5 Legendary Art Trials

Aaron Lloyd Barr
Aaron Lloyd Barr / Aaron Lloyd Barr

By Clay Wirestone
Illustration by Aaron Lloyd Barr

Taking masterpieces to court is a tradition as old as the legal system. So is letting them off the hook.

1. India Balks at Arundhati Roy’s Matchmaking

Released in 1997, Indian writer Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize. It also won the attention of outraged locals. But it wasn’t the scenes of incest or pedophilia that offended these critics. Instead, the book—a complex tale involving multiple time lines and generations along with plenty of political intrigue—drew jeers because it told a love story between members of different castes.

Roy, an outspoken political activist, was accused of “corrupting public morality” and faced obscenity charges in her home state of Kerala. According to Roy, while the judge didn’t want to punish her, he also couldn’t ignore the local government, which found the book offensive. So he put off making a decision—for 10 years!

THE VERDICT: When a new judge finally took on the case, he dismissed the charges. That may seem like a victory, but Roy’s fiction career ground to a halt in the interim, and she still hasn’t produced a follow-up novel.

2. The U.S. Government Confiscates Underwear

American artist J.S.G. Boggs makes money. Literally. Boggs draws intricately detailed bank notes, crafting whimsical takeoffs of actual U.S. currency. Unlike legal tender, however, Boggs’s bills feature his own signature as “Secret of the Treasury.” One of his works is worth “tan dollars.” Sometimes the bills are bright orange and issued from the Florida United Numismatists (they have FUN scrawled across them in giant letters). Others bear the portraits Boggs believes they should have—Harriet Tubman is featured on one, while Boggs’s self-portrait modestly graces the $5,000 bill.

What makes his art dicier is the performance component. Boggs barters with people, offering to pay for goods and services with his hand-drawn bills but only for items of lesser value—a $10 bill for a $9.75 meal, for instance. Change and a receipt must be provided. He also trades exclusively with people who are unfamiliar with his legend. Unfortunately for Boggs, U.S. law forbids color illustrations of currency unless a big NONNEGOTIABLE is slapped across the front in quarter-inch-tall letters. From 1990 to 1992, Secret Service agents raided exhibits in Boggs’s study, his home, and his Carnegie Mellon University office. They seized more than 1,000 pieces of his artwork. And not just bills—they also took “rugs, cakes, cookies, and underwear with images of money on them,” Boggs says.

Strangely, the proceedings stopped there. Even though government officials insisted Boggs was breaking the law, they didn’t prosecute. They just held onto his artwork—permanently.

THE VERDICT: Boggs was never charged with counterfeiting, but he did end up in court. In 1993, Boggs sued the U.S. Department of the Treasury to get his artwork back. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth in Washington, D.C., simply dismissed the case.

3. France Gets Outraged Over an Affair

While today’s readers wouldn’t blush at the thought of steamy French literature, public opinion of the 19th century was a bit different. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the tragic tale of Emma Bovary’s extramarital dalliances serialized in La Revue de Paris in 1856, apparently crossed the line.

Almost immediately after publication, Flaubert was charged with outrage à la morale publique et religieuse et aux bonnes moeurs, or insulting public and religious morality. The problem? The book suggested that the titular character might have had reasons—a cloddish husband, for one—to disregard her marriage vows.

By early 1857, Flaubert was hauled into court on obscenity charges by imperial prosecutor Ernest Pinard, an unpopular bureaucrat among artists (he later went after the Modernist poet Charles Baudelaire). The case looked grim, but Flaubert hired Jules Sénard, a brilliant defense attorney. Sénard’s defense—since reprinted in most French editions of Madame Bovary—insisted that only through looking at vice could readers be educated about virtue.

THE VERDICT: Not only did the judges buy Sénard’s argument, but the trial brought Flaubert so much publicity that he was able to republish Madame Bovary as a book, which he dedicated to his lawyer.

4. Art That’s Too Punk for L.A.

In 1985, Tipper Gore took an overeager interest in the listening habits of America’s youth. Gore cofounded the warning-label-touting Parents Music Resource Center, which drew the ire of Frank Zappa, among others. But she wasn’t the only public figure with musical morality on her mind.

Michael Guarino, a new hire at the Los Angeles district attorney’s office, was eager to make a name for himself. In 1986, on the heels of 30 wins in a row, he decided to take aim at a punk icon. His target? Jello Biafra, singer of the hardcore band Dead Kennedys.

Their album Frankenchrist caught Guarino’s attention with a special insert featuring art by Oscar-winning designer H.R. Giger. The graphic piece was aptly titled “Penis Landscape.” Guarino recalled, “I remember looking at the piece of art and thinking, just on the basis of the insert, that we had a great case. It seemed to me that is the kind of material that most adults wouldn’t want to see distributed to kids.”

Guarino prosecuted the band for obscenity. But as he told the public radio program “This American Life” in 2005, he could quickly see that his case wasn’t going his way. Biafra wore a coat and tie to the trial, hardly the wardrobe of a ratty punk. The Dead Kennedys songs played for the jurors came across as pithy and catchy. And the illustration? It was shown enough in court that the shock wore off.

THE VERDICT: The jury deadlocked, and the case was dropped. Guarino—who left the D.A.’s office soon after—and Biafra were reunited on “This American Life.” They reminisced, discovering that they agreed on politics—Biafra had tied for second in the Green Party’s vote for the 2000 presidential nomination—and ended up making dinner plans.

5. Massachusetts Refuses to Get Religion

When British colonist William Pynchon wasn’t busy trading fur or founding Springfield, Mass., he was writing religious criticism, including the 1650 book The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption. Not the most thrilling read, it argued against one particular Puritan belief—that Jesus had suffered the torments of hell after being crucified. Pynchon’s point: the “price of our redemption” was Jesus’s perfect obedience. No additional suffering should have been required.

His heretical argument pushed the buttons of the Massachusetts Bay Colony General Court, which in those days was not only a legislature but also an actual court, and it ordered every copy of the British-printed book burned in Boston’s marketplace.

Pynchon defended his work in front of the court in May 1651, but he decided against making a follow-up appearance that October. The Court ordered him to recant or “stand to the judgment and censure of the court.” Rejecting both options, he left his property to his son and hightailed it back to England, where he lived out the rest of his life writing religious pamphlets in peace.

THE VERDICT: Guilty. Only a few copies of Pynchon’s book survived—and Boston judges were just getting started. In the 1920s, they started regularly banning works, including books by Upton Sinclair, William Faulkner, and H.G. Wells. So many great works have been “banned in Boston” that some now consider it an honor!

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here.