Time, place, social values and mores are the themes of these pieces, as they explore specific incidents where artworks have been the subject of threatened or actual 'censorship'

These works, and/or their authors or curators were subjected to legal challenge on the basis of their being in some way offensive.  In all such cases, the complainants – and the authorities that responded to them – usually held values that were at odds with those of the creative practitioners and administrators involved at the time.

Social values and levels of tolerance change overtime, and place, and these articles seek to reflect those matters in play at the time of writing.  What may have been regarded as obscene, profane, pornographic or defamatory ten or twenty years ago may not be viewed in the same light today or in ten or twenty years' time.  UK law has generally sought to provide a loose legal framework within which artists and curators, as well as potential complainants, can vie for what might be 'acceptable'.

Examples of such issues include the 1987 Parliamentary debates about the introduction of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 (seeking to ban the ‘promotion' of homosexuality in school teaching, repealed in Scotland in 2000 and the rest of the UK in 2003); the 1994 Government's proposals to introduce privacy laws; the 1996 self-censorship by the Hayward Gallery of two of Mapplethorpe's photographs, for fear of prosecution for showing an 'obscene' work; the censorship of Art Monthly by prison authorities in Florida, USA, in 2000 on the grounds that some of its contents were pornographic; and the seizure by police from the Saatchi Gallery of Tierny Gearon's photographs of her naked children, on the grounds that that they might be in some way obscene.  This last case reflects a recent trend, over the past ten years or so, of increasing numbers of complaints relating to paedophilia in artworks.

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.