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Censorship and Controversy in Contemporary Art
(Released June 2002)

  by Sara Harrison  


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In the beginning...

As time has moved on and contemporary art has moved with it, controversy has somehow always managed to keep up. Going back to the beginning of art historical study we can find cases of both individual artists and groups who have rocked the artistic status quo with their innovative contributions to the art of the day. The 20th century was no exception.

19071 is widely considered to be the year modernism was born, when the proud father, Paris-based Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) delivered Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to an unsuspecting public.2 The shock waves sent out by this work are without doubt easier to appreciate than the aesthetic challenge posed by the Impressionists some decades earlier, whose gentle images have served the greetings card industry so well. Picasso replaced the unthreatening female nude with what appeared to be a group portrait of prostitutes, and he did so in a style that did not echo his Western ancestors, but that drew upon non-European art viewed by his contemporaries as "primitive." Through the following decades, Picasso continued his assault on the taste of the cultured classes with further explorations of "primitivism," and most significantly with his development, along with the Frenchman Georges Braque (1882-1963), of Cubism. Indeed, Picasso's long life enabled him to keep up his challenge for the best part of the century, but he was eventually superceded by other pretenders to the crown of king maverick.

In 1915, the anarchic members of the Dada movement began to wreak havoc in Switzerland. Their impact spread through Europe, eventually taking root in Germany. Two of Dada's best known German proponents are Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959), whose work developed into the genre known as Neue Sachlichkeit, and whose challenging brand of social and political satire is exemplified by Dix's Erinnerung an die Spiegelsale von Brussel (1920).3 Such works led the National Socialists to brand their art, along with that of many of their contemporaries, as degenerate.

Dadaism made its way to New York, where a key figure was the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). In 1917 he created what is perhaps his best known work, Fountain, a urinal signed with one of the pseudonyms under which he worked, R. Mutt.4 With this work, which was excluded from the first exhibition of the New York Society of Independent Artists, Duchamp simultaneously created the first ready-made and ignited the "but is it art?" debate that continues to rage to this day.

Surrealism was born from Dada and launched in 1924 with the publication of Manifeste du Surréalisme by André Breton (1896-1966); activity was initially centred on Paris in the 1920's and 1930's. Surrealism's most famous legacy is the precisely rendered, detailed fantasies of the Spaniard Salvador Dalí (1904-89). Paintings such as Hallucination Partielle: Six Images de Lenine sur un Piano (1931), sought not only to challenge the viewer's taste, but also to disturb.5

The Second World War took many of the Surrealists to New York, where later in the next decade Jackson Pollock (1912-56) completed his first drip or action painting, and assumed his role at the head of Abstract Expressionism.6 Then, in 1960, the "godfather" of Pop art, Andy Warhol (1928-87), breached the boundaries between high and low art, placing the products of popular culture and consumer society in the revered space of the gallery with his screen prints of food packaging and popular music and cinema icons, such as the Ten Lizes (1963) in the Pompidou Centre in Paris.7

There are countless other controversial figures populating the art world of the 20th century, who have shocked the public and had censors champing at their bits, but, in noting some of the contributions of these key players whose work has become so familiar, we can appreciate the soothing effects of time. Furthermore we are able to see that the controversies of recent years continue in a well-established tradition, where current artists hope to add their names to an illustrious list of forerunners.

Contemporary Concerns

The international, although by no means universal, appeal of art is mirrored by its ability to provoke controversy the world over. Significantly, the catalysts for outrage and censorship seem by and large to be the same; countries that take pride in their liberality and support for freedom of expression react in ways remarkably similar to those they perceive to be repressive.

I propose to consider here some examples of recent controversies from different corners of the globe, before focusing on the Sensation exhibition, which began at the Royal Academy of Arts in London (September 18th-December 28th, 1997), before travelling via the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (September 30th-February 21st, 1999) to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York (October 2nd, 1999-January 9th, 2000). The exhibition is one of the most controversial cases of attempted censorship in recent years and raises many interesting issues related to the role of the media, the involvement of politicians and governments in the arts, legal issues, and matters relating to funding. Furthermore, it indicates the type of art capable of arousing such emotions at the close of the 20th century.


In 1998 the German parliament became the scene of artistic debate, as the proposed project by Hans Haacke (b. 1936) for the re-opening of the Reichstag in Berlin was met with criticism from all political camps. The U.S.-based German artist proposed to install a 70-foot trough, filled with soil brought by the parliament's members from their constituencies, on top of which was to be inscribed, in gothic letters, Der Bevölkerung.8 According to Haacke, the work explores issues relating to the constitution and the changing conception of German citizenship, but for many the work reawakened unsavoury memories of Adolf Hitler's pronouncements on "blood and soil". There would have been irony indeed if wariness concerned with mimicking the National Socialists had led to policies of censorship, but this was narrowly avoided when the installation got the go-ahead, winning the vote 260:258.9


No stranger to controversy, the American photographer Andres Serrano (b. 1953) found himself at the centre of a debate over an exhibition of his work at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne in 1997. The main focus of the outrage was his work Piss Christ (1987), a photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine, which the Catholic church had campaigned to prevent being included in the show. Vandalism of the piece led to the exhibition being terminated ahead of schedule while opponents rabble-roused, seeking to highlight the use of taxpayers' money to fund this and other such art.10 Indeed, the Sensation show was originally destined to travel to Canberra after New York, but, having witnessed the controversy it provoked there, the National Gallery of Australia decided not to stage it after all, a controversial decision which the director of the gallery, Brian Kennedy, concedes was mishandled, and one that he acknowledges could be construed as censorship.


Cuban art has been enjoying international popularity in recent years. One interesting twist to North American-Cuban relations is the exemption of art from the U.S.-embargo, meaning that it is legal for Americans to buy Cuban art and ship it back home. The Bienal de La Habana, held for the seventh time in 2001, seems positively well-established - a veteran event amid the rash of new international art events that have sprung up in recent years. However, some native artists who have found fame abroad must proceed with caution on their home turf if they do not wish to incur censorship. One such instance was at the most recent Biennial, when Tania Bruguera was prevented from repeating her politically challenging performance, staged at a former military prison; the inclusion of male nudity gave the authorities a pretext for banning further performances.

United Kingdom

In Britain there exists an annual, institutionalized form of controversy in the form of the Turner Prize. This competition was established in 1984 with the aim of acknowledging and supporting the work of contemporary artists based in the country.11 The exhibition of work by the short-listed artists and the announcement of the winner have become huge media events. It is no longer solely the subject of arts programmes and the arts pages of the broadsheets but creates a brief spell during which art takes an unprecedented central role in the tabloid press, as the popular newspapers strive to whip their readership into a frenzy of outrage. The 2001 prize was won by Martin Creed and awarded by the pop star Madonna at a glitzy ceremony, broadcast live on national television. Creed's work in the show was Work # 227: The Lights Going On and Off and was exactly what the title indicates; predictable jokes and headlines ensued. The controversy surrounding the previous year's event, which was won by the British-based German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, was uncharacteristically high-brow, as accusations of plagiarism were levelled at the shortlisted painter Glenn Brown for purportedly copying the cover of a science fiction novel. In 1999 the tabloids had a field day, again not over the winning entry by Steve McQueen, but over Tracey Emin's installation My Bed.12 While some Japanese tourists chose to rail against it as reactionary, expressing their disgust by jumping on it and staging a pillow fight before being removed by security, the nature of their objection wasn't shared by many members of the public or the press, who took exception to this bed with its soiled sheets, strewn with personal items, finding it depraved and devoid of artistic merit. The final "injustice" was a disclosure of the sum paid for the work by the British collector Charles Saatchi.


"Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos"
- Norman Rosenthal, Director of the Royal Academy of Arts, London13

The words of the man behind the exhibition that has caused the biggest Sensation of recent years. Words that suggest that he had more than an inkling of, in fact wished for, the furor that would follow. It seems implausible, however, that he would have anticipated the scale of the revolt. More accurately, Rosenthal was just one of the men behind the show; the other was the advertising mogul and art collector Charles Saatchi. The full title of the show was Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, and, while he was clearly essential as the lender of the works, the suggestion is that Saatchi's role was far more "hands on". The editor of Art Monthly, Patricia Bickers, goes as far as saying that Rosenthal was only "notionally" the curator, adding that "no one really doubts that it is in every sense Charles Saatchi's show."14

Charles Saatchi is something of a paradoxical figure. He is a notoriously private man, but one who is nonetheless keen for his presence to be felt, and indeed acknowledged. While on occasion his generosity may conceivably go unnoticed, his bequest to regional British museums was well publiciced, and indeed well documented through the book, The Saatchi Gift. He made his money in advertising with his brother Maurice as Saatchi & Saatchi, a background that it has been suggested is reflected clearly in his taste in art.15 Saatchi's support of some artists has made their reputation overnight, while the experience for others of his buying and commissioning has been less positive - some have fallen from favour and he has abruptly sold all his holdings of their work. He is neither a straight-forward dealer nor a collector, but, as Bickers suggests, both. His power is apparent not least through the way in which he has effectively defined "Brit art," and it is a power that extends well beyond his effect on individual artists and the art market. He has contrived to set himself up as a rival to Tate Modern by owning precisely what they lack and has been granted access to prestigious exhibition spaces, at home and abroad, in which to showcase his art. In the words of the art historian Julian Stallabrass, "What Cosimo de Medici was to quattrocento Florence, Charles Saatchi is to late twentieth-century London."16

The old adage "any publicity is good publicity" will of course be familiar to this advertising man. And it is a mantra that the institutions were soon to make their own: for the Royal Academy the show proved to be one of the most popular shows of the last 10 years, while at the Brooklyn Museum it was second only to Monet and the Mediterranean for attendance figures in the last decade. But Sensation not only pushed Charles Saatchi and the museums firmly into the spotlight; it also brought attention to some of the artists whose work is in his collection. Some figures already enjoyed a high media profile often by having already played a part in some other controversy. This time too the focus - from both within and beyond the art world - was selective and essentially of a "negative" nature.

Examining the exhibition catalogue, it is interesting that many of the artists - there are 42 in total17 - are far from "notorious," and their work is unlikely to bring them any such accolade. The works include a significant number of paintings, and while Jenny Saville's works may pose a challenge because of her eschewal of models of conventional beauty, the clear, bold, colorful works of Gary Hume, Britain's representative at the 48th Venice Biennale, seem positively tame.18 In the place of Tracey Emin's bed was her tent, embroidered with the names of all her sexual partners, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995.19 The evident skill in the crafting of the piece does not save it from the critics of the show, and indeed of contemporary art, whose favored argument is to question whether such works "merit" the title of art.

The crescendo begins with the more clearly distressing Dead Dad (1996-97) by Ron Mueck, an eerily life-like silicone model lying prostrate on the floor, and Self (1991)20 by Marc Quinn - a perspex sculpture of the artist's head, filled with his own blood and displayed in a fridge, which disturbs in the tradition of the Surrealists. And then we reach the Chapman brothers and Damien Hirst. The shock tactics favoured by Jake and Dinos Chapman are deemed puerile and infantile by their detractors; Great Deeds against the Dead (1994)21 presents us with mutilation and castration, Ubermensch (1995)22, with its model of the scientist Stephen Hawking about to plummet off the edge of a cliff in his wheelchair, favors cruelty and insensitivity over political correctness, while Zygotic Acceleration, Bio-genetic, De-sublimated Libidinal Model (Enlarged x 1000) (1995)23 and Tragic Anatomies (1995)24 feature genetic freaks made up of girl mannequins morphed together, many with the Chapmans' trademark phallus nose and rectum mouth. Damien Hirst found controversy and fame in Britain for his practice of cutting up dead animals and preserving them in formaldehyde when he won the Turner Prize in 1995. Several of these works are featured in the show, including perhaps the most famous exemplar, the shark, entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991).25

Some of these works sparked controversy, but it was in fact two other pieces, by different artists in London and New York, which caused the biggest uproar.

In London it was a painting by Marcus Harvey, a monochrome canvas entitled MH (1996-98).26 The image, made up of prints from a plaster cast of a child's hand, depicted the infamous imprisoned child murderer Myra Hindley.27 The work became the subject of a fierce tabloid campaign, with one newspaper paying for the mother of one of Hindley's victims to attend the show. The media was successful in fueling a frenzy, and ink and eggs were thrown at the painting by a member of the public. The vandalized canvas was taken away and cleaned, after which it was reinstated, behind glass, with the Royal Academy preaching the defense of freedom of expression.

It was Chris Ofili who found himself at the center of the storm in New York. Ofili had already experienced controversy when he too won the Turner Prize in 1998. His intricately patterned mixed-media works draw on his Nigerian heritage and are characterized by their inclusion of elephant dung. The focus of the outrage was The Holy Virgin Mary (1996): a mixed media painting/collage depicting a black madonna, surrounded by images of buttocks, with the addition of the ubiquitous dung. Ofili stayed well out of the affray as his work was branded blasphemous.

The key player in the New York fracas was the then mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who condemned the exhibition as "sick stuff" - a judgment passed prior to the opening and without him having seen the show. Giuliani threatened to withdraw funding from the Brooklyn Museum of Art where Sensation was held, and to revoke the Museum's lease. On opening day, protestors, including a large number from the Catholic League, confronted long lines of visitors - there were a record 9200 people on the opening day - while the day before the New York Civil Liberties Union had led a demonstration in defense of the Museum. Giuliani's supporters saw him as a savior of moral and social standards, while his attackers accused him of intolerance, heard echoes of Hitler's terminology in his choice of the term "sick," and levelled charges of political diversion tactics. Steven C. Dubin, writing in Art in America, observes: "Art critic, landlord, social worker and sponsorship scold: Giuliani tried on all these hats and more, desperately hoping to find one that fit."28

It became a media circus - one inflammatory statistic states that the New York Times gave the event more front page coverage than it had the Holocaust.29 Giuliani and William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, extracted all the coverage they possibly could. Without doubt, Giuliani's antics unwittingly contributed far more to raising the exhibition's profile than the Museum's own intentionally provocative publicity campaign. But as Giuliani issued threats the debate took on new proportions and a legal battle ensued. The Museum brought in the famous First Amendment specialist lawyer, Floyd Abrams. He successfully upheld the Museum's right to freedom of expression and continued funding was assured.30 There is pessimism in some camps as to the implications this case may hold for the future: Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York makes the gloomy prediction of self-censorship on the part of museums that are keen to avoid a comparable situation.31 Unfortunately, by definition, this will remain imperceptible to those outside these institutions.

But with Giuliani defeated although by no means abated32, a second wave of controversy struck. The Museum's funding of the show came under scrutiny and the focus shifted from the mayor's tirade against the use of taxpayers' money for the support of this kind of art, to accusations that a public body was being used for long-term private financial gain, namely for the benefit of Charles Saatchi and the auction house Christie's. The presentation of the Brooklyn Museum as a black sheep, with the suggestion that its practices were unusual, is in fact far from the truth. In ARTnews, Patricia Failing explains that the implications of corrupt practice hinged on donations of money by Saatchi, by dealers whose artists' work was included in the show, and by Christie's, who also enjoyed special access to the Museum for the purpose of entertaining their clients. Failing goes on to demonstrate that these practices are standard, citing as examples key North American art institutions and drawing on the testimonies of their directors.33 It is, however, this second wave that has already left a clear and permanent legacy, with the American Association of Museum's decision to draft ethical guidelines on exhibition funding in order to avoid similar mud-slinging in the future.34

...and what came after... lessons learnt?

"Reinventing the wheel is one of our favourite pastimes." - Lucy R. Lippard35

An apt point in many respects when considering the aftermath of the Sensation exhibition. The drafting of ethical guidelines for museums and galleries aside, as yet many possible knock-on effects, either positive or negative, remain unclear. As far as the art and the artists are concerned, the level of attention was unsustainable, and has inevitably subsided. For some it was a notoriety they already knew, while for others it was perhaps the 15 minutes that Andy Warhol alloted us all. The predictions concerning the longevity of the careers of these young British artists remains a point of debate. Members of the camp of conservative critics are keen to point out the lack of originality in their work, arguing that their use of pornography, mutilation, decay, and blasphemy merely echo that of the Surrealists and Dadaists. Others have suggested that the topicality of their art will proclude durability36, as will its dependency on the media.37

Saatchi has sneaked back out of the limelight...but not too far. In an article in the French journal Art Press it was reported that, a year after Sensation, in a sale of 130 lots from his collection, 85% of the works sold for double their catalogue price.38 As his fortune grows, so seemingly does his ambition, with reports appearing in the press of plans to open a Saatchi Museum just down the river from Tate Modern.39 In the meantime, he continues to court controversy. In March 2001 he found himself at the centre of another tabloid-led campaign, when the show I Am a Camera was labelled "a revolting exhibition of perversion under the guise of art" by the News of the World.40 Photographs by Tierney Gearon of her children were branded pornographic and the police attempted unsuccessfully to enforce their removal from the show.41 The show inevitably enjoyed a prolonged run - one lesson at least has apparently been learned.

While not on the scale of the Brooklyn Museum, the show brought the Royal Academy plenty of publicity. It is interesting to note, however, the reception of their first contemporary show since then, Apocalypse: Beauty and Horror in Contemporary Art, which was billed as the big sequel.42 While it caused a certain stir, mainly amongst Catholic groups, due to the inclusion of the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan's La Nona Ora, depicting the pope struck down by a meteorite, it essentially failed to deliver on the controversy front. In recent weeks, however, there has been some stir over the resignation of the chairman of the Royal Academy Trust, Sir Anthony Tennant, who stepped down amidst accusations that he fixed commissions during his time as chairman of Christie's (1993-96), along with the former chairman of Sotheby's, Alfred Taubman, who has been found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of £5 million. Tennant has refused to go to the U.S. for trial, and would be arrested if he entered the U.S.43

Steven Dubin in his discussion of Giuliani's role in the Sensation scandal in New York suggests that while the media rarely initiates the fight, it can be relied upon to "simplify, amplify and sustain battle."44 In Britain, certain sections of the media have, on occasion, acted as instigators, with tabloids mounting their own "witch hunts". Dubin's point is nonetheless an interesting one as, in laying the blame at Giuliani's door, he raises questions concerning the relationship between politics and art. In many respects, in the case of Giuliani, art can be seen as merely a means by which he was able to launch a moral crusade, yet elsewhere Giuliani has acknowledged the economic worth of art. Without doubt in Britain this is one of the key reasons for the government's increased interest in art, where a thriving art scene is taken to represent social and economic regeneration. The British Prime Minister Tony Blair has sought of late to associate himself whenever and wherever possible with the contemporary British art scene.45 Taste in art and political persuasion will determine whether it is in the "trendy dynamism" or the "brash vacuity" that we assume Blair finds a fitting metaphor for the policies of his New Labour government. But significantly it is precisely the Sensation artists that we see being absorbed into the establishment.

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