CIHA 2016 in Beijing

34th World Congress of Art History

About History Press Release Sessions Schedule Activities Participants Venue Discussion Registration Closed


Schedule of Session 8.pdf

Schedule of Session 8.jpg


A taboo is a ritual prohibition, which may apply to persons, objects, and actions. The term comes from the Polynesian tapu, transmitted in the late eighteenth century by James Cook, who reported about prohibitions that could be local and provisional, as well as universal and permanent. It is often used in connection with art, but generally in a superficial way, such as when art is automatically assumed to challenge rules and conventions and to disregard what is allowed and what is forbidden, be it in terms of behaviour, subject matter or form.


This session aims at exploring more rigorously and systematically the ways in which the notion of taboo, with its roots in religion and anthropology, can contribute to the understanding of art and art history, in their relationship with decorum, power and authority.


Four areas of research can be summarily distinguished:


1. Art forms, artists and artworks subjected to prohibitions. Objects may be kept out of sight from the public or from certain categories of potential viewers and users (such as women and children for ‘secret sacred objects’). Works may also be censored, prevented from being completed, and even mutilated or destroyed. Artists themselves may be prohibited from exerting their activity or from showing their work.


2. Art forms, artists and artworks that impose a prohibition or help maintaining it. It may be the case with monuments, state portraits, effigies, and various forms of propaganda. Of particular interest are images connected with the law and meant to possess a legal efficacy, as in the pitturainfamante and executio in effigie.


3. Prohibitions that are inherent in art or belong to the rules of the art world, explicitly or implicitly. “Do not touch” is the most obvious one, but there have been countless interdictions crucial to the existence of art, from its creation to its reception by way of its conservation and display. Examples of these are limits set to copying and reproducing, and the issues of fake and plagiarism. Art theory is equally involved, including when it defines rules about the relationship of art with non-artistic rules.


4. Prohibitions as the theme or subject of a work of art. Even though it has become a cliché of art journalism and artists may be expected or required to “break taboos”, it is the case that artists and artworks keep questioning — sometimes at great risk for themselves and their works — interdictions deriving from power structures and from the rules governing the political, religious, economic, social or sexual domains.