Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sublime or Shameless: Facebook Censors Nude Paintings

The question of freedom of expression vs. censorship is an old one, and a topic that has again reared its ugly head with the controversy and subsequent arrest of Julian Assange, over certain top secret government documents being released on Wikileaks. I think we can all agree that it is not the place of the state to limit political speech, and it is certainly arguable that in order to hold political officials accountable in a representative democratic republic, this kind of information must be available to the public. And yet at some point there is a line where certain information may endanger innocent lives and a very difficult compromise must be made.... or must it?

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 Nerdrum

To 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.


Ishita said...

I agree with you 100%! I am sure you are abreast of the censorship at the Smithsonian.... The self appointed arbitrator of morality forget that unless we have the right to express, we are going to turn into one of those fundamentalist countries..... I hope one day , somehow, the difference between art and pornography will be more clear to the public!

iskeen said...

Very interesting, but personally, I think private property trumps public opinion. Artists are never going to get the majority of people agreeing on what is art and what is porn, so instead of complaining about Facebook's rules, you should look into Barebrush, the international, monthly on-line calendar contest dedicated to the art of the nude. And what about Facebook? Don't worry, Barebrush has a plan on how to get the Facebook millions to come to Barebrush and see for themselves that it's OKAY to enjoy the art of the nude. My website, my rules: Online since 2006.

Alia El-Bermani said...

Richard, thank you for you thoughtful and thought provoking post. My painting was one of the 50 or so taken down from the contest. It is so disappointing that the beautiful nude could be so offensive to some.

New York City said...

Here's a link for all those who haven't yet heard of the Smithsonian Censorship.

I'm not sure what property rights have to do with the ability to make our work visible on the internet... unless you mean that the power lies in people collecting the work?

I'm not that familiar with Barebrush, but, I would love to know more about how they plan to draw so many users from Facebook. And how do they plan to compete with Saatchi, Myartspace, Canvoo, Fineartamerica, and all the other dozens of online arts networks?

Agnes said...

When will humanity grow up to accept that sexuality is part of our being?

Real fine art is not pornographic or volgar even if it is very explicit, see for example Courbet's famous painting. It does not scandalize me, hurt or humiliate me as a woman. Some magazines, tv shows do and frequently.
There is much more porn in any newsstand (at least here in Europe) or in a day trasmission on national broadcasts than in whole art production of fine art.
So I feel much hypocracy in all this, I do not blame FB, their policy is OK, but close-minded people who first want to see nudes and then tag them as offensive, as yourself have pointed it out.

I've expressed my opinion about this question on the FB page of the competition to which I have contributed with my (modest) artwork, admiring the beautiful creations of fellow artists.

Covering genitals on fine artworks is stupid as has been the act of those popes that made to cover them with figleaves and else arriving to the barbarism of Pius IX who made to mutilate the classic statues.

see also

iskeen said...

One of the artists whose work was censored wrote to me about your excellent post. That is how I came to see it.

There is a big confusion of what is public and what is private, with many people not willing to listen to any opposing view. I think this is very dangerous because it invites governement control where currently there is only public opinion, but private control.

Websites cost money to build and maintain. Just because a website is available to the public at no cost to them doesn't mean that the people who build and maintain the website give up their right to decide what goes on it. If Facebook doesn't like art of the nude, love 'em or leave 'em. Pandering to their demands makes them stronger.

I hope that eventually all the people currently bowing to Facebook’s demands for self-censorship realize that they are losing more than they gain by going along with Facebook’s rules. You have to know that if political pressure is used to change Facebook’s rules, it is not Facebook which will suffer, it is Barebrush! Big, billion dollar companies like Facebook would like nothing more than to have regulators specify FOR ALL WEBSITES what is allowed and not allowed. Legislation will protect Facebook from fair competition.

Right now, I decide what goes on Barebrush – and no one else. If a law is passed to say what is allowed or not, don’t think that we artists are going to carry any majority or be listened to. The public opinion is that people must be protected from being offended by nudity due to their religious beliefs or some other factors. If you continue to bow to these unreasonable and irrational Facebook rules, it is you, the artists, who are giving the rules legitimacy.

Censorship is an activity ONLY practiced by governments, when government bodies decide what individuals can see, say and read. A private entity controlling his or her own property or business and making decisions based on his or her beliefs is not a censor. If you argue that Facebook is a public company and therefore should be forced to display art according to YOUR preferences, then you open the door for government censors to dictate what any website will be allowed to display and how.

At that point, Barebrush will cease to be an alternative to Facebook, and therefore the business of Barebrush would end and you and the other artists would have NO PLACE to show your work uncensored.

Yes, Barebrush is uncensored in the sense that the government does not tell me what I can put on the website. However, ALL ART ON BAREBRUSH IS HUMAN REVIEWED. Pornography is rejected. So in that sense, Barebrush IS censored.

If you ask how I draw the line between art at pornography, I will say this: pornography presents exploitation, degradation, depravity and/or the treatment of the human figure as if it had no spirit at all. Barebrush presents celebration, exploration and/or the recognition that body and spirit are ONE. Barebrush has rejected art in the past, and will continue to in the future.

My plan is to make Barebrush so attractive and fun that we actually INCREASE the market for the art of the nude, not kowtow to Facebook just because they have the millions of members. This will not happen overnight – it’s been 4 years already, but we have made good progress, and I hope to continue.

I regard the self-censorship of artists on Facebook as a dangerous “giving in” to irrational pressures. You should not do that!

Sorry to be so one-sided about this, but I perceive this as a direct threat to the continued existence of Barebrush – so your protests not withstanding, your actions might lead to the demise of places where art from many people can be shown as they originally intended it.

New York City said...

Dear Anonymous,

Since you removed your comment discussing property rights and potential govt. regulation, I'm assuming you didn't want others to read it. But, I thought you brought up some very interesting question and I'd like people to have the opportunity to discuss them. So, I'll address them like this.

I didn't mention property rights or government regulation in my article. But, since you rightly pointed out that the owners of these websites, such as Facebook have the private rights to decide what goes on it, I understand now what you meant by private property rights and it's a logical track for the discussion to take.

I agree with you that govt. regulation of these websites, and the internet in general would be catastrophic. This is why I didn't call for or discuss govt. regulation. In my opinion, the internet should be as unregulated as possible. But, I don't know that govt. regulation would necessarily be a result of our protesting Facebook's policy on censoring art. Is it only one or the other? Likewise, you said that accepting Facebook's censorship of our work is also dangerous to our ability to exhibit our work on the internet in the future.

My hope is that with enough protest by the users of Facebook and enough press on this subject, they will take note - and like any good business, listen to the demands of their customers or risk the PR repercussions. They're perfectly capable of revising their system to be more precise about what the censor.

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MCG said...

Very nice article Richard, particularly for the bigger questions it raises. Putting aside Facebooks handling of the situation for a moment(as this would be a two page comment) I'll share a few thoughts about the possile origination of the problem itself within Facebook. To my thinking, I doubt that the flags are coming from non-connected viewer of the competition. It seems more likely that these paintings are being flagged by someone in the contest and that some type of flagging campaign is being driven by a painter(s) or friends/family of that painter(s). It is impossible to control or protect the flow of "votes", ie "likes" from coordinated gang-"liking"(sound familiar?), and I suspect the same potential exists for gang-"flagging'. I am not familiar with all of the paintings that were removed as I've not been paying close attention, but, I'd be curious if the flagged/removed paintings trended toward higher quality than average. Is it possible that a painter is "taking out the competition"? or, just acting in a generally malevolet manner? Some people take the idea of contests and competition to extreme measure and want to "win" at any cost. Perhaps FB could somehow assist in determing if a large number of these flags are coming from someone in the contest itself, or a particular source connected to a contestant.
It seems that with the aspects of "likes" and "flags" being utterly beyond control, using FB as a venue for these contest/competitions becomes self-defeating. I wonder if simply eliminating the contest/competitive flavor and offering these as the wonderful exhibits/shows they have been would help eliminate some of the administrative nuisance that keeps coming up. Best wishes. mcg

Anonymous said...

On the subject of the alleged 'censorship' of Smithsonian - it is a publicly funded institution, and as Thomas Jefferson said, it's outrage to force a man to fund an ideology he abhors.

The Smithsonian displayed images which degraded Jesus. I know a bunch of you will get on your high horses at this opportunity to attack a 'right wing christian' but honestly - do you think the people who curate these 'piss christs, elephant dung virgin mary's ect would ever allow an image of say, Anne Frank frolicking with SS guards (given the ethnic background of the people who push this sort of 'art' i can answer with a resounding 'no') . There is a consistent pattern of anti-Christian images - could you imagine one degrading MLK? Do you think it would even make it past the curators? and if you want some idea as to the reason for it here is a very well documented essay about modern art:

If you want to talk about real censorship Richard, as opposed to your 'right' to my tax dollars to offend me, try going to Europe, in say, germany or france, and say you only believe 2 not six million Jews died during WWII and they weren't gassed. You'd be carted off to jail quicker than you say "censorship' - that is real political oppression, and I never see the likes of you standing up to it, rather, you pick soft targets like this. And it's also tiresome - trying to 'shock'' the bourgeois has been going on for close to 100 years, time for so called artists to find a new routine

Lastly, everyone agrees with some degree of censorship - you would not (at least I hope not) permit a sexually explicit image of a child, no matter what the artist claimed was the 'meaning' in one of your competitions. So in a very real sense you are a 'censor'.

Anonymous said...

PS Richard, Here's a list of the laws against holocaust denial and the people who have been jailed and fined. Let's have a self-righteous post about this, shall we?

Anonymous said...

One more little exercise for all the artists complaining about censorship. Richard in particular.
Richard, you're a talented artist. Paint a picture depicting Palestinian suffering. Perhaps even a series. Shop it around some New York galleries, try entering it in a few competitions.

See how far you get, and watch whatever headway you've made in New York vanish into nothing.

I am sorry if I am sounding a little harsh here, but there is much bigger, real oppression and censorship going and artists who do this sort of posturing I find grossly hypocritical and can't respect it.

Its like the old legend of the panther and the elephant. The panther finds his young son crushed to death, and he swears that he will kill who ever did it. The crow says "i saw the elephant do it"
The panther stops and contemplates... "no" he says, it was the jackal, the jackal did it, I will kill the jackal.

New York City said...

Dear Anonymous 2,
(Not sure if you're the same as the first anonymous)

I'm guessing that you don't know me personally, as your assumptions about my political views are very broad and seem to be addressed at the stereotypical "artist type".

1. I did not make a statement one way or the other about the Smithsonian censorship. (Though I'm about to make one) I merely shared a link. I had just heard of it myself and hadn't done enough research to have a solid opinion yet.
Though, you are correct that there is a double standard as to what controversial speech is considered admissible, I do not condone or agree with your broad generalizations concerning ethnic and religious groups, though you may notice, I did not censor you. I believe the readers of Art Babel are mature and intelligent enough to handle such statements.

The primary reason that curators do not present work which is even vaguely anti-semitic or debates or denies the holocaust is because there are people alive who survived the holocaust, their children and grandchildren still survive and the murder of millions of people is still a relatively fresh wound.

It's called human empathy.

As a Christian myself, I am not offended by ants crawling on a cross. Firstly, Christianity is the dominant religion in the U.S. I think it can handle a little debate. Secondly, the fact that I think the video was terrible notwithstanding, the symbolism of ants crawling on a cross is incredibly vague...
Thirdly, it is one of the valuable facets of the arts to question the dominant culture. Without questioning the way we do things we would still be banging rocks together in a cave.

Faith is not faith unless it can survive through questioning and doubt. Truth is not truth unless it can stand critical inquiry.

2. This article is about censorship on Facebook, a private company.

Nothing I said has very much to do with your tax dollars, or my "right to spend them".... Actually, most of the figurative classical painters I know are conservatives or libertarians (I happen to ascribe to no political party, myself) so you might find it helpful to adjust your stereo-type.

3. I live in Europe. I have direct experience of what it's like in both the U.S and in Europe.
If I were to do something stupid like argue about the number of Jews killed in the holocaust here in France, I would make a lot of people very angry, but they would not take me to jail. In Europe we also have rights upheld by the law. I enjoy the same degree of freedom of speech as I did in the U.S.

4. Shocking the Bourgeoise? Again, my article was about the censorship of paintings on Facebook.
The theme of the competition was "The Beautiful Nude". It was about beauty, nothing shocking in that unless these "Bourgeoise" are shocked by Michelangelo? Are they shocked by Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, and Waterhouse? They all painted nudes (and beautifully).

In the future I invite you to comment on something I did actually say and perhaps we can have a productive discussion.

Rick Powell said...

Don't use Facebook for anything that actually means something to you and causes you to violate your own principles. (Don't use Facebook at all, is always my best advice anyway.)

You blurred or blocked out genitalia, and...and... NIPPLES! fer frak's sake, in a competition called The Beautiful Nude!

Really, I'm speechless at the irony.

The Rochester Reader said...

I hate censorship.

John Wellington said...

Hi Richard,

Yesterday, I was banned from uploading to facebook for seven days because of a painting that I uploaded over the weekend (with details - one showing nipples). Although fb has stated that they make an exception for paintings and sculptures (and my work was clearly labeled "Oil on Aluminum" and looks like a painting), it is clear that they do not.

Thank you for writing such a clear and thoughtful response to your own facebook ban!

I teach figurative painting at The New York Academy of Art and my work my be seen at

All my best,

John Wellington

New York City said...

Hi John,

Thanks for commenting. I don't know if you remember, but I took painting 1 with you in 2007. As I recall, you're an exceptional teacher. I'm glad to hear you're still teaching at NYAA.

I'm sorry that your work was also censored.
It does seem that FB takes little or no interest in protecting paintings or sculpture from their nudity rule - even works that would be considered "tasteful" in nearly any circle. In fact, it has become the rule and not the exception that figurative painters have their work censored by FB, as I've heard that this has occurred to a great number of figurative painters I know there.

This is an issue, not to be taken lightly. Figurative painters and sculptors should have the same opportunities to network and market themselves as any other artist. And FB is one of the most powerful tools for doing that. Why should we be penalized simply because our mode of expression happens to require a nude body?

Anonymous said...

Nudity hurts no-one. Kids have to be taught that adults get embarrassed by it.

To stop being tormented by nudity, you merely have to turn your head away. You never see people in hospital because they have been hurt by the sight of nudity.

Personally I'm offended by images of fig leaves as they conjure up the most obscene images in my mind. Why is my offence any less than anyone else's?

Esmeralda Acosta said...

Richard, you've made eloquent statements to the issue at hand and some that weren't. :)

I think Facebook has a hypocritical stance regarding allowed images. And now I have great doubt as to the observation and sensibility skills of the banning brigade.

FaceBook statement:
"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."

A little more clarification takes place after this issue with the The New York Academy of Art. Here the FB rep actually furthur deciphers policy that "In this case, we congratulate the artist on his lifelike portrayal that, frankly, fooled our reviewers. Each member of our investigations team reviews thousands of pieces of reported content every day and, of course, we occasionally make a mistake. We're sorry for the confusion here and we encourage the artist to repost his work."

Mr. Axten's clear sttement: "Anyone can do a search on Facebook and find thousands of images of artwork. If we're censoring, we're doing a terrible job at it. We don't censor art and have no intention to." doesn't seem ambiguous or that the guidelines are fuzzy.

According to the spokesman, FB policy doesn't censor art. Period. Private property or not they have stated publicly what the parameter is.
SO why the hell are they still pulling figurative work off the site?

My question is with all the re-structuring of the interface and tweeking privacy preferences of it's users without making clear these changes to it's users, not to mention the thousands of stupid spam modules that harass FB updaters, that FB engineers can't create a warning banner that artists can implement as a buffer for those whose eyeballs and faces will melt off their skulls if they look at drawing or painting of a nude figure?

Unknown said...

Brilliantly written! I am thankful to be among some of these great artists to go down with the ship. Not the first time FB has censored me and removed my art. Sadly as artists we do not glorify in the profane which seems to easily permeate the walls of FB without issue. Just don't paint it...

Marc Susan said...

‎"Facebook censors us, and deactivates accounts as they see fit, without regard to whatever it means or represents to their members. Do they know that in France censorship was abolished in 1974-1975?" More on the site of this group. French, English and German spoken. Translator available. Name of the group: "Pour 1 changement de réglement Facebook."

Marc Susan said...

"Pour 1 changement de réglement Facebook." this French/English FB group pleaded for censorship rules regarding nudity that were complian with the much more tolerant European laws. The group was de-activated within days.