Is Facebook too Conservative for Contemporary Art?

 Unfortunately, Facebook’s rules against certain kinds of material, specifically nudes, threaten to censor artists who depict the human body

Just judging by the number of artists I’ve friended on my blog’s Facebook page, a lot of present-day artists use Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild to promote their work. The social network just offers too many opportunities to reach a wider audience that not taking advantage of that potential seems wrong.  Unfortunately, Facebook’s rules against certain kinds of material, specifically nudes, threaten to censor artists who depict the human body.  Two articles in the latest issue of The Art Newspaper discuss this threat to artistic expression looming on Facebook.  The question that many artists and art collectors are now asking is this: Is Facebook too conservative for contemporary art?


In the first article, Clemens Bomsdorf profiles a Swedish photography gallery so concerned about Facebook censoring its page that they preemptively censored themselves.  Fotografiska felt that images from their current exhibition of photos by Robert Mapplethorpe would offend some visitors to their Facebook page. Bomsdorf quotes Fotografiska’s spokesman as saying that Facebook “dislikes nakedness whether it is in paintings or photography,” but  Facebook’s own representative contends that they only delete images flagged by a user as offensive, since having someone from Facebook check the millions of images posted daily is impossible. It somehow seems appropriate that Mappelthorpe, an artist as the center of so many controversies over the years, inaugurates censorship 2.0.  But who is really doing the censoring here?  Facebook says they only act when a client complains, while the gallery says they’re just doing what Facebook would have done eventually.  Should Fotografiska and other venues of controversial shows with nudity have more faith in Facebook and the public that allegedly holds the real veto power?

In the second article, Bomsdorf and Helen Stoilas discuss Facebook’s disabling of users’ accounts for posting historic paintings such as Gustave Courbet’s 1866 The Origin of the World because of nudity and/or strong sexual content.  If the Fotografiska situation revisited censorship from a few decades ago, l’affair Courbet reaches back to the days of Queen Victoria (although Origin wasn’t exhibited publically until 1988).  Uwe Max Jensen, a Danish artist known for courting controversy himself (such as repeatedly walking his dog on a museum’s lawn and leaving a series of mementos), posted nudes by long-dead Swedish artist Anders Zorn (such as the one above) only to have Facebook delete them.  In that second article, a Facebook source claimed that naked photos of “actual” people are removed, but drawings, paintings, and sculptures of nudes aren’t. 

It’s hard to determine whether a real problem exists or not with Facebook censoring art.  Facebook groups such as Artists against Art Censorship and Stop Censorship of Modern Art document daily deletions by Facebook of images that violate Facebook policy.  I’m interested to hear in the comments from any artist that has tried to post their artwork on Facebook only to be met with censorship.  Like it or not, Facebook is an unavoidable reality for anyone wanting to reach as many people as possible.  Facebook, however, belongs to the people, not to the special interest groups or individuals who take it upon themselves to decide for everyone else what is offensive or not.  Facebook will only be as censored as we let it be.

[Image: Anders Zorn. Female Nude (detail).]

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