For as long as humanity has existed, so too the need for creative self-expression through art. As long as there have been people expressing themselves, there have been others who would suppress that free expression. This is censorship in its simplest form; the suppression of any form of expression that is considered objectionable, politically incorrect or harmful as determined by institutions apart from those sponsoring the form of expression. Censorship is usually applied to anything that is deemed to promote or represent conflict, injustice, or anything lacking in morals or decency. Artists are often the first to be targeted by censorship and especially when in situations where the topic of nudity is presented in the question. In regions where politics and propaganda rule, artists present a dangerous unknown. So-called “harmful to minors” standards are applied to shield children from material such as commercial porn. As there is no established legal definition of pornography, it is very hard to draw a line between the two. A working definition could be that the sole purpose of pornography is to create sexual arousal and that art has many layers.
Anthony Comstock 1844-1915 was the pioneer of modern American censorship. Starting with an 1868 police supported raid on a bookstore in New York, in a futile attempt to eradicate. The federal anti-obscenity law of 1873, in part inspired by Comstock, banned items "for the prevention of conception." As a special "postal inspector," he abused his powers considerably by raiding the Arts Student League in New York in 1906. He once cautioned that "obscene, lewd and indecent" photos are "commonly, but mistakenly called art." Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed.”
Censorship of nudity in art
The history of the nude in art, traditionally starting in the classical period 6th - 5th century BC should be pushed back to around 30-25,000 BC. Indian temple art, some dating from at least the 1st century BC, often depicts voluptuous female nudes. There are two typical qualifiers for that. One is that historically, the nude is mainly a phenomenon of Western art. The other is that from very early on, the nude male and the nude female are treated quite differently and have different roles to play. When Christianity began to take solid root, the portrayal of nudes diminished. For centuries, the only nudes permissible were religious art. Art is capable of provoking debate, unrest, and protest. Art seems set to continue to attract the attention of those who would prefer it to be silenced.
Most nude art, before the 1800s, consisted of male depictions or, often time, modified male subjects to represent females. In today’s society, however, nudity seems more often as wanting to obscure the fine line between art and erotica. Nude depictions have often been used in symbolic ways, as an extended metaphor for a complex and multifaceted concept. Tales and stories from mythology once depicted naked gods in different paintings, such as the scene where Leucippus daughter is abducted by Castor and Pollux. Many art studies were rendered before creating a final project using the nude physique as a template. Studies tracing as far back as Italian Renaissance are used by artists to understand the problems involved in the execution of the artist's subjects and the disposition of the elements of the artist work, such as the human body depicted using light, color, form, perspective, and composition.
Four years ago, a French schoolteacher tried to post a picture of L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet. Facebook’s moderators nixed it, and the teacher sued Facebook in court over its choice to take “L’Origine” down. The case has big implications for American social media companies and their moderation policies. The site also, at one time, suspended New York art critic Jerry Saltz over the “offensiveness” of a few medieval paintings. Previously, Facebook has censored work from institutions as diverse as the New York Academy of Art and the Centre Pompidou. Richard Corliss said, "Every artist undresses his subject, whether human or still life. It is his business to find essences in surfaces, and what more attractive and challenging surface than the skin around a soul?"
Censorship of nudity in literature
In response to the writing of philosophers and religious theorists, such as Martin Luther, in 1559 the Roman Catholic Church issued the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. This list contained the titles of books which were to be banned for their ideological content. The index issued 20 times throughout the past centuries with is most recent release in 1966. Censorship played a huge role in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as well with the banning of “inappropriate” books by librarians, as well as teachers, to supposedly protect the innocence of children. William O. Douglas said, “Literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor.”
Censorship in literature has a long history beyond Comstock’s reach as well. A sex education book, meant to teach children 10 and older about emotional health and relationships, sexual health and pregnancy for children, titled It's Perfectly Normal, was one of the books banned over the past two decades. It contains some areas which regard puberty and sexual orientation as well as color pictures of naked people, by illustrator Michael Emberley. In 1981, at Gastonia, North Carolina, The Living Bible was banned as well. Other books banned for nudity, either in the books illustrations or discussed in the content of the book, include My Mom's Having A Baby! A Kid's Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy by Dori Hillestad Butler, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky and In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak to name only a handful.
Censorship of nudity in media and entertainment
The entertainment industry has long suffered censorship, even nudity despite being a predominately auditory art form. As a society, we have always singled out people, whether due to their race, sexual orientation, or political views. This is no different in the film. Within the golden age, Mae West 1893-1980 was seen as a victim of censorship. Her sexual past made her a target and a risk to the Hay's Office; making her 'golden age' turbulent. The film and television industry has a built-in form of censorship through their rating system, said to have been created to protect the innocent and immature. In 1922, out of fear that government regulations were soon to come, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, an industry lobby, and trade organization, headed by Will H. Hays, who thwarted the first attempts of the federal government to impose censorship on the film industry.
Häxan was the first film to be banned in the United States with nudity as a part of the grounds for the ban. Several films have been, and even in our liberated times, continue to be banned around the world. Another film banned in the United States was Promises! Promises! in 1963. Since then, due in part to the implementation of the film rating system, although films have been banned in the states, nudity has not been one of the themes regarded in the decision. Although some directors and film industry professionals would argue that the rating system itself is an unjust form of censorship, others support the system fully and believe that its existence actually allows them more freedom in their work.
Video games have also seen the rugged edge of the censorship cutting tools. In Kuwait, The Order: 1886 is banned. In Saudi Arabia, God of War, Heavy Rain, and L.A. Noire are just a couple of the video game titles on the banned list. In the United Arab Emirates, a branch of the government, called the National Media Council (NMC), controls the media and entertainment industry and has banned dozens of games, including Dead Rising 2, Godfather II, Mafia II, Red Dead Redemption, Catherine, and Heavy Rain. Most recently, in video games, the award-winning Papers, Please, border agent simulator game, is making some changes before its release. According to Lucas Pope, via Twitter, the nudity in the game had to be removed because Apple deemed it “pornographic content.”
Album covers and music videos alike have been the cutting ground for censorship. The original nude cover of Yoko Ono and John Lennon's album Two Virgins provoked an outrage. The artwork of Cannibal Corpse, a death-metal band, has been censored at some point, due to graphic imagery and occasional nudity. While German heavy metal band Scorpions' album, Virgin Killer’s, the artwork had to be changed altogether. The original cover showed a nude prepubescent girl. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's, Kanye West's album, featured original cover artwork of a man having sex with a phoenix (both nude). Two alternative versions were made for album distribution. The first showed a ballerina holding a glass of wine. The second, the cover that appears on iTunes, shows a pixelated version of the original artwork. The sheer number of music videos which have an “uncensored version” is a demonstration of the rampant plague of censorship in the industry including, recently, Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines.
Global censorship of nudity
The Old Testament of the Bible states that the Hebrews burned the prophecy of Jeremiah. Confucius's writings were incinerated after a change of dynasty made them politically incorrect. 399 B.C. Socrates was charged with controversial teaching methods corrupting the youth of Athens with his words and drawing them away from the Greek religion. Socrates was sentenced to death for his actions. He was forced to drink a liquid poison. Even to this day, the "guardianship over the innocence of youth" theme is repeatedly upheld by censorship advocates. During the time of the ancient Roman Empire, censorship became an increasingly official duty. It was in Rome that “censor” was first inscribed. The title of censor was given to a Roman government public official.
The 17th and 18th centuries, commonly called the "Age of Enlightenment," in Europe, freedom of expression became the hallmark of the period, and it brought about a loosening in the laws, to some extent. Sweden was the first country to officially abolish censorship in 1766. In 1790, the first amendment to the United States Constitution, guaranteed freedom of speech and the press considering it two of humanity’s most precious rights. Established in 1922, the central censorship office, known for short as Glavlit, had absolute authority to subject the performing arts and all print media to preventive censorship and to suppress political dissidence by shutting down "hostile" newspapers. Libraries were too often the target of heretical attacks like the complete destruction of the University of Oxford library in 1683 and the destruction of Albanian-language collections in Kosovo libraries throughout the 1990s. By the nineteenth century, the first wave of state-sponsored censorship had largely ended in Europe, and had never been firmly established in the United States, public concern for morality and safeguards against offensive literature continued.
Russia has a long history of strict censorship. There was one short-lived period of tolerance and intellectual freedom, under the reign of Alexander II. From 1917 to the end of the 1980s, Russia was governed under a strict censorship rule. Under the Nazi regime, Germany also experienced a period of strict censorship. All media, public events, and even private communication were censored by the government, mostly by Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda. While leading a massive book burning in 1933, Goebbels tragically declared, “From these ashes will rise the phoenix of the new spirit.”
Cultural censorship of nudity
Many cultures throughout history have taken as many different views on nudity. In many countries, public nudity is outright forbidden. The Adamites, a Christian sect that practiced holy nudity, date back to the 2nd century AD and is now banned in many places around the world. While in other ancient cultures, such as ancient Greece, nudity was a regular affair throughout the day. Even the first Olympic Games were included events performed in the nude. It wasn’t until their revival in the 1800s that clothing was required. It is believed that the gymnosophists, ancient Indian aesthetics who regularly practiced nudism, were of great influence over the Greeks. A Hindu sect of India, called the Sakas, was also known to practice rituals, prayers, and ceremonies in the buff. However, in ancient China, nudity was generally viewed as a matter of class standing. Nudity was acceptable among the lower classes, but among the higher classes, nudity was considered wicked and the household servants, who were often partially nude, were considered to be subhuman.
History is replete with accounts of Western culture stretching its reach right to the core of native tribes; essentially forcing our modern day hang-ups regarding nudity and sexuality on these tribes of people and their cultures. By being told repeatedly that the Western definition of decency was the standard by which humans ought to be measured, most natives would succumb to our influences and traditions such as wearing clothing. As of 1988, a primitive and naked tribe, the Yanomamis still populated the area of Roraima in Brazil. However, they are in danger of extinction because the government has discovered gold and diamonds on their land. The Yanomami are the largest known isolated tribe on Earth. The Tupari tribe of the Rio Branco, are another example of anti-clothing aborigines. Tibor Sekelj wrote: "It is no wonder that the Tupari never created any kind of clothing, for the weather is always warm. Their natural nudity fits perfectly into the framework of their surroundings and, except for ceremony or decoration, they never think of covering themselves."
General notes on censorship of nudity
A familiar example censorship these days is the use of pixelization can be found in television news and documentary productions, in which vehicle license plates and faces of suspects at crime scenes are routinely obscured to maintain the presumption of innocence, as in the television series COPS. Bystanders and others who do not sign release forms are also customarily pixelated. Footage of nudity (including genitals, buttocks, and nipples) is likewise obscured in some media.
Censorship opens up much broader questions about the role of art as truth as well as the implications of constrained expression. Tate director, Nicholas Serota, at a May conference on censorship, stated: “We can probably all agree on many of the principles that we seek to uphold. What’s actually much more difficult is to recognize that there are no easy paths, that there are no guarantees by which, and through which, we can preserve this hard fought for the right for the freedom of free expression.”
For as long as there has been censorship, there have been those who fight against. As Albert Einstein once mentioned, "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." In 1973, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) was formed, in part, as a response to the Supreme Court decision in the Miller v. California case. Other civil rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, have joined in the mission of fighting censorship as well. Several more have formed recently with a specific interest in protecting the internet from censorship. The debate over whether or not the internet needs censorship has become an ongoing and passionate one, from both sides of the argument. Shelley Winters, in two wonderful sentences, eloquently illustrates the human dichotomy of the censorship argument. She said, "I think on-stage nudity is disgusting, shameful and damaging to all things American. But if I were 22 with a great body, it would be an artistic, tasteful, patriotic, and progressive religious experience.”
Recent news regarding censorship of nudity
Today censorship, especially the censoring of nudity, is an appealing topic of discussion for the people as well as for the media, including social media specifically. As mentioned before, Facebook, in particular, has an extensive, albeit short, history of censoring nudity of all varieties, especially in photos. The strange world of Facebook's image and the post-approval system was opened up recently through an information leak. It proves that the purportedly arbitrary nature of picture and post-approval actually has a "meticulous—if faintly gore-friendly and nipple-unfriendly—approach." In 2013, people from the ACLU discovered that Facebook’s ‘chest-recognition detectors’ are fully operational. One of their recent posts, about a bronze statue of a nude woman taking a picture of herself with her breasts exposed, was morally unfit for Facebook. Also recently, Facebook took down a Liverpool mother’s photo for violating the site’s nudity policy.
Despite the resilient efforts to control internet content, there is a new content concern born every day. The “new parenting craze” on social media networks is posting breastfeeding selfies. The internet, because it is not singularly controlled, is an open forum for discussions and images of all kinds. The further we, as a species, advance in technology, the more of these types of concerns will appear. The solution is communication and empathy. Hillary Clinton said, “Both the American people and nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.”
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