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6 Artists Who Were Banned, Censored or Arrested by Conservatives

With a brief reprieve after the ‘90s culture wars, it looks as though the tide is shifting back in the direction of visual art censorship.

With a brief reprieve after the ‘90s culture wars, it looks as though the tide is shifting back in the direction of visual art censorship, particularly with the incoming GOP Congress and its disdain for expression that is not squeaky clean. And the war is being fought from the halls of Congress -- as with the much-publicized Smithsonian dismissal of “A Fire in My Belly” -- to perpetually conservative points of consumerism -- as with retail outlets’ disdain for Kanye West’s album cover painted by American artist George Condo. Most nefarious are those instances when museums, galleries and other outlets for art practice self-censorship, preemptively or not, to avoid controversy. The very last place artists should fear morality police are the institutions that are meant to support them, and the willful abnegation of free speech is dangerous indeed.

Here are six artists who were banned, censored or arrested, evoking controversy and setting precedents in visual art:

1. Frederick MacMonnies, Copley Square, 1894.
To our modern eyes, sculptor Frederick MacMonnies’ "Bacchante and Infant Faun" could hardly be more innocuous. A naked but desexualized image of the Roman wine deity, cast in bronze and holding a child, its litheness seems countered only by its gaiety. But in 1854, when architect Follen McKim tried to mount it in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, a huge scandal erupted around the very qualities that seem so innocent today. The statue’s “drunken indecency” greatly offended the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, it seemed, and they had enough pull in the city that McKim thought better of his gift and shipped the Bacchus down to liberal New York. It resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art to this day, and partly as a result of the uproar surrounding it, MacMonnies became world-famous for the sculpture.

It was an early lesson for subsequent moralists -- the bigger the stink over a piece of art, the bigger the artist will become. Case in point: the familiarity of armchair art aficionados with “Piss Christ,” Andres Serrano’s controversial photograph that became synonymous with the Republican war against the National Endowment of the Arts in the 1990s.

2. Jean Toche, Flyers, 1974. In 1974, Jean Toche, co-founder of the situationist Guerrilla Art Action Group, mailed 30 flyers to museums and galleries throughout New York City criticizing their exhibition policies as bourgeois and exclusionary. In particular, he was defending what he believed was the artistic right of Tony Shafrazi to deface Picasso’s “Guernica,” having spraypainted the words “KILL LIES ALL” across the masterpiece in a protest against Vietnam and a purported effort to snatch it back from the gullet of history.

Toche’s defense wasn’t incendiary in itself, though the GAAG built its reputation on anti-war “happenings” inside museums, including one 1969 incident that ended with animal blood spewed all over the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art. Where he got himself into trouble was this passage in the flyer’s text:

We now call for the kidnapping of: museum’s trustees, museum’s directors, museum’s creators, museum’s benefactors, to be held as war hostages until a People’s Court is convened, to deal specifically with the cultural crimes of the ruling class, and with decision of sanctions, reparation and restitution, in whatever form decided by the People and the Artists.

Though his “kidnapping” was meant to be symbolic, the FBI is not known for its subtlety as art critic, and immediately arrested him at the behest of a presumably more nuanced critic, Douglas Dillion, then-president of MoMA. Toche was compelled by a federal judge to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, after which the charges were dropped. He continues to make political mail art, in caps lock.

3. Blu, MoCa, 2010. It’s remarkable (and confusing) that MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who made his name in New York City by displaying some of the most interesting and innovative contemporary art around in his eponymous gallery for nearly 15 years, would ever censor anything. But that’s exactly what happened in December, after he commissioned the celebrated and controversial Italian graffiti artist Blu to paint a large-scale mural at the museum’s entrance. Their contract was signed without a preliminary sketch, as is Blu’s standard modus operandi. And so, while Deitch attended Art Basel in Miami, Blu worked on his piece: a huge painting of the coffins of war casualties, with dollar bills instead of American flags draped over them.

Blu does not shrink when it comes to making strong statements with his work -- using the dollar bill as a common theme, he’s commented on the varying tentacles of corporate greed since 2000. According to an email conversation between the artist and longtime graffiti archivist Henry Chalfant, Deitch requested Blu paint a different mural over the coffins, “suggesting he would have preferred a piece that ‘invites people to come in the museum’. I told him that i will not to do that, for obvious reasons, and that probably I was not the artist best suited for this task.”