Mind Caviar

"At the root of censorship lies the schism between individual and group,
which is to say, humanism vs. (c)atholicism."

~ Camille Paglia

Mind Caviar, Vol. 3 Anniversary Issue, 2002

Thou Shalt Not Look:
A History of Art & Censorship
by William Dean

Last year, and this, a millennia-old battle is still fought vociferously over erotic art brought to light and to throngs of tourists by that most decadent ancient city, Pompeii.

Nestled at the base of a turbulent volcano, surely a geographical analogy, the small ruined city has been the subject of public morality censors long centuries before the bishops of Rome were a gleam in their parents’ eyes.

Ancient Art
Recently made to the public erotic art of Pompeii
Rome, Ancient Rome, pre-Christian Rome, was awash in “dirty imagery.” Most of the city’s crossroads were adorned with herms (small pedestal-like pillars) sporting erect penises or vaginas to propitiate fecundity, profit, and, not incidentally, honor the gods and promote good will and luck.

Many house exteriors, too, had carved stone panels displaying upright cock and balls. Inside the domiciles, and scattered throughout the marketplace stalls, you would have seen terra-cotta or bronze lamps festooned with hard-ons and couples engaged in various love-making poses. Magical windchimes hung over doorways would have the shapes of sexual organs, not to mention, sculptures in courtyard gardens, on small indoor pedestals or in niches.  Wall murals in private and public buildings depicted sexual acts, both in mythical settings and mundane ones. Yes, Rome was filled with such objects d’art and few thought them shocking or even surprising.  It was part of the day-to-day culture, heritage, and history, after all.

Because the administrators of Ancient Rome persecuted the early Christian sects, of course, once Christianity became the official state religion under Emperor Constantine, as far as the now-pagan sexual imagery was concerned, all Hell broke loose. The formerly revered and accepted signs of fecundity and goodwill suddenly became anathema. Erect cocks and sexual couplings in stone were broken, naughty wall murals painted over, lamps shattered, and numerous activities curtailed as sin and shame.  Art which celebrated sex and potency became “nasty, dirty, pagan” and symbolic of the persecutions of good, honest, upright Christian folk.

What replaced the sexual images? Violent depiction of the martyrdom of the early Christians, of course. Instead of a nice wall fresco (a painting done on wet plaster) of people enjoying sex, one saw a hoary, bearded patriarch torn limb from limb, fed to lions, roasted over a grill, or otherwise tortured and executed by those “bad” pagans. And since idols were also considered pagan, instead the official religious imagery displayed pictures of a crucified Messiah or a thunderbolt-dispensing, rather angry God. So, in the beginning, at least, censorship was based in a two-fold attack of revenge against the “old pagan ways” of celebrating sex as a natural, human activity (repression) and imposing the new, austere patriarchal aesthetics of a judging God whose “laws” against sin condemned people to eternal torment, but whom also promised, through Christ, redemption and blessing if you toed the line-up of new laws and behavior (propaganda).

Were there Art Police checking people’s houses for the errant dick, scouring the back alley walls for graffiti that might have read “Lucretia gives good head,” poking into courtyard gardens to unearth a naughty sculptures?  Oh, yes. Bankrupting fines, confiscation, destruction, and prosecutions. Just what you’d expect. Where Rome previously displayed exquisite art works of Nature and Myth, human behavior in the raw, and pagan rituals, now there would be only Christian-sanctioned images of Sin and Redemption, Angels, Martyrs, and Christ on the Cross to constantly remind everyone of the new value system.

And, of course, not just in Rome, but throughout the Empire. In other words, enter stage right, the Dark Ages. The Church (capital C) made it a point to stamp out artistic expression which did not conform to the rigorous imposition of Dei Gloria (Glory to God) wherever and however possible.

Ancient Art
Recently made to the public 
erotic art of Pompeii
Not until the Renaissance, in fact, do many names of individual artists come down to us from Art history.  But gradually, through the dissemination of “pagan” literature, science, philosophy, and Art, there began to arise an entirely “new” civilization.  Depiction of mythical figures, portraiture, landscapes, and daily activities began to show up among artists output.  In many cases to the absolute consternation of a censorious Church.  But after centuries of staring at Patriarchs being gruesomely martyred, even a few Church leaders were titillated by the sight of am almost-totally nude Venus or a suggestive pastoral scene of shepherdess and shepherd lounging amid the abundance of Nature.
Certainly, a great deal of religious artwork was also being produced, perhaps some of the greatest, in fact, as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael were commissioned to produce exquisite paintings to adorn cathedral and basilica.  But wealthy aristocrats and even middle-income merchants paid artists to produce non-religious Art to decorate their palaces, homes, and shops, as well.  It wasn’t long, in fact,  before “pornography” started to appear, too.  And, with it, censorship once again.

Censorship in Art comes in many forms, including censoring works before they are even created. During the Renaissance, for example, it was still against Catholic Church policy and municipal laws for artists to have women pose naked for them.  The results of this censorship on anatomy studies can be clearly seen in Michelangelo’s work, both in painting and sculpture.  While his male figures are bold and heroic, such as those in the Sistine murals, Moses, and David, his female figures simply look like muscular men with ill-formed breasts. Da Vinci, himself, courted prosecution by dissecting corpses to improve his anatomical studies.

Religious censorship became brutalized during the decades of war between Protestants and Catholics in Europe.  Each side destroyed countless works of Art in the name of their particular and peculiar beliefs because it extolled their enemies’ beliefs as presented in religious Art.  Paintings, sculptures, altar pieces, even jewelry was smashed, burned, melted down, and destroyed by mercenary soldiers, just as “heretics” were burned at the stake.

With the coming of the Ages of Reason and Science, much of the official censorship of various churches took a backseat to censorship from another authority: the state.  Again, we learn as much from what was not allowed to be created as what was.  The nobility and rising merchant class were the only people who could afford to commission artists, and of course, they had their own aesthetic tastes and purposes for the Art they paid for, just as was the case in the Renaissance.

Down, down, down through the centuries to the Victorian Age, we come which many still view as an extraordinarily censorious period.  Yet, in both Art and publishing, several examples show us that even erotic materials were slipping between the cracks.  The lush paintings, for example, of the pre-Raphaelites, such as Rossetti are sensual, passionate, and alluring. Nudes, particularly those in allegorical or mythical settings, such as works by Edward Byrne-Jones and William Holman Hunt, although praised by some, also drew majorly critical remarks by many of the burgeoning journalists and reviewers.

In an article entitled "Pre-Raphaelitism,."  The Art Journal’s edition of Nov. 1851 says:

“Our readers are, of course, aware that a pseudo-system of art has, for some time, obtruded itself on the public, under the presumptuous name borne by our author’s pamphlet, and originating with three or four, according to their chivalrous advocate, ‘exceeding young men, of stubborn instincts, and positive self-trust, and with little natural perception of beauty!’ To associate anything from such a source, with the name of the great Italian painter, whether in a manner expressive of concurrence or antagonism, is offensive in the highest degree.”
Censorship by the “established art coterie” is assuredly as injurious as that by any municipal authority or church because, as in this case, it affects not only future artistic commissions but public display of the Art itself, not to mention public perception of what, indeed, is Art.

Toward the end of that same century, as new forms of expressive Art blossomed, each, in turn, drew down the wrath of various critics and self-appointed censors: Impressionism, Expressionism, Pointillism, Art Deco and Nouveau.

Today, we find it a bit ludicrous to imagine, for example, that Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings of Parisian can-can dancers’ bloomers were the subject of scandal, insult, and censorship, yet such was the case.  Gaughin’s topless Tahitians, too, brought protest from priest as well as newspaper reviewer.  Even Gustav Klimt in Vienna had his works and ideas vehemently censored despite the fact that his work, such as The Kiss, displayed no nudity whatever.

Futurism, Cubism, Abstractism.  These and many of their forebears were victims of heavy censorship by many totalitarian governments during the mid-20th Century.  Most of us are aware that the Nazis declared thousands of Art works to be decadent and destroyed them as such, while also persecuting and executing artists under their power who would not conform to the National Socialist ideals.  In the former Soviet Union, all Art was made subservient to the State.  That which did not aid the Communist propaganda program was censored.  This same trait played out violently in China where “cultural revolution” made the world’s most populous nation politically and culturally homogenous.  Other nations, of various political persuasion have, and still do, follow suit.

In the United States, Jackson Pollock’s splashes were soundly criticized by would-be protectors of the public morals and aesthetic tastes, as were the pop Art works of Warhol, Peter Max, and Claes Oldenburg.  Some of the more recent controversies involve art photographers, as well.  Robert Maplethorpe’s “obscene” works still put many wanna-be censors’ teeth on edge despite acclaim by public viewers and reviewers. Until the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, The United States had no federal legislation to support the arts. They finally began assisting cultural activities, but under their auspices. Government grants and corporate sponsors are hardly ever unbiased in their selection of who and what receives funding. Their support, or lack of it, is a hidden form of censorship.

With all this in mind, it should not surprise the cultured Art appreciator, or even those who just “know what they like,” that the erotic frescoes of Pompeii cause such a clamor, even, or especially, in their own homeland. Preserved by catastrophe, and carefully restored to some semblance of their former beauty and simplicity, the frescoes dramatically demonstrate that “depraved” Art, even that of some two thousand years ago, still gets the blood up in more ways than one.

Critics have tried --- are still trying, in fact --- to overpaint these murals with the brush of decadence and illegality.  Some proclaim the art must have adorned a brothel to which only whores and furtive men had access.  This has been disproved by archaeologists working at Pompeii.  On the contrary, the paintings were done on the walls of a public bath where men and women frequently, if not daily, washed, splashed, and socialized freely together.  That they were not scandalized by continual viewings of painted couples engaging in cunnilingus, fellatio, anal and vaginal coitus show Pompeii’s visitors, and us today, not that the Ancient Romans were jaded voyeurs of a decadent past, but that they naturally accepted such adult behavior and that it was “no big deal.”

Despite the fact that we are living in the 21st Century, which some claim ought to be the most progressive in the history of humankind, there are still forces in our society which maintain that they, not you, the individual, should be the arbiters and dictators of what you may or may not experience in and through Art. These forces are drawn from organized religion, from political and social groups, from municipal authorities and the media.  They claim to represent your own moral sense; claim to know what can and will corrupt your thinking and behavior. They are the ones who wish to have the power over you to say, and enforce, their command: Thou Shalt Not Look. But, in the end, it is still your choice, isn’t it?

Copyright © 2002 William Dean. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or post in whole or in part. 

William Dean is an erotic rambler, a media dude, and a graphic artist. He writes under his own name and the pen name Count of Shadows. He’s Associate Editor and Graphics Artist for Clean Sheets. He creates graphics and  writes the monthly column "Into the Erotik" for Erotica Readers Association. Dean also hosts the column "Erotik Journeys" at BackWash.com. He's been published at SoMa Literary Digest, Hoot Island, suspect thoughts, Literotica, Other Rooms, and more. His short stories have appeared in Desires, Tears on Black Roses, and Clean Sheets: From Porn to Poetry. Email William Dean.

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