But, it's not my niche, nor is it my intention to definitively answer that question. No, in fact, I have smaller fish to fry. Or bigger fish, depending on how you look at it... well, let's just say "other fish".
Recently, I was the host of an art competition on Facebook organized by Odd Nerdrum. It was the second of four competitions organized by Odd and administrated by three other painters: Odd ran the first one himself. The goal was to highlight the great number of incredible but unknown painters on Facebook, give them a forum to meet each other, to build community and potentially collaborate. At the conclusion of these competitions, we will put together a book.
A few weeks ago marked the start of the final Nerdrum Facebook competition holding the theme "The Beautiful Nude" consisting of paintings and drawings of nudes. And I bet you can see where this is going. In an article by John Seed in the Huffington Post about an incredibly talented colleague Daniel Sprick, entitled When is a Nude OK on Facebook, a Facebook administrator was quoted as stating:
Our policy prohibits photos of actual nude people, not paintings or sculptures. We recognize that this policy might in some cases result in the removal of artistic works; however, it is designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for all users.
Yet, the administrators of Facebook have, I'm assuming based on the flags by FB members, deleted many paintings of nudes, including my own piece "Hermetica", even though we took the precaution of including in the rules that submission to the competition must blur or block out any genitalia in order for it to be included in the folder - as a gesture of respect for other Facebook users. Odd himself followed these guidelines, submitting the piece you see above "Look at Me", which I must say is much better in the original state, yet has quite an ironic humor with the censorship bands festooned across the woman's more delicate parts. Nevertheless, over 50 paintings have now been deleted, some that only depicted female breasts, some that actually were already censored, and some that depicted nothing more than a bare back. Yet, others that revealed much more were spared.
This begs a number of questions: who is flagging this? Why would they "friend" painters of nudes if they found nudes offensive? Further, did they not see that this is an Art competition about the beautiful depiction of the nude? Here are the guidelines listed on the folder:
I, Hélène Delmaire, am hosting the final painting competition organised by Odd Nerdrum, "The Beautiful Nude""Beauty was executed in 1907. Since then, it has been ostracized as the devil's tool. Now beauty is a subhuman cliche. Perhaps it should be enlightened with mental spirit." - Odd NerdrumTo enter please post your work on my wall, including title and format. One entry per person. A popular vote will decide the winner. Each "like" will count as one vote. The deadline is February 15th. After this date the number of pictures will be narrowed down by number of votes and a final vote will take place over a two week period.Important note : In order to respect facebook policies and help the contest run smoothly, please blur out genitals or crop your painting accordingly. If not, your image will not be added to the folder. Images selected for the final book will not be censored, this is simply a measure that must be taken on facebook.
One could argue that Wikileaks has the potential to compromise national security and endanger innocent lives, but can one make the same argument about paintings of nudes? If people are offended by a painting of a beautiful nude, meaning specifically not pornographic, why don't they just not look? Are people afraid that a painting of a nude with censored genitalia is going to pollute their children's minds? Since a large number of Facebook users are under the age of 13, perhaps this is the case. Are these the same people who wouldn't let their children see Michelangelo's David for moral reasons? Is this yet another form of the iconoclasm that Odd Nerdrum mentioned?
Does it not seem ridiculous that our western culture parades violence and death in front of our eyes as entertainment, but a non-violent, non-pornographic, life affirming nude body, is somehow dangerous? Why is violence and death perfectly acceptable as popular entertainment, while nudity is not acceptable even as Art?
For the moment I'll put my own irritation aside, as well as my own judgements about the relevance of morality regarding aesthetics (which I've written about many times before). I do not define what's appropriate to society, so it's really a moot point. Instead, let's address these questions from a larger perspective. When (if ever) is censorship appropriate? What kind of censorship is appropriate and in what forums? Assuming that censorship is necessary in public places, even if simply because it is agreed upon as being desirable for the political correctness, then where does Facebook fit in to this? What is the purpose of Facebook? Is it just for children and friends? Is it for networking and business?
The short and unsatisfying answer is that Facebook is what its users make of it. Yes, it began as a social networking site for college students, evolved into some kind of mega myspace without the obscenity, and in the past year or so has evolved into an incredibly powerful business networking tool. In fact, two of my galleries and several collectors have contacted me through Facebook, and several more through other social networking sites. Yet, other networking sites do not offer the huge audience that Facebook does, simply due to its number of users. But this is a double-edged sword. More users means more exposure (no pun intended), but it also means more diverse opinions and views that may infringe on your own freedom of speech.
I am a figurative painter, and as such, I have paintings of nudes, and I have the paintings on my profile. Often a prospective gallery or collector will decide if they like your work based on nothing more than a quick glance, and in the throngs of painters in the world, and the thousands upon thousands of painters on Facebook, you have to have your best work easily viewable to capture their attention. Many of my best paintings depict nudes, so censoring those really limits my ability to have my work seen by those who would appreciate it.
Is this evidence of another iconoclasm in our society or is it simply a return to wholesome morality? Is this evidence of a clash of cultures or religious views? Is this an over-reaction to the way our contemporary society and advertisement relegate the nude to unromantic and vulgar kinds of sexuality? Philosophically speaking, is obscenity really a problem? Though I have my own opinions, and personally believe that obscenity certainly can be destructive, and I believe that we should respect people's cultural and religious views even if they clash with ours. And believe that artistic expression should be equally protected. Yet, protecting the rights of one group can inherently impinge on the rights of another, and that other happens to be me. So how do we balance all of this? Is it even possible?
I can't answer all of these questions for you, and though John Seed's article so articulately presented an excellent discussion of the topic, and I think raised a very compelling argument on behalf of censorship on Facebook, I don't believe he has categorically answered any of these questions either. I think these are questions that each and every person must ask for themselves. And maybe in a round-about way, that's the answer. If each of us knows where we really stand on this issue, we will better know to address it in our own lives... we can better navigate ourselves to the kinds of places where our own ideals are protected, and where our ideals don't infringe on the ideals of others.
Maybe Facebook is not the place to display our work as figurative painters. But in this difficult economy, and truly at any time, it's hard to accept a limitation on your potential success based solely on a handful of people who don't understand what you're doing. It's hard not to be angry when someone seems to blindly attack the thing that you hold so close to your heart... labeling it vulgar and obscene, when you see it as a thing of beauty and human dignity. You see it as a gift to them, and they see it as a threat. The issue with Facebook seems to be the same as the issue with the work itself: each of us has different definitions of what it is and what is should be... and for now at least, we'll all have to agree to disagree.