Facebook’s recent removal of a photo of Gustave Courbet’s ‘L’Origine Du Monde’ has sparked a discussion on censorship. Policing expression is a tricky thing: on the one hand, it suppresses harmful material and obviates mass hysteria; on the other, it harbours the risk of lapsing into oversensitivity and, ultimately, of privileging certain vantage points which serve only to obscure our understanding of the past.
History of Art applicants should consider Courbet’s painting in the context of ‘obscenity’ as a concept in art. The Supreme Court held two hearings in the 1960s and 1970s on the very concept – in 1964, Jacobellis v. Ohio, Justice Potter Stewart famously declared “I’ll know it when I see it” in reference to what is and is not obscene, in particular the line between nudity and pornography in art.
This ruling was followed in 1973 by the landmark Miller v. California ruling, which created the Miller Test for obscenity; obscenity no longer meant ‘without socially redeeming value’ but without ‘literary, artistic, political or scientific value’, arguable narrowing the definition of obscenity in the eyes of the Law.
The censoring of Courbet’s painting should encourage applicants to consider wider arguments of censorship; English applicants in particular should think of the banned book list and its purpose, and whether authors can be subtracted from their cultural lexicons.