Can Artworks Be Criminally Obscene?

by Annie Saxena on Feb 10, 2023

What exactly constitutes obscenity in art? Is it simply things we find uncomfortable? Things that we would rather not think about?

The ‘obscenity’ that first springs to mind when thinking of censorship of art is the taboo regarding sex and sexuality. This censorship is quite arbitrary. For instance, a French teacher’s Facebook account was suspended after he posted a photo of l’Origine du Monde — a famous 19th-century painting of a woman’s vagina. However, sexually explicit ads which often cause issues of body image and self-esteem throughout society, are not censored. Rather, it is images of women who have body hair or cellulite which are deemed ‘inappropriate’ and shameful. This seemingly contradictory message only serves to feed into the culture of shame that surrounds sex and sexuality, which benefits no one.

Taboo often surrounds ideas and concepts of sex, sexuality, race, religion, and conflict – breaking which is considered as objectionable by a society. An act can be considered as a taboo in one culture but not in another. The 7 January 2015 attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo brought questions about freedom of expression, and its limits, into the spotlight. The tragedy sparked global debate about whether some expressive content should be censored if it tip toes cultural battlelines, and if so, to what end.

In India, the most famous painter to have undergone heavy censorship & exile as a result of his paintings was M.F. Husain. Honoured with the prestigious Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan, he was the highest paid painter in India with his paintings fetching up to $2 million. However, in February 2006, Husain was charged with hurting sentiments of people because of his nude portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses. Hindu nationalists accused Husain of being a pornographer and blasphemer. They wrecked galleries that showed his work, ransacked his home in Mumbai and threatened him with prosecution. This controversy raged till the end of his life.

Undoubtedly some art will offend some people, but individual sensibilities are no grounds for it being considered obscene with regards to images that include naked bodies or explicitly sexual imagery.Ultimately these are subjective opinions, and the perception of one cannot be construed as representative of a society/culture as a whole.

In short, there really is no legitimacy in, or benefit to, the labelling of art as criminally obscene. Art is a form of human expression, and the right to freedom of expression is considered a human right; it is both universal and inalienable.