When Pablo Picasso completed “Guernica” in 1937, he chose to prevent its display in his native Spain. Today we appreciate the painting as a powerful and universal symbol of the suffering and devastation of war. But it also was a product of the Spanish Civil War, and a direct attack on General Francisco Franco’s nationalist forces. The painting, to put it mildly, would not have been welcome in Franco’s Spain.
Many widely celebrated works of art, music and literature challenge the rulers, religious establishments or public sentiments of their time. And sometimes the significance of a masterpiece only becomes clear with the passage of time. In 1937, everyone knew Guernica was about Franco; today we understand it as a universal symbol of the suffering and devastation of war. We all would be poorer had artists muffled their voices to accommodate the prevailing political and social winds.
The 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a full-throated attack on American slavery. Readers in the slaveholding American South boycotted it. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe received death threats. One package included the severed ear of a slave. But Stowe’s novel was read widely in the North, and contributed to the growth of abolitionist feeling there and to the American Civil War that followed. In a widely told account, President Abraham Lincoln, on meeting Stowe, remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
The 1913 Paris debut of Igor Stravinsky’s musical ballet Le Sacre du Printemps provoked a riot. Many found it too raw, too violent, and too great a departure from contemporary choreography. The composer is said to have fled the enraged audience even before the performance ended. The work is now hailed as a masterpiece for the experimental dance moves that accompany its equally celebrated complex rhythms.
During World War II, George Orwell couldn’t find a publisher for his new book Animal Farm. It was a satiric allegory of the revolution that created the former Soviet Union and the ensuing brutalities of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. But Britain and the Soviet Union were then allies against Nazi Germany. Orwell persevered. Animal Farm appeared at the end of the war. Communist countries immediately banned it, but the book nevertheless has remained continuously in print, commanded a broad readership worldwide, and been named to the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century. Its warnings on totalitarianism and the corrupting influence of power have endured longer than the Soviet Union.
The U.N.’s Human Rights Council says that “artistic and creative expression is critical to the human spirit, the development of vibrant cultures, and the functioning of democratic societies. Artistic expression connects us all, transcending borders and barriers.”
People who try to force their artistic tastes on others may find that their attempts have the opposite effect of what was intended. In 1937 the Nazis created a grand art museum in Munich to showcase their ideals of classical and “racially pure” Aryan culture.
A few blocks away, they hastily assembled 600 pieces of art they considered “degenerate” in 10 dark, narrow rooms, covering some of them with derogatory slogans and removing some paintings from their frames. The haphazardly assembled collection was in marked contrast to the pristine and orderly presentation of “approved” art in the spacious, well-lit museum.
The more avant-garde “degenerate” art attracted four times as many visitors as the officially sanctioned work. By making the disapproved art seem forbidden, the Nazis had unwittingly made it popular.
Despots generally have bad taste. Hitler and Stalin both banned works of Marc Chagall. Also verboten in Nazi Germany: James Ensor, Ernest Hemingway and — yes — Picasso.