Controversial Art in the 1990’s

In Nicole's Post on September 17, 2010 at 3:47 am

The basic argument of censorship, which is to repress and prevent what is deemed as offensive or dangerous images or ideas from exposure to the masses, has been perpetuated throughout history. Plato is often cited as the first advocate of censorship, with his intent to protect people from the influences of the arts, which he believed had the power to manipulate moral beliefs and actions (Darts, 2008,p. 107). Censorship has not only affected historical artists, such as Gustave Courbet, whose Study of Women was banned for “impropriety” in 1864 at the Paris Salon (Silk, 1992, p. 24), but has also affected contemporary artists as well.

This became very obvious during the late 20th century, most notably during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, as contemporary art in the United States became a highly politicized issue, and the fight against freedom of expression in art was rigorously fought by many conservative groups, including the Christian Action Network, the Christian Crusade, and the American Family Association. Many of the debates centered on “issues of government support and funding, indecency and religious desecrations, and free speech” (Darts, 2008, p. 105), and were aimed against artists, museums, and the foundations that supported them.

One famous example from this time is the outrage over the indecency of a photograph by the artist Andres Serrano, titled Piss Christ, which depicts a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine. The work was included in the annual “Awards in the Visual Arts” exhibition of 1989, held by the National Endowment for the Arts, which also funded the artist and his work (Darts, 2008, p. 109). The American Family Association held a press conference devoted to denouncing the NEA for funding the controversial work of Serrano and other artists, and over 100 members of Congress joined the effort, arguing that tax payers should not have to provide the revenue for such activities (Darts, 2008, p. 109).

The same basic argument was revisited in the 1999 case “Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences v. City of New York” (National Coalition Against Censorship, n.d.). In this case, Mayor Rudy Giuliani was offended by a painting by Chris Olifi, included in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, entitled The Holy Virgin Mary, in which the media was paint and elephant dung on canvas. However, the court ruled in the museum’s favor, stating the “the government cannot suppress works said to be ‘offensive, sacrilegious, morally improper or dangerous’, even in indirect ways” (National Coalition Against Censorship, n.d.).


Darts, D. (2008). The Art of Culture War: (Un)Popular Culture, Freedom of Expression, and Art Education. Studies in Art Education49(2), 103-121.

Dubin, S. C. (1994). Art’s Enemies: Censors to the Right of Me, Censors to the Left of Me. Journal of Aesthetic Education,28(4), 44-54.

National Coalition Against Censorship. (n.d.). Significance: Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences v. City of New York. Retrieved September 14, 2010, from http://www.ncac.org/art-law/sum-bro.cfm

Silk, G. (1992). Uneasy Pieces: Controversial Works in the History of Art. Art Journal51(1), 22-25.


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