5 Pieces of Art Governments Tore Off Walls With Their Iron Fists

Everyone’s a critic, some just have more authority
5 Pieces of Art Governments Tore Off Walls With Their Iron Fists

Look, I’m not someone who’s of the melodramatic view that all art has to have deep, insightful meaning. It’s an exhausting opinion, not to mention it’s usually held by someone who thinks Ronald McDonald — but fat — is a scathing social critique. Ooh, the Statue of Liberty with a gun! From the mind of which rebel did such world-shattering imagery come? 

That said, it’s also obvious that art is indeed powerful, just like the poster in your dorm room said. In fact, some works are powerful enough that they threaten the physical powers that be, sometimes resulting in the banning of their display. Which, in itself, is a pretty dumb move because there’s no better way to make sure everybody’s deeply considering whatever you just banned. Instead of a gallery wall, that same painting is now in newspapers across the globe. Good job!

To that end, here are five pieces of artwork that a government banned or destroyed…

Mao, Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

If you’re looking to make a bit of art that’s going to be banned in at least one country, there’s not a better subject than China’s Chairman Mao. China has a long history of censorship, one that’s currently resulted in the banning of images of Winnie the Pooh because of his resemblance to President Xi Jinping. Both bans are a little questionable, given that if you’re assuming any representations of your leader are automatically negative, it feels like there’s some proof in that pudding.

One such bit of art that wasn’t allowed within Chinese borders were the paintings that Andy Warhol did of Mao. There’s not any outstanding message in them, at least in literal terms. It’s just the usual Warhol spread of pop-color reproductions of a portrait, the same treatment given to Marilyn Monroe and others. The point of contention seems to be that it looks like Mao is wearing lipstick. 

Which, sure, I guess you could read that as disrespectful, but again, you have to think it would invite less criticism of the leader to just put the thing up.

X Portfolio, Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe

Though some of his work is now unfortunately coffee-table book fodder for pervs who want to come off as cultured, Robert Mapplethorpe was a genuinely controversial artist in the 1970s and 1980s. Given that the subject of much of his photography was queer culture, combined with the fact that Mapplethorpe himself was a victim of the AIDS epidemic, it’s not surprising that hackles were high. What brought it to a head was a posthumous exhibition of his work including the X Portfolio.

The images in this collection wouldn’t be Instagram-friendly today, and they were even less so in the 1980s. The focus was sadomasochism within gay culture, and as you’d guess, the pictures were heavy on leather and dick. It put the art world and the prude population at odds, since suddenly society had to decide what to do if a photo that was undeniably important art just so happened to feature a man pissing in another man's mouth. 

The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. canceled the exhibition altogether, and when it went up at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, the museum found itself in a court of law fighting obscenity charges.

Sibathontisele, Owen Maseko

Owen Maseko

It’s a horrible catch-22 that oppressive governments naturally inspire revolutionary art that’s destined to be censored by the subjects. Of course, as I’ve mentioned, that might be the artist’s intent. The governments in question seem never to learn that destroying art is the best way possible to make sure people give it more than a passing glance. That’s exactly what the Zimbabwean government did to an exhibition by artist Owen Maseko.

They didn’t have much work to do proving that the pieces were anti-government. They pretty explicitly referenced massacres in Matabeland, war crimes carried out on the instruction of President Robert Mugabe. Governments, as everyone knows, really hate it when you point out war crimes they did. When the exhibition opened, it was raided by police and the artworks were covered with newspapers. But not before pictures were taken to be used in the extensive media coverage of the incident.

Paintings by Zehra Dogan

Zehra Dogan

Turkish artist Zehra Dogan found out just how dramatically a single painting can change someone’s life when she earned the ire of the Turkish government. She painted a watercolor that transformed a government image from a Turkish bombing, turning the government vehicles into dark monsters. The government was definitely not a fan, and came after her with wholly overboard levels of fervor. The painting itself was destroyed, but they didn’t consider that enough.

Dogan was imprisoned for the creation of the painting, and spent three years in Turkish prison. She was eventually acquitted and freed, partly thanks to works by the Old Navy of street art, Banksy. I’ll give him begrudging respect for that, even if the art itself was predictably dumb — a jail cell made of tally marks. The walls are simply resplendent with the fragments of my blown mind!

Art by Guantanamo Bay Prisoners

Sabri Al Qurashi

Speaking of things the government would rather not be discussed, remember Guantanamo Bay? An ongoing factory of human rights violations that resulted in a game of high-stakes political hot potato and “waterboarding” entering the public lexicon? Well, when those prisoners werent being put in stress positions or electrocuted, they also produced art, some of which ended up being shown in a traveling exhibition.

This was a troubling counterpoint to a careful campaign of dehumanization by the U.S. government, and it decided it'd had about enough of people being able to relate to prisoners. And so, it used a bit of generous legal interpretation to decide that any artwork produced within the walls of Gitmo was, in fact, property of the U.S. government. Once its ownership was established, well, wouldnt you know it, the government decided they didnt want to display “its” work.

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