the contrast of Botticelli's 15th century "Birth of Venus" and its 20th century counterpart.

Botticelli's  The Birth of Venus .

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

"...If artistic activity may stand--and for Schiller and Nietzche--as a paradigm and metaphor of human experience, the Surrealists, we may say, heightened that paradigm, radicalized the metaphor by redefining art as erotic encounter. Consummation became Redemption in that uttter surreality in which all antinomies were to be resolved. Fulfillment was Revelation and, ultimately, "the delirium of absolute presence." And of an absolute Present. Love and art, then, were copulative, a yielding, in wonder ("the first of all the passions," as Descartes had called it) to the persuasions of the noumenal. In an unending Here and Now--neither Utopia nor Eternal. Return, but an Eschatological Instant--one was "lived," as Breton put it, "ravished," as Emerson had said, or, in Aragon's word, "Fucked."
 --(Annette Michelson, "Breton's Surrealism: the Peripeties of a Metaphor," Artforum, Sept. 1966, page 72.)

An issue similar to the broader issues above involves the current prosecution against the poetry broadside, Earth Rose, and its publisher and distributors. Bob McDaniel is an obscenity lawyer hired by the American Civil Liberties Union to defend those indicted.

According to McDaniel, Steve Richmond, a fine young poet and owner of the Earth Book Shop in Santa Monica, was a graduate law student at UCLA who decided to give up law to devote his life to presenting other poets to the people. He also decided to take a stance on the political situation in the power structure of the United States and on his hatred of this "cancerous power element" in the form of a poetry broadside, Earth Rose. Ten thousand of these were published and distributed by friends around critical points of Los Angeles. Here the trouble began. The first arrest was made outside of "Cantors"; the second, of a girl, was. made through illegal search methods; the third was made through a citizen's arrest at UCLA. The fourth, of Steve, was made with a search warrant which stated that the officers had the right to "search and seize all copies of the Earth Rose and any other ob­scene material," which is contradictory to the fourteenth and fourth amendments of the Constitution for it leaves seizure of material up to people undoubtedly incapable of correctly judging its value. The ironic point of the search and seizure is that the officers failed to notice what might be termed radical scatology, the magazine Entrails: Magazine of Happy Obscenity and Captured Dragons (Whispershit Press,New York, , Volume 1 Number 2, 1966 .

The typical obscenity material which comes before the courts is, however, completely different in form, content, execution and intent, from that uncovered at the Earth Book Store.  This whole series of arrests, their absurdities and ambiguities stand as an indictment of this area that literate people have been aware of for some time. While "in Los Angeles the anti-life stance of the authorities is expressed more concretely than in any other city in the country today", it is interesting that "Los Angeles has the most viable underground as well." Drug addiction, marijuana smoking, homosexuality, and other "crimes without victims," are areas where police harassment exists beyond all need, and where the absurdity of the police prosecution process exists.

A criterion established by the courts to determine whether or not an issue is obscene is that it must "appeal to the purient interests--purient defined as, "shameful or morbid interest in sex, nudity or excretion"--and a test of this purient interest is that it exists as a dominent theme. Of course, as has been pointed out again and again, who is to say what constitutes purient as apposed to normal interest?  "The Fecal Phile," by Lenny Bruce, appeared in issue #54, November, 1964, of the Realist. Its extreme parody and humor defies association with any "purient interest," although the subject matter could be considered es coming under its definition.

A second criterion for the declaration of obscenity is that a work must be "utterly without redeeming social significance," a point that saved the novel Fanny Hill, which the Supreme Court decided did have redeeming social significance.

The courts themselves are split on what is constitutionally protected and what is actually obscene. The Superior Court has indicated that the standard of "customary limits of candor" should be based on a National rather than local level. The establishment of a National standard against which material should be tested is nearly impossible to establish.


The election of Ronald Reagan, McDaniel sees, will not change the situation that much. Reagan has indicated that, although Proposition 16 failed, he will attempt to push through the legislature similar measures. As yet there are no laws which protect special situations (such as libraries); their exemptions from prosecution rests strictly on customary courtesy. In a sense, the prosecution of "lower class obscenity" and the protection of "upper class literature" validates the social structure, a reason why McDaniel is against censorship in general.

Issues have been raised as to whether pornography is, indeed, a social evil. The preponderance of evidence points to a definite social function of good, providing an outlet for those who might otherwise cause harm.

The citizen's arrest made at UCLA is probably invalid, although a citizen can make an arrest where he sees an actual crime taking place. The question here is whether or not a crime was actually committed, and whether or not the citizen in question has the kind of background necessary to make that distinction.

In spite of censorship laws in this country, the United States is still the most open country outside of Scandinavia.

Kurt von Meier
Art 110A Lecture at UCLA, 1966
Adapted from class notes provided by Jean Garren