Social Media censorship has compelled the Art World to take matters into its own hands. The Vienna Tourist Board in Austria enjoyed using its Facebook, Instagram and Tiktok accounts to share the content of their museums’ artwork and make it easily accessible to the general public. In multiple occurrences, art that contained depictions of nudity was flagged by the social media’s algorithm and taken down silently. In July 2021, Albertina’s museum Tiktok account was banned after showing an artist’s work that was deemed inappropriate according to the rules. On another occasion, the Leopold museum decided to celebrate its 20th anniversary with a video containing a painting of a nude couple embracing signed by Koloman Moser, and was banned from Facebook and Instagram because it was “potentially pornographic” (Sun, 2021).
This is how the Vienna Tourist Board found itself within the ranks of OnlyFans, a platform that has rapidly grown in the last few years, featuring uncensored sex work. So why not artwork as well? The decision was part of the “Vienna Laid Bare” Campaign, an initiative supporting art’s right to be shared freely, unapologetically, nakedly (Edwards, 2021). Foregoing the notions of what is really pornographic or not - in which case the work wasn’t - should we really let a platform decide which parts of our culture should be available to us or not?
From the anxious-stricken parent who does not want his child to be exposed to graphic scenes at an impressionable age, to the desperate artist that sees their line of life being debated, perspective is a multifaceted issue. However, art and the public's access to it should be universal. During the Covid-19 pandemic, such access was remarkably limited. Social media were informally transformed into the largest art broker and curator in the world. Some would attest to them already having acquired such function, years before quarantine measures were established (Fleming, 2014). For the poor, the sick and the physically challenged, in fact, Instagram will continue to be the easiest way and perhaps the only way to see, feel and assess artwork. Should they not have the same experience or the closest possible experience with a walk-in viewer, should they wish to?
Instagram formally admitted that its algorithm was biased recently, in 2020 (Fleming, 2021). The issue back then was that a black woman, Nyome Nicholas-Wiliams, posted a shot of herself in the nude, clutching her chest with her eyes closed, as part of her journey to find confidence and body positivity. Nyome is a plus-sized model and her photo was taken down because it was flagged as pornographic, while similar photos of white thin cis-gendered women are consistently left up (Ibid.). Of course, that’s not the case if their nipples are on display. According to current censorship guidelines (Meta, 2022), Meta has also banned female nipples from its platforms, but definitely not the male kind. Is the nude female body or the suggestively posed plus-sized body pornographic?
On October 23rd, 2021, the Louvre posted on Instagram a gallery of photos depicting the work of Hippolyte Flandrin “Nude Youth Sitting by the Sea”. A young man is posed in profile, sitting, hugging his knees, laying his forehead on them, eyes closed and body nude. Just as a tour guide, the caption under the photos provides insight into the artist, his history and his intentions, which were to inspire meditation. If the “nude youth” was a woman, it would have already been flagged. But it has not and it will not.
Hundreds of years ago all nude bodies were considered offensive. In 1565, Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel was deemed ‘unholy’ and unethical by the Catholics because of the nude bodies in it. It was later decided that pieces of fabric would be painted over them. Back then, it was considered unacceptable for bodies to be laid bare in the eyes of the public, especially inside the catholic church (Frank P, 2017).
So where does censorship begin and where does it end? The rules change as our community evolves, but they still hold influence from their past placeholders. In the past, the biggest censor ruler was religion. Now it is religion, politics and enterprises, most of which are bound by racism and sexism (García-Hodges, 2021). Big corporations are in charge of major changes in modern everyday life, but behind the brand names and labels, humans are the decision-makers. They make choices based on their own agendas, their own beliefs, principles and prejudices, and use the power they have to inflict them on others, just like Pope Paul IV did when he censored Michelangelo. The levels of empathy and tolerance that a community - in this case the global one - demonstrates play a huge role in this sector of decision making.
Social media are this age's social culture and the exhibition of our social behavior. They are part of our morning and night routines and hold influence over our view of the rest of the world. When Instagram on any other social media platform censors a woman, a plus-sized body or a body part, it facilitates the currents trends of misogyny and gender discrimination that are noted across our communities and at a global level. It silences the different aspects of life, of experiences, of bodies, of genders, of perspectives that our species has to offer. Images of reality are wiped away from our screens and from our proximity, and for some people it will be harder to process and accept them in person.
Leaving casual users aside, we have to remember that social media also constitute a way to do business. It is an artist’s way of displaying, networking and selling artwork while maintaining full power over their own work, at a low cost and effectively. If the platform keeps flagging their works because they are deemed pornographic or even suggestive, isn’t it logical that some of them will stop sharing them or even making them? If artists start censoring themselves in order to make their work more profitable, the art world will suffer, and progress will be halted. Censorship is an old concept but still very modern. If social media keep walking the same path, most artists will not be able to avoid it. Maybe we will have a boom in OnlyFans accounts.
Edwards, J. (2021, October 20) Social media companies kept banning pictures of ‘explicit’ art. So, Vienna museums will now post on OnlyFans. Washington Post.
Fleming, A. (2021, February 11). The model who made Instagram apologise: Alexandra Cameron’s best photograph. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2021/feb/10/model-instagram-apologise-nyome-nicholas-williams-alexandra-cameron-best-photograph
Fleming, O. (2014, May 14) Why the World's Most Talked-About New Art Dealer Is Instagram, Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/article/buying-and-selling-art-on-instagram
Frank, P. (2017, December 6) A Brief History Of Art Censorship From 1508 To 2014. HuffPost Entertainment https://www.huffpost.com/entry/art-censorship_n_6465010
García-Hodges, A. (2021, January 21). Big Tech has big power over online speech. Should it be reined in? NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/big-tech-has-big-power-over-online-speech-should-it-n1255164
Sun, M. (2021, October 19) Vienna’s Art Museums turn to OnlyFans to Promote Lewd Art. NBC News https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/lifestyle/viennas-art-museums-are-using-onlyfans-post-censored-n ude-art-rcna3258
Meta. (2022) Current Version. Adult Nudity and Sexual Activity: Policy Rationale. https://transparency.fb.com/en-gb/policies/community-standards/adult-nudity-sexual-activity/
Musee du Louvre (2021, October 22), Instagram. (Painting)
Image 1. Moser K., (1913). Liebespaar. (Painting). Retrieved from https://arthur.io/art/koloman-moser/liebespaar-lovers?crtr=1
Image 2. Flandrin, H. (1837). Jeune homme nu assis au bord de la mer [Painting]. Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures, Paris, France. https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010066334#
Image 3. Fohringer H., (c. 28,000–25,000 B.C). The Venus of Willendorf. (Artwork). Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Venus-of-Willendorf