Monthly Archives: March 2012

Art or Obscenity?

As time has moved on, new artists and art forms have developed that challenge our expectations, aesthetic, and understanding.  For years, writers, filmmakers, painters, and other artists have attempted to challenge the status quo and make innovative contributions to the art world, and controversy has followed them.

Today, Pablo Picasso’s 1907 revolutionary painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, is praised for having a profound influence on Modern Art. Yet when it was first released, many people were shocked and outraged. The female nude had been a common subject in Western Art and had followed conventions that were taken for granted. Picasso replaced the “classic” female nude with a painting of a group of prostitutes. His style also rejected many Western conventions. Instead, Picasso found inspiration in Iberian sculpture and Spanish art. Picasso challenged widespread norms and ended up changing art forever, but at the time many people thought it was offensive.

In 1917, Marcel DuChamp created a piece that remains a subject of intense debate in the art world. Duchamp presented a urinal, which he signed “R. Mutt” and titled it Fountain.  He submitted the work to a gallery that refused to show it, and the original work has been lost. Despite this, many view Fountain as among the most influential artworks of the 20th century and a huge move forward in conceptual art. Many performance artists have tried to enhance the work by urinating in it. Two artists that did this were Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi, who attempted to urinate on the piece while it was on display at Tate Modern.  Chai explained, “The urinal is there – it’s an invitation. As Duchamp said himself, it’s the artist’s choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it.”

In 1996, Chris Ofili revealed The Holy Virgin Mary in the Brooklyn Museum, a mixed media painting (painted partially with elephant dung) showing a black Madonna, surrounded by pictures of buttocks. The Mayor of New York, Rudolph Giulianni, brought a court case against the museum where it was being displayed, arguing that the painting was “sick” and “disgusting.”

Some of the most famous and celebrated books in literary history were banned, censored, or challenged in the past (and the present). Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was heavily censored between 1966 and 1975 for its vulgar language and sexual scenes. James Joyce’s Ulysses, now widely hailed as the best book ever written in the English Language, was banned because of its sexual content. Other famous banned books include Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and Candide by Voltaire.

The controversy continues today, as more and more artists attempt to make their mark on the world. Art has always attempted to change the way we view the world, and sometimes this can be achieved through shock; but some people worry that today’s artists may just be trying to “out-shock” each other. Today’s art – its production, perception and success or failure – is intricately connected with politics, economics, and the media. This causes us to wonder where we should draw the line between art and obscenity – or whether there ought to be a line at all. Under what circumstances are we justified in censoring art?


What do you think? Join the discussion and post a comment! 

Background resources

Art or Obscenity – Printable worksheet with discussion questions!

Requirements for the Maturita Oral Exam: Culture and Art

Vocabulary List