Challenging taboos and myths

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Artists can choose to represent a reality that is concealed in order to overturn social norms. However, artworks can be met by public outrage or even censorship. How can the representation of a hidden truth help artists to challenge taboos and myths?

I. Breaking taboos

1) Questionning moral codes

Though a critically acclaimed novel, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) was met with outrage when it was published in the United States. It deals with identity in the formative teenage years and thus includes vulgar language, allusions to sex, smoking and alcohol. The novel defies family values by disrupting good social manners in order to emphasise the society’s lack of depth. The book was first often banned from school libraries and teachers were not allowed to study it in class.

2) Defying sexual repression

In D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the story revolves around the affair between a married upper-class woman and a gamekeeper. The original novel made explicit use of sexual vocabulary and a censored version was published in Great Britain in 1932. However, the full novel was eventually made available in 1960: this led Penguin Books to be put on trial for publishing obscene material. Penguin’s victory in the trial is often seen as the beginning of the permissive society and of the sexual revolution in Britain.


Penguin Books is an iconic British publishing house. They are famous for their editions of classic novels or collections in paperback edition (livre de poche).

If Lawrence knowingly risked censorship, it was not the case of E.M. Forster. At a time when homosexuality was still illegal, he feared public reaction to Maurice, whose central topic is the hero’s love for his college friend Clive. Forster only allowed a posthumous publication: written in 1913, his novel was published in 1971.

II. Challenging offical history

1) Rewriting the westward expansion

Artists can also challenge national myths that have been perpetuated in part by other artists. For instance, traditional Westerns from the first half of the 20th century represented the myth of westward expansion: Americans were portrayed as pioneers discovering empty lands and bringing civilisation to the west whereas Native Americans were depicted as bloodthirsty savages.

Arthur Penn’s Big Little Man (1970) can then be called a revisionist Western, as it creates empathy for Native Americans and does not portray them as animals, like previous Westerns did. On the contrary, it is the US military which are portrayed as savages massacring the Native American population. By challenging the Hollywoodian codes of the Western, Penn challenged the national myth of the expansion of the United States.

2) Documenting the truth

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government decided to send Japanese-American citizens to concentration camps. Dorothea Lange was employed by the government to document the decent treatment of the population in those camps but her photographs in fact emphasised the forceful nature of the relocation, they were therefore impounded (confisquées) by the army. This allowed the government to publish anti-Japanese propaganda.


In 1942, Japanese aircrafts bombed the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This attack marks the entry of the USA in World War II.

The photographs were only made public in the 1970s. By showing the exclusion of the population from American society, the photographs initiated Japanese American activism, and also allowed the collective memory of the war to include this dark chapter of history.