What Does Censoring Nude Art Say About Us and Our Social Networks?

Ventana Vista Hacia La Sucre. Imagen por Erika Ordosgoitti.

Window with a view towards Sucre. Image by Erika Ordosgoitti.

The nude, one of the oldest and most recurrent subjects in the art world, has led to the suspension of many Facebook accounts over the years. One recent and widely reported example was the account of Jerry Saltz, an art critic from New York Magazine. Last month, his account was suspended because he shared images deemed inappropriate, according to the network's terms of service.

On digital media, inappropriate often means naked. In Saltz's case, the images were provocative and deemed to be pornographic, according to the New York Times’ ArtsBeat blog. But the same criteria has been applied to a broad range of images, from breastfeeding mothers to artists whose works reveal nipples, penises, and in particular, vaginas. The female reproductive organ seems all but banned from social networks, even in the case of a reproduction of Gustave Courbet's famous 1866 painting The Origin of the World.

Venezuelan performance artist Erika Ordosgoitti, whose art focuses primarily on the female body, is another example of a person who has faced numerous challenges due to her publishing nude works on social media. Among other works, Facebook has censored a portrait of her naked body five times in a row.

Captura de pantalla del proceso de denuncia de contenido pornográfico en Facebook. Compartido por Erika

Screenshot of a report on pornographic content in Facebook saying that Erika's photo has been reported and therefore, deleted. Shared by Erika Ordosgoitti.

The above text, explaining Facebook's reasons for deleting the photo reads: “We have reviewed the photo reported on the basis of nudity or pornography. As it infringes our Terms of service, it was removed. Thanks for reporting. We already told Erika Ordos that we deleted her photo, but we did not tell her who filed the complaint. Facebook never discloses the identity of the person filling the report.”

Global Voices asked Ordosgoitti to tell us about her experience with censorship on social media platforms. From there, we started to think about how both users and system administrators facilitate censorship. This post will be the first in a series of publications that will address the different ways of dealing with art censorship, based on the stories of Erika Ordosgoitti and other artists who have been restrained by social networks’ terms of service and by social conventions.

Ordosgoitti's latest exhibition, titled Comida de moscas (Food for Flies), comments on the censorship that she has experienced and managed to document.

Warning: The photograph shown below contains graphic language.

Los primeros años fue un fenómeno de redes. Continuamente me cerraban la cuenta, me bloqueaban, me advertían; yo deliberadamente insistía. Recibí muchos insultos y algunas pocas amenazas de muerte.

In the first years, the page went viral online. They continually closed my account, blocking me, and warning me, and I kept on deliberately posting my work. I received many insults and a few death threats.

Captura de pantalla 2015-03-18 a las 11.21.31

Video installation with insulting comments received by Ordosgoitti from users in Internet. Shared image by the artist and published with permission.

Venezuelan artist Eliseo Solis Mora found himself in a similar situation not long ago. He was blocked by Facebook for publishing a self-portrait—a frontal nude that is part of a performance art piece. He writes:

Las redes hoy son un medio complejo. Me han censurado en varias de ellas por los contenidos de mis fotos. En Facebook  publiqué una imagen de Esther Ferrer y me bloquearon. Me volvió a ocurrir con un desnudo que luego dediqué a Ai Weiwei. En Instagram borraron automáticamente una imagen mía que fue denunciada…

Networks are nowdays a complex medium. I have been banned for my photos. On Facebook, I posted a picture of Esther Ferrer and they blocked me. It happened again with a nude that I later dedicated to Ai Weiwei. On Instagram, they automatically erased an image that was reported.

Complainants remain anonymous

Ordosgoitti says artists are usually blocked or censored because of complaints filed by other users with access to their accounts.

He tenido ya unas siete cuentas diferentes en Facebook. En la actualidad conservo dos, una oficial y otra alternativa, por lo general una de ellas está bloqueada, entonces uso la otra para superar el bloqueo

I've had about seven different Facebook accounts. Currently I have two Facebook accounts: an official account and an alternative one, and usually one of them is blocked, so I use the other to bypass this.

The artist says the criteria for censorship are applied loosely and unequally. She also notes that users who file unreasonable complaints face no penalties:

Responsabilizo de esta censura en primer lugar a Facebook porque sus políticas promueven conductas de sapeo [delación] anónimo. Considero que esta política es injusta, porque no me da derecho de saber quién me está denunciando ni sus razones […] Al denunciante se le agradece, sin saber si su denuncia es válida. Aunque las condiciones de publicación son claras, las razones de censura no lo son, porque en la actualidad (no siempre fue así) se supone que sus intenciones son excluir la pornografía o imágenes sexuales explícitas, por lo tanto quedarían exentas las imágenes científicas o artísticas pero ¿cómo diferenciar imágenes pornográficas o vulgares de imágenes artísticas?

Facebook is the first to be blamed on this form of censorship because their policy promotes anonymous reporting. I believe this policy is unfair, because it doesn't give me the opportunity to know who is denouncing me and why […]. They thank the user who's complaining, without even knowing if the report is valid. Although the terms of use are clear enough, the reasons for censorship are not, because nowadays (and it was not always like this) it is assumed that their intention is to exclude pornography or sexually explicit images, a policy that can thereby extend to exempting scientific and artistic images. But how do you differentiate pornographic or vulgar images from artistic ones?

Facebook's decision to protect the identity of those who denounce images reflects an intention to keep these situations from instigating conflict between users. But it also presents new challenges, as the artists indicate.

Solís Mora, whose body images online have also encountered censorship, considers the criteria for censoring artistic images on digital media undemocratic:

…las celebridades tienen mayores libertades. Prueba de ello es el famoso wallpaper de Kim Kardashian exhibiendo el trasero, que se volvió viral a través de las redes sociales. Hay algo interesante que uno nota nada más al abrir el Instagram: a diario se publican este tipo de imágenes, que tienen miles de likes y son sexismo puro, pero hay obras de arte que son automáticamente bloqueadas…

…celebrities have more freedom. Proof of this is the famous wallpaper with Kim Kardashian showing her butt that went viral through social networks. There is something interesting that you notice when you open Instagram: there are sexist images published everyday with thousands of ‘likes’ while there are works of art that are automatically blocked …

Solís Mora recently published recently a warning—or rather a manifesto—on his Facebook wall:

Sí en esta cuenta, que en gran medida está manejada como herramienta de trabajo, me desnudo y tú que lees (sé no son tod@s) la denuncias o sencillamente no te gusta, pasa la página…Recomiendo entonces que si eres mi amigo o amiga virtual, entiendas que soy un artista y mi libertad creadora es total, aquí solo muestro arte.

If on this account, which is largely handled as a working tool, I show my naked body and if you, dear reader, don't like it, just turn the page … I recommend then, that if you're my friend or virtual friend, try to understand that I am an artist with total creative freedom and that what I show here is art.

Like Ordosgoitti, Mora has been bullied and has even received death threats because of his work. For him, censorship from cultural institutions has always been something he's had to deal with, but the constraints on his online artistic freedom, he says, are growing:

El problema va más allá de la mera denuncia, es la imposibilidad de ser libre. Sin embargo, me gusta que hoy se hable del desnudo, aún cuando es el tema más antiguo del arte…

The problem goes beyond reporting—the real problem is the lack of freedom. However, I like to hear people talking about nude, even though it is the oldest subject in the art world…

Editor's note: This post started a team discussion on nude art on our page. While some team members wanted to include the works subjected to censorship, others were reluctant. Thus, based on these conversations, we opened the discussion in our community blog. You can see the discussion here and add your thoughts in the comments.

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