Navigating the unspoken: the importance of taboo art

Written by Tom Flanagan | 6th May 2022

Taboo art forms can constitute a variety of topics that these days aren’t really taboo at all. And a changing world with generational views that encourages dialogue versus suppression is helping underscore the importance of art that depicts difficult and personal topics. In fact, rather than being a visual art form that should be shunned, there’s reason to believe that ‘taboo’ art, like photography, can help navigate some of life’s most difficult experiences by capturing them. Art and Antiques General Manager Cyrille Coiffet and Expert in Modern Art Sophie Clauwaert explain more.

Back in 1934 in Washington D.C, something unusual happened. A painting titled The Fleet’s In! by Paul Cadmus was unceremoniously removed from The Corcoran Gallery of Art. The removal was ordered by the U.S. Navy, when retired Admiral Hugh Rodman saw an exhibition preview and—outraged by the painting’s contents—wrote furiously in an open letter to various papers condemning the artwork and its depiction of navy officers. He described it as “a most disgraceful, sordid, disreputable, drunken brawl” of sailors mingling with red light district workers. For all his blustering and rage, he wasn’t wrong. 

The Fleet’s In! was a fairly accurate depiction of what Cadmus described as scenes he would observe growing up in New York, when servicemen would frequent public spaces and waterfronts and cruise for sex, often with other men. In Padmus’ artwork, it was female sex workers who were pictured. However, the outcry this painting received, while more due to its portrayal of drunkenness and sex, could also be tied to the implicit queerness Cadmus—who identified as gay—incorporated into the figures. The sketches of tightly-fitted clothes, the inclusion of a gay man (signified by his red tie, a notorious queer code in 1900s New York that likely went amiss in this instance) and the men with their arms around each other was probably too much for the conservative views of Navy admirals to bear. The level of outcry and media scrutiny was so severe that it did the exact opposite of what Rodman wanted; it launched the painting into the public eye as well as Cadmus’ early career. 

The Fleet's In! by Paul Cadmus (1934)

Cadmus’ work was an early example of the topics society deemed taboo and the importance of art in communicating these. Far from the glittering, propaganda-ism of normal naval art, this was a more squalid, more unsavoury but ultimately more real illustration of the people that made up the vast majority. While the government tried to suppress the painting and Cadmus’ career faulted as a consequence of his known homosexuality, advocacy by art historians and queer community groups later recovered his body of work, now considered to be an important piece in queer art. In the 1930s when homosexuality was not spoken of, let alone approved of, art like this gave people in a minority a means of expression and visibility. 

Even though modern perceptions have shifted on homosexuality since, art like this would once have been considered taboo. It’s one of many examples that underscores the role of art as a way to confront viewers and society with their own biases, explains Cyrille Coiffet, General Manager Art & Antiques.

“Art is here to showcase the world through another lens”, says Cyrille. “And this process is analogous to this lens which is constantly refocusing, pushing the boundaries of what constitutes taboo, and what's within the realm of what society can easily discuss”. 

What is taboo art?

In a world where there’s an opinion on everything, anything can be taboo. Historically, topics surrounding sex, queerness, addiction and womanhood are just a few of the subjects that have been classed as taboo, wrong or offensive. Art, and photography in particular, has seen more censoring than most; as much for its relentlessness in portraying topics deemed taboo as its power in translating those to the masses. 

“It is very difficult to give a clear definition of ‘taboo’ photography, let alone frame the term ‘taboo’, as it very much depends on the cultural and social context where it is presented”, explains Cyrille. “A sexually loaded nude could be shocking in one context while totally accepted in another. Moreover, these types of subjects are not new, having existed throughout the history of art; think about all the erotic nude paintings of the 17th century until the 19th century for example”.

Japan by Antoine d'Agata (2004)

Taboo photography arguably cuts closer than traditional art forms because it documents something closer to our present society. A nude sculpture versus a nude person photographed has a different effect. A sketch of a battle on an ancient Greek krater has its trauma lessened compared to a suffering person who has been photographed. With classical art, we can romanticise controversial depictions and pass anything ‘taboo’ off as acts of a time gone by, and in turn, fantasy. With photography, there’s little room for illusion, explains Cyrille.

“In photography, one is looking at the raw reality through a lens. Photography, because of its intimate contact with reality, is the perfect medium to test the waters in a most pragmatic way”.

The power of taboo photography

If photography can present reality, then taboo photography presents the most difficult ones. Few artists do this as well as French photographer Antoine D’Agata, who has garnered a reputation for dealing with darker topics such as violence, prostitution, obsession and addiction.

'Puerto San Jose, Guatemala' by Antoine d'Agata (1993)

“Antoine d'Agata is a witness”, says Sophie Clauwaert, Expert in Modern Art. “He is not only portraying suffering, he has embodied it too, and has truly befriended those who were in pain – the castaways, the misfits, the addicts. Looking beyond the purely documentary, images making up a diary or inventory allow their inventor to cut free from the constraints underlying the transcription of objective reality. Antoine d’Agata’s concern is to pare down the photographic act to the need to recount ordinary or extreme experiences”.

d’Agata is known for travelling to places of conflict and documenting not just the carnage, but the way violence shapes the human body. In one interview, he says “I document the violence of the world in many different ways…it’s part of me and I’m part of it…for [the people who experience conflict], every day is a battle, a war. Despite the torment, each of them still fights their fight to the end".

'Bamako' by Antoine d'Agata (1999)

His work is also a testament to what he, like many others, has gone through. It’s this truth and vulnerability that translates so vividly in his work and has made his work both popular and important, says Cyrille. “Antoine d'Agata can be considered as the original punk. Self-taught on the art of photography, coming from an extremely humble background, Antoine d'Agata had to find his way in life, and started to experiment with sex, obsession and darkness, even before becoming an artist. Once he started to define his own style, he could only testify what he had gone through, as a human being, as a witness, as someone who one feels a great empathy for”.

The fading notion of taboo art

One of the central questions any artist faces is, what is taboo really and is art meant to answer that? Can anything be regarded as off limits? If art, like photography, presents topics that make us uncomfortable, that doesn’t necessitate that very act as bad. In fact, it becomes one of the more unfiltered glimpses into the human condition; something Sophie explains d’Agata does particularly well. 

“For an outsider, his work may seem ‘taboo’ or at least controversial. But where Antoine d’Agata does succeed is to bring a sense of raw reality in all of his subjects, in order to make sense of what is happening. There’s an obvious engagement where he has spent time gaining enough trust to capture moments most of us never witness. Yet after you have seen them, their desperation and aggression burrows beneath your skin”.

'Oaxaca' by Antoine d'Agata (2014)

Art classed as taboo is nothing more than the truth dressed down. It challenges viewers because it presents them with realities they don’t want to consider or ones they recognise in themselves. d’Agata once said: “the issues in all photography are the same: how to be yourself, how to express yourself, how to confront your own fears”. Perhaps this was where the admiral who sought to ban Cadmus’ painting came from; he recognised an unvarnished truth he was trying to look away from. 

Taboo art documents our angels and demons, love and fear, what’s presented and what’s hidden. If it leaves us with anything, it’s that it’s in these dark corners of ourselves is where we’ll find the truth; and that there’s always someone else out there who needs to see it. 


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