Contemporary Social Media:
Facebook and Twitter
Joy Garnet is a visual artist and writer and works as Arts Advocacy Program Associate at the National Coalition Against Censorship in New York. She has a BA in Humanities and Middle East Studies from McGill University, studied painting at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and earned her MFA in Painting from The City College of New York. She served as the Arts Editor for Cultural Politics (2005-2016), a peer-reviewed cultural theory journal published by Duke University Press, and on the Committee for Intellectual Property at the College Art Association. She has written extensively about media and art, visual archives, copyright, and free expression for publications that include Harper’s, M/E/A/N/I/N/G, Journal of Visual Culture, Artnet and Art21 Magazine. Her paintings have been shown at the Milwaukee Art Museum, MoMA-PS1, Whitney Museum of American Art, the FLAG Art Foundation, Boston University Art Gallery, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Museum of Contemporary Craft Portland, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK and Witte Zaal in Ghent, Belgium. She is currently writing an Arab American family memoir.
Social Media, Art & Censorship
Social media increasingly determines what people may or may not see or read about the world. Artists, who have grown to depend on visual platforms like Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) to share their work, are in a constant battle over the removal of their works and take-downs or suspensions of their accounts. These frequent removals often stem from a vaguely worded no-nudity policy and confusion over what constitutes “artworks” or images of cultural import in their Terms of Service.
That all-too-loosely interpreted wording frequently leads to the flagging and removal of images of historical, artistic or journalistic merit.
In the past, Facebook’s countless removals of images have included artist Frode Steinicke's posting of Gustave Courbet's 1866 painting L'Origine du monde (Origin of the World), which depicts a woman’s vagina as the origin of life; a Breast Cancer Awareness Body Painting Project by Michael Colanero that was deemed "pornographic"; drawings of nudes from the page of the New York Academy of Art (later reinstated); and last year, the removal of an iconic Vietnam War-era journalistic photograph.
A recent instance of egregious Facebook removal of an artwork over nudity occurred in December when it banned a user's image (and subsequent posts of the image, including one by The Art Newspaper) of the famous 30,000 year-old nude statuette known as the Venus of Willendorf that resides in the collection of the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. This has spurred outrage and a flurry of articles on the problem of Facebook’s arbitrary and ongoing censoring of artworks. A Facebook spokesperson has since apologized for the error; in the meantime, the artist who posted the image is petitioning Facebook to change its algorithms.
While Facebook has admitted the difficulty in creating distinctions between different kinds of images containing nudity, it has done nothing to work with artists, whose problems remain unresolved. Twenty-first century artists, particularly those without global name recognition, depend on social media to distribute, advertise and even sell their work. They are understandably frustrated, but have little recourse and no clear alternatives to using existing social media platforms.
Of course, non-artists have also suffered the removal of images containing nudity and even the suspension of their accounts. In 2011, French primary schoolteacher Frédéric Durand-Baďssas sued Facebook for closing his account after he posted a photograph of L’Origine du monde, charging them with censorship and seeking €20,000 in damages due to his loss of contacts and content, the re-activation of his account and an explanation of why it was closed. Durand-Baďssas's lawyer posed a key question: “Where does art begin and where does pornography end? That is an interesting debate to have -- but Facebook refuses to have it.”
An online version of this text with rich internal links can be found on NCAC, as part of an interview and podcast with the photographer Savannah Spirit: https://ncac.org/news/blog/savannah-spirit-i-am-a-camera
Transcript of Joy Garnett's Facebook conversation