Comeback of the catechism: When today’s speech norms launch old inquisitions

August 3, 2022

In recognition of FIRE’s expansion into off-campus free speech advocacy work, summer intern William Harris examines how modern “cancel culture” resembles art censorship during the latter years of the Spanish Inquisition.


The consequences of American “cancel culture” for artistic freedom and civil liberties are often minimized and dismissed by public figures for not rising to sufficiently injurious levels. “Cancel culture,” they claim, “in the terms it is culturally viewed in, does not exist.” 

There aren’t any Americans being put to death or tortured as a consequence for speech, talking heads reason, as if free expression in-and-of-itself is not a human right (it is). “This isn’t the Spanish Inquisition,” they argue, excusing a trend that Americans largely oppose by claiming that “careers are not destroyed.”

Champions of “cancel culture” may claim it does not cause people to lose their jobs, but such contentions are nothing more than “alternative facts” which the record clearly demonstrates to be false. Those who instigate, excuse, or support modern-day censorship, while often insisting social progress is their goal, ignore how unenlightened and backwards their actions actually are. Their eager dismissals of an issue so elemental to democracy itself — one’s very ability and willingness to speak — are historically uninformed and naively short-sighted.

The Spanish Inquisition wasn’t always “The Rack,” “The Wheel,” and the torture chamber. In fact, in its later years, as Europe underwent Enlightenment, the Inquisition’s consequences came to resemble the comparatively mild punishments doled out by American “cancel culture” today: Threats to professional reputation and employment, pervasive self-censorship, and widespread environs of chilled speech, particularly in the artistic realm.

Comparing modern American “cancel culture” to the final years of the Inquisition isn’t mere hyperbole: A case study from Penn State Schuylkill demonstrates how today’s speech norms are literally reviving those of the late Inquisition. “La maja desnuda,” a painting by the illustrious Francisco de Goya, was first censored by inquisitors in nineteenth-century Spain, and later by Penn State Schuylkill administrators at the doorstep of the twenty-first century in the United States.

A case study from Penn State Schuylkill demonstrates how today’s speech norms are literally reviving those of the late Inquisition.

The censors who persecuted this single painting, in different countries and in different eras, even employed the same strategy: Removing the work from public view and hiding it away in a room less accessible to the public. The contemporary American university, like Madrid during the late Inquisition, is not hospitable to expression which challenges the boundaries of dominant codes of morality. Whether called “political correctness” — as it was branded in the 1990s when the “Maja” incident took place — or “cancel culture,” as it is more commonly called today, censorship is a cyclical scourge that constantly rebrands itself to make its repeated sin more palatable for the present day. 

Censorship during the late Spanish Inquisition

In early 1800s Madrid, artistic masterpieces by Goya, Velázquez, and Titian lay beyond reproach in a private room belonging to Spain’s prime minister, Manuel Godoy. Siloed away from the public, the repressive, chilling climate produced by the Spanish Inquisition effectively made some of the finest art in the country inaccessible to all but the most trusted visitors — even when the art’s owner was the most powerful man in Spanish civil society. 

In 1800, Godoy had commissioned Goya’s “Maja” to adorn the walls of his private gabinete interior, or inner cabinet, and the privacy with which he shielded Goya’s work likely reflected its transgressive theme: The painting was an avant-garde representation of a nude woman, similar to the Velázquez and Titian depictions in the room but more radical by nature since it contained no mythological framing or historical narrative to excuse the nudity it depicted. Fifteen years later, the prime minister’s wary, secretive approach to the display of the lascivious paintings in his collection appeared prudent.

On March 16, 1815, as Godoy lay exiled in France, Goya received a summons from the Secret Chamber of the Inquisition in Madrid, requesting that he testify as to whether two sequestered paintings “were his work, why he made them, who commissioned them, and for what purpose.” The paintings in question — “La maja desnuda (The Nude Maja)” and “La maja vestida (The Clothed Maja)” — were revolutionary images which went beyond the boundaries of acceptable artistic expression in Spain at the time. Under the Inquisition, even biblically-inspired religious art was subject to censorship by the Catholic Church, with paintings that displayed nudity or heterodox ideas facing scrutiny, trial, confiscation, and sometimes destruction. 

La maja desnuda by Francisco GoyaLa maja desnuda by Francisco Goya, c. 1797–1800. Museo del Prado, Madrid (Wikipedia.org)
La maja vestida by Francisco GoyaLa maja vestida by Francisco Goya, c. 1800–1807. Museo del Prado, Madrid (Wikipedia.org)

15 years after Godoy commissioned the “Maja” paintings for his gabinete interior of forbidden images, Goya was to answer for them. Protected by the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo, Goya largely evaded punishment. Yet his paintings lay confined to the basement of a government building for years, off-limits to the public. The sequestered paintings did not publicly resurface until 1819, with the founding of one of Spain’s most famous public institutions, the Museo Nacional del Prado, of which Godoy’s collection was the initial germ. 

The removal of art from the public sphere was a common theme of the late Spanish Inquisition, depriving the country’s citizens of artistic treasures and cultural enrichment for years. 

Unfortunately, this trend has resurfaced in contemporary American culture, too.

Censorship at the modern American university

On Nov. 7, 1991, a memo circulated at Penn State Schuylkill (then-called Pennsylvania State University Commonwealth Campus) announcing “it [had] come to the attention of [the] affirmative action office that one of the art reproductions . . . hanging in [Room] C-203 could contribute to a chilly climate in that classroom, and, thus, be in violation of the law concerning sexual harassment.” As the memo claimed, “The reason given is that the reproduction in question, although a recognized art work [sic], is being displayed in a classroom rather than in a gallery or museum setting . . . Therefore, because we have no defined gallery space for art displays, all reproductions will be removed from C-203 and placed in storage.” 

What the memo didn’t mention is that the work was purchased over a decade earlier for an art history course taught in the same classroom — surely, they didn’t mean to imply that a “recognized art work,” even of a lascivious nature, couldn’t be taught in class. 

Or did they?

This wasn’t the first time Goya’s “Maja” had been targeted at PSU Schuylkill. Until the fall of 1991, the room had primarily been used as a music classroom, and instructor Paul Miller had refused requests from campus administrators to remove the work, citing censorship as his chief concern. 

Those who defend today’s “cancel culture” persecutions claim morality is on their side. We must not forget that yesterday’s inquisitors did the same.

When the censors at PSU Schuylkill finally won out over Goya’s “Maja,” administrators took down the rest of the art in the classroom along with it. As with Godoy’s gabinete, the other paintings hanging alongside Goya’s “Maja” also contained themes that made censors uncomfortable, and the paintings were deemed guilty by association. The “Maja” scandal not only led to the censorship of Goya’s image, but also the removal of a journal article on the controversy recounts “Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair, Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man, the central panel of Crucifixion with Virgin and Saints by Perugino, and a van Ruisdael landscape, Wheatfields” (links to artworks added for reference).

Eventually, the works were allowed to resurface, placed high on a wall in a spare room in the Student Center, which received a new, hastily-taped sign reading “Gallery,” apparently “to forewarn people that there [was] art in the room.” 

The moral panic which precipitated such a philistinic intervention — in which a painting was essentially accused of sexual harassment — demonstrates today’s skewed campus speech norms, which camouflage old-fashioned censorship in the modern language of social progress.

Today’s cancellations pursue yesterday’s transgressions

In modern America, art censorship is alive and well on university campuses, coming from both the left and right. Those who defend today’s “cancel culture” persecutions claim morality is on their side. We must not forget that yesterday’s inquisitors did the same. 

Antiquated morals have been refashioned for contemporary tastes, but this does not not make them any less nefarious.

Majoritarian impulses to “cancel” provocative art and literature that transgress popular morality echo throughout history. When the United States sought to censor James Joyce’s “Ulysses” from bookstore shelves in the 1920s, the government argued that the work was “blasphemous” in its treatment of the Catholic Church and “coarse” in the thoughts and desires its characters openly displayed. In 1956, municipal officials in San Francisco brought Lawrence Ferlinghetti to court for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in his City Lights bookstore, arguing the work should be censored for its carnal language and references to taboo topics like homosexuality and drug use.

In 1990, not long before the PSU Schuylkill episode, a sheriff in Cincinnati raided a museum exhibiting the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and indicted its museum director on obscenity charges for displaying Mapplethorpe’s transgressive, avant-garde images — which included five explicit depictions of gay S&M culture. In many of these instances, particularly the canceled Mapplethorpe exhibition, the art censorship that took place was politically-motivated and reflected ideological “cancel culture” at its worst.

Throughout American history, the repression of sexualityespecially queer sexuality — has been enforced through censorship, which makes it all the more shocking that so many inquisitorial episodes today are instigated by the left, especially at a time when book banning is reemerging on the right. 

Antiquated morals have been refashioned for contemporary tastes, but this does not not make them any less nefarious. “Cancel culture” is nothing new, and the truth about today’s in-vogue rebrand of old-fashioned inquisitorial morals is simple: “Cancel culture cancels culture.” If we want to collectively pursue truth and beauty in a society that cultivates intellectual enlightenment and the artistic sublime, we must see through the emperor’s new clothes and condemn “cancel culture” for the anti-intellectual, moralistic parochialism that it is.


William Harris is a rising junior at Haverford College and a FIRE Summer Intern.