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Published on Thursday, 03 November 2011 Written by Jeff Booth


Michelangelo's Last Judgment

From the moment of its creation, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment fresco was a constant target for censorship. Many even called for it to be completely painted over. It was not until after Michelangelo’s death that the censors won a victory. In 1565, 24 years after its completion, the painter Daniele da Volterra began to paint coverings on the nude figures. Others would finish the job. Over 400 years later, some of the censored nudity was restored. The 14 year long restoration was completed in 1994, although it was not possible to restore all of the nudes. Volterra completely destroyed the original figures of St. Catherine and St. Blaise. Volterra also used techniques that insured that the painting underneath could never be recovered, even though other less destructive methods were available to him. Volterra is remembered today far more for his nickname “the breeches maker” than for any of his art. He also goes down in history as one of the greatest desecrators of great art.


If you want to see how the Sistine Chapel looks today, this virtual tour is almost as good as being there




John Cleland's Fanny Hill

Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, is the first prose pornographic novel in the English language. It was originally published in England in 1748, and Cleland published the second part in early 1749. It. It was also his only real success as a writer. Cleland wrote it while in prison, sent there for a year for debt. In November of 1749, Cleland and the publishers were arrested for corrupting the king's subjects through their book. It would be illegal to publish in the United States and England for a long time, although underground copies could be found with some searching. An uncensored version was openly published in England in 1960, and the publisher was almost immediately charged with violating the Obscenity Act. The government won its case, and it would be another ten years before it was legally published in England. Memoirs first came to the United States in 1821, and was quickly banned as obscene. It would continue to be illegal to publish until 1966, when the Supreme Court ruled in Memoirs v Massachusetts that it was not obscene. The court's decision was not a complete win. The court ruled that it would still be illegal to market it as a sexy novel, which would appeal to prurient interests. It could only be sold as literature. That restriction would be lifted in 1973 with the introduction of the court's new and more lenient Miller Test. The Miller Test continues to be used to this day despite its invoking community standards that are largely irrelevant and impossible to fairly apply in a world where so much commerce takes place on the Internet.




Thomas Edison Movie Title Card

From the very beginning, censors saw movies as something completely different. They were the entertainment of the masses, and thus, the most likely to corrupt the vulnerable unwashed. They were accorded no constitutional protections at all, and were not considered a form of expression that needed protection. Unlike books, or art, or published photographs, or even plays, movies had to be pre-approved by a censor board in most communities. This led to an endless array of varying standards, and movie producers could never predict where their movie would be allowed to be shown. This led the producers to create the Motion Picture Production Code in 1930, ruled by the iron grip of the nation's new official censor, Will Hays. After 1934 when the code was fully implemented, the content of American movies was completely controlled, with strict rules designed to keep American's moral and patriotic. It was more than just a ban on sex- movies could not criticize the clergy, they could not glorify crime, which led to a ban on depictions of the criminal Boston Tea Party gang.  Even movies about the Nazi concentration camps were banned. Movies were sanitized of things that might upset or corrupt the public. Ironically, it was television that would save the movies as an art form. The movies needed to offer something you could not get from television, and the solution was more adult and more realistic stories that dealt with the real world. Under the code, those movies were forbidden. In 1968, the Production Code was finally abandoned. Movies in the U.S. got a lot more interesting after that.




Félix-Jacques Moulin Photograph

Félix-Jacques Moulin began working as a professional photographer in 1849, when he opened his photography shop. He was one of the early pioneers of nude photography. In 1851 he was arrested and imprisoned for a month for producing obscene works. The court stated that his works were so indecent that even pronouncing the titles of his photographs in court would be an indecency, let alone showing them to a jury. In American obscenity trials, it was common for the jury to have to take the prosecutor's word that the materials were obscene, because they were too obscene for the jury to see them. After his release from prison, Moulin continued to do nude photography, but much more discreetly. His nude models came in through a newly installed rear door.





Aristophanes' play Lysistrata sets the record for the oldest work that has battled censorship into modern times. First performed in 411 BC, it is a comedy about a woman's attempt to stop the Pelopponnesian War by organizing the other Greecian women and getting them to refuse to have sex with their husbands until the war is ended. The play would be involved with many censorship battles, including over the editions with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. Of particular note is the 1956 battle in the U.S. where a postmaster thumbed through the book being shipped in the mail, was shocked by it, and had it seized as obscenity. Thanks to the infamous Comstock Law, the post office was fully empowered to seize whatever it deemed obscene. This court battle over Lysistrata would not only get the play declared not obscene, it would also put an end to the extreme censorship powers of the U.S. Post Office. The poster here is from the 1946 production with an all black cast put on by the Federal Theater Project. Although well-reviewed, it would play for a single day. Dan Able, head of the Works Project Administration, had the play shut down for being bawdy and indecent, despite not having seen it himself.


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