Instagram held a closed-door discussion on Oct. 21 with various artists and museums in an effort to break down how censorship affects artwork on the social media site. Censorship is the subject of an ongoing struggle between social platforms and artists, and today, it is further complicated by the fact that many artists’ careers can be lauched entirely through their online presence, making the threat of censorship even more dire.
Using Instagram, artists can promote themselves and their work independently of third-party institutions like galleries or dealers. They can conduct sales, gain exposure to publications and share their studio practices with fans. However, artists whose work incorporates nudity are unable to reap these benefits, as their art is censored.
Betty Tompkins, one of the invitees to the closed-door conversation, is an example of an artist whose account was deleted because of nudity in her work. Her controversial “F-ck Paintings” were acquired by the renowned Centre Pompidou in Paris. But when she posted to promote the works, Instagram flagged and banned her account, leaving Tompkins upset and unable to appeal the decision.
Instagram’s Community Guidelines acknowledge that “there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature,” but they elect to ban certain content for “a variety of reasons.” And yet, the guidelines go on to say that “nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.”
These guidelines set a hypocritical standard for deciding who gets censored and who doesn’t. By stating that only nudity in paintings and sculptures is allowed, Instagram inherently limits its platform to these more traditional art forms. Take, for example, the Instagram account of Unit London, the gallery that represents the artist Helen Beard. Much of Beard’s work depicts explicit sexual acts with vibrant colorblocking — yet the account has never been censored. If established art institutions are able to promote explicit art and artists, independent artists should be allowed to do so by the same standard.
Like writers and comedians who attempt to build a brand and following on Twitter, artists today must use social platforms to leverage themselves in a competitive market. Where previously a gallery or dealer would have handled promotion and sales for a percentage-based fee, artists can now sell their work directly through DMs, network with high-profile figures and develop personal relationships with a fanbase.
Julia Powell is one artist able to maintain a high level of sales through her social media presence. This allows her to be in control of her career without third-party intervention. Powell’s work does not contain any nudity or portraiture, giving her access to the benefits of building a career online. Banning nudity on social media is unjustifiably prohibitive for artists who are attempting to achieve the success that those like Powell have access to. When an artist’s account is banned on Instagram, they do not only lose their photos — they lose their connection to their audience.
Furthermore, banning certain subject matter does not make social platforms more inclusive. After Tumblr banned nudity, many artists had their artwork taken down or lost to the bots that purged the site of any art that violated its guidelines. However, Nazi propoganda and content promoting eating disorders remained easily accesible. The ban was meant to improve the culture of the platform, as Tumblr was — and still is — known for erotica and other NSFW content. Yet if this ban was sincerely meant to hide what may be provocative, triggering or obscene, a similar standard should have applied to all content.
But can a censorship movement ever be truly inclusive? The fact of the matter is no censorship will serve every person the same way. Social media platforms should not propose and enforce blanket bans. Instead, they must put in place easily accessible mechanisms for flagging photos. Letting users flag the content of their works would lead to more accurate categorization of their photos. Additionally, there should be the option for users to block content that has been flagged. This would be a much more efficient way of demarcating not just nudity, but all content that should be flagged.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 28, 2019 print edition. Email Sophia Di Iorio at [email protected]