5 Iconic Works Of Art That Caused Moral Panics
Our perception of what does and doesn't constitute obscenity changes so radically over time that one could argue the whole concept is bullshit. Which is convenient, since future history books are presumably going to have to mention Stormy Daniels' Toxxxic Cumloads 6 when explaining this era to our descendants.
To demonstrate how arbitrary and fleeting these standards are, consider the sheer, howling outrage certain now-classic works generated ...
The Kiss Was Considered Pornography
Thomas Edison, among other things, invented the two greatest American pastimes: taking credit for something an immigrant did and getting an erection in a movie theater. The reason for your great-grampa's tumescent tallywhacker was a little film called The Kiss.
Edison, bored with using science to invent new ways to murder dogs for fun, had the bright idea to record two people barely kissing in a chaste way and then charge folks to watch it. At a time when an elephant getting electricitied to death drew a crowd of over a thousand people, The Kiss was considered quality entertainment and a novelty besides. It was likely the first kiss ever recorded on film, and it was the second film ever publicly shown in Canada. Brace yourselves:
If you were afraid to watch, I'll describe it to you. After a few seconds of awkwardly mushing their mouths together, two genteel folks give each other a dry peck upon the lips. It's the passionless, saliva-less kiss of a loveless Midwestern marriage. A kiss like that is the only way of using your mouth to tell your wife you've always been in love with another man that's more effective than actually just telling her.
Depicting the world's least-sexual use of lips since the invention of spelling bees didn't stop the Catholic Church from condemning The Kiss, however. Maybe they wouldn't have condemned it if, instead of a revolting, disgusting, pornographic kiss, Edison had shown horrific depictions of torture -- which, knowing Edison, was probably what he wanted to film anyway.
A contemporary commentator called The Kiss "absolutely disgusting" and "indecent in its emphasized vulgarity." He even called for police intervention, which apparently happened. In some cities, police would confiscate the film, and in Chicago they would refuse to issue screening permits if potential theaters wanted to show "immoral or obscene" films. Is it impressive or sad that people back then were apparently able to jerk off to this?
The Church Was Scandalized By The Nudity In Michelangelo's The Last Judgment
Even if you don't recognize Michelangelo's The Last Judgment by name, you probably know it. It's what experts (me) call "that bigass painting on the Sistine Chapel," visited by over 25,000 people a day. Perhaps you know it by its original title, Dong Party In The Sky (And You're Invited!!!).
In the 1530s, a fresco of ripped dudes flying around nude ruffled some feathers, despite looking like Michelangelo had never actually seen a naked person in real life. Seriously, the people in this painting have weirdly lumpy bodies, like they're stitched together out of raw chicken breasts or a plastic Walgreen's bag stuffed with mashed potatoes.
Besides the Mickey Rourkian leather-sack-full-of-boots bodies, people were incensed that Michelangelo broke from orthodox depictions of Christ (depicted as beardless), angels (depicted as wingless), and butts (depicted as existing). The use of foreshortening was also condemned, because perspective is the work of the Devil, I guess? Michelangelo also mixed Christian and pagan iconography, such as including Charon, the oarsman of the River Styx from Greek mythology.
Above all, people were mad that Michelangelo showed Christ's return to Earth as being more of a dickfest than the hotel sauna at the Pimp of the Year Awards. Pope Paul III faced pressure to stop the painting from being completed. Biagio de Cesena, his master of ceremonies, said the painting was "no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns." MC Dicks-B-Gone here was essentially calling The Last Judgment porn, referencing the proclivity those randy Romans had for saucy frescoes in bathhouses and bars.
By way of revenge, Michelangelo snuck the guy into the painting. As a demon. With donkey ears, which is a sort of Classicist semiotic burn calling him an idiot. He granted de Cesena's wish and covered up his peen, though ... with an extraordinarily phallic snake that appears to be biting the dude's baby batter blaster clean off.
Four years after The Last Judgment was completed, the Church had another artist cover up all the wangs. The guy who did this was given the nickname "Il Braghettonne," meaning "The Pants-Maker," which is pretty lame, but beats his original nickname of "guy who will only be remembered for bowdlerizing Michelangelo's cock festival." He's also remembered as the guy who painted over St. Catherine because it looked like she was getting railed doggy-style.
A Critic Told Walt Whitman To Kill Himself Over Leaves Of Grass
Walt Whitman's poetry collection Leaves Of Grass is a really wonderful book that almost ruined his life, but you probably know it as a plot point on Breaking Bad. Whitman is one of America's most treasured poets, right up there with Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Charles "My Blood Can Be Used to Sterilize Medical Instruments" Bukowski. He wrote about America, the majesty of nature, and jizz.
Upon the book's publication in 1855, Whitman's boss found it so offensive that he fired him. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier was so disgusted that he threw his copy into a fire. Prominent literary magazine The Criterion called it "a mass of stupid filth," and called Whitman "a poet (?)," which is the kind of unintentionally hilarious, tepidly shitty one-liner you'd expect to read on Yelp, the open mic of the internet.
If that doesn't convince you how shocking a book that is now taught in high school was, here's a contemporaneous review from The Saturday Press, which was a precursor to The New Yorker. The critic (?) here straight up says that Whitman should kill himself with the casual cruelty usually seen in death squads and YouTube comments. Despite the controversy and being completely banned in Boston, Leaves sold out the day it was released.
So what popped out all these monocles in shock? Well, Whitman's poems had the audacity to suggest that maybe immigrants were OK, perhaps men and women should be equal, and that this whole slavery thing was maaaaaybe bad. Besides that, his poems were criticized for appealing to the senses. If that sounds ridiculous, keep in mind that at this time, people also believed that eating flavorful food made you want to masturbate.
Of course, there was also all the jizz:
Ebb stung by the flow and flow stung by the ebb, love-flesh swell-
ing and deliciously aching,
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of
love, white-blow and delirious juice,
Even more troubling were Whitman's apparent allusions to homosexuality. While today we're reasonably certain that Whitman had romantic relationships with men (and probably banged Oscar Wilde, because history is delightful), at the time, it was a subject of speculation. That review from The Criterion ends with a phrase in Latin that translates to "that sin that must not be mentioned." Welcome to the 1850s, where love between two men was treated like Voldemort.
The U.S. Postal Service Was Told To Burn Copies Of Ulysses
James Joyce's Ulysses is an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, but instead of monsters and heroes, it's about a boring Irish guy describing his poops. Ulysses is credited with popularizing stream-of-consciousness in fiction, and is regularly considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. That didn't stop it from being banned in the United States for 12 years after it was first published in 1921, and due to a legal loophole, it wasn't sold in Ireland until the '60s.
Ulysses was considered objectionable for many reasons, but of particular affront was a passage in which a character fluffs his hog while watching fireworks. The passage in question is an elaborate masturbation joke comparing fireworks to yankin' the ol' meat rope, and it's so incredibly obtuse that it's hard to see how anyone thought it would cause the downfall of Western civilization.
It was deemed obscene, though, and at the time, it was illegal to distribute obscene material through the mail. The United States Postal Service had orders to burn all copies of Ulysses they saw, which made it pretty difficult to get a copy of the book, since it wasn't published in the U.S.
This was eventually challenged in court, and after a lengthy series of cases, Ulysses was allowed to be published. The ruling in the case of United States v. One Book Called Ulysses led to new ways to classify obscenity, which would greatly influence later cases that went to the Supreme Court and helped to overturn obscenity laws. Masturbation jokes change the world, kids. Don't ever stop making them.
The Grapes Of Wrath Was Considered Communist Propaganda
The Grapes Of Wrath, if you've always been too ashamed to ask, is a book written by John Steinbeck in 1939 about a poor family from Oklahoma who move to California to try to escape the crushing poverty of the Dust Bowl. Despite being so relentlessly depressing that it makes Cormac McCarthy's The Road seem like Paddington 3: Revelations, The Grapes Of Wrath was a full-on sensation. It won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and it was a major factor in Steinbeck winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. It wasn't just a bunch of smarty-pants critics who liked the book, though. Less than a year after publication, Grapes had sold over 430,000 copies. To put that into perspective, it took Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone two years to sell 300,000.
Grapes also immediately caused a gigantic shitstorm. Plenty of moralizing busybodies took umbrage with the novel's use of realistic colloquial language -- which is to say that the characters talk like actual people and occasionally swear. The novel also famously ends with a woman who's just delivered a stillborn baby nursing a man so he doesn't starve to death. (Yeah, it's a laugh a minute.) That scene was viewed as being so pornographic that congressman Lyle Boren made a speech before Congress condemning the book, saying it "exposes nothing but the total depravity, vulgarity, and degraded mentality of the author." In fine American tradition, he seemed to have more of a problem with naughty words and boobs than, you know, realistic depictions of people dying horrifically. He would have loved the MPAA.
But it wasn't the vulgarity that caused the biggest problems. No, it was the fact that Grapes was anti-laissez-faire, anti-xenophobia, anti-corporatism, pro-union, pro-worker's-rights, and pro-collectivism. What do we call someone who suggests that poor people don't deserve to starve to death in 1939? That's right, a filthy COMMUNIST!
Criticism of the book came from everywhere, but the charge was led by the Associated Farmers of California, a corporate farm of the sort that was depicted in the book as destroying food during famine (which they totally did). They used their considerable wealth and influence to lead a smear campaign against Steinbeck, calling the book communist propaganda. Which was weird, since Stalin banned the book because it showed the poorest Americans having cars.
The Associated Farmers of California got the book banned in Kern County, where much of the plot takes place, got it banned from several school curriculums and libraries, and hosted public burnings of the book. That last move kind of backfired, since this was 1939 and some other guys had very much already made book burning their "thing."
Believe me, this is only a cursory look at the insanity that The Grapes Of Wrath caused. I didn't even mention J. Edgar Hoover's involvement, or that the Associated Farmers of California took out ads in newspapers demanding a boycott of the film adaptation. But this story has a happy ending. To combat pressure from business interests to ban books, the American Library Association created the Library Bill of Rights to protect The Grapes Of Wrath. It's a text they still use today as a bulwark against censorship, because it's not like the urge to silence voices ever goes away. We just keep changing who and what our fragile minds need to be shielded from.
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