text by KARLEY SCIORTINO
The first image ever censored from my Instagram account was of a painting by the famous French Realist, Gustave Courbet. Titled, Le Sommeil (Sleep), 1866, it depicts two nude women sleeping in a peaceful embrace. After its removal, I got one of those “you breached the terms of service” e-mails, which annoyingly never specify which image was deleted, and inevitably leave you scrolling through your timeline, trying to pinpoint the missing link. It took me quite a while to realize that Le Sommeil was the culprit, as I never expected that a painting, let alone a respected piece of art, could be deemed inappropriate viewing, even by the most puritanical of judges. But apparently, we’ve achieved such a level of unsophistication that there’s no longer a distinction between art and porn — all nudity is pornography, at least according to social media sites, which have inadvertently become the quotidian authorities on what we are permitted to say and see, as well as arbiters of the significance of the nude body itself.
We’ve come quite a way since the time of book burnings and whitewashing pieces of history from children’s textbooks. We congratulate ourselves on our freedom to speak. And yet somehow, we seem to overlook the fact that, we consume and share information through the heavily patrolled, omnipresent censor-world of social media.
I’m not the only one who’s been scolded by Instagram for posting iconic works of art. Works by Courbet, Richard Prince, and Robert Mapplethorpe have gotten various magazines and galleries booted off the photosharing service entirely. Even Prince himself had his account deleted, after posting his controversial artwork Spiritual America, 1983 — a punishment he later said felt “strange and confusing.” I relate. It feels so ridiculous to be reading an article about a new Ryan McGinley exhibition in The New York Times, with accompanying images, and then to open Instagram and see the same images, except with superimposed hearts over any visible nipple or bush, as if I’ve somehow teleported back to being a seven-year-old in Victorian England. (And let’s just acknowledge the irony that by covering certain body parts, we insist on sexualizing them, regardless of the artwork’s original intent).
Instagram is square, in more ways than one. In its terms of service, Instagram states that users are banned from posting content that is “violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive.” And not only does Instagram censor what we post, but it also blocks users from searching certain hashtags. The 100-plus blocked hashtags predictably include words like #pornography and #blowjob, but also extend to seemingly innocuous words like #bra, #fetish, and #lingerie. But then for some reason, #faketits and #underboob are allowed. The inconsistency by which the policy is enforced makes it even more annoying.
The apparently arbitrary enforcement of the no-nudity policy was brought to media attention last year when Instagram famously deleted artist Petra Collins’ popular account after she posted an image of herself in a bikini with a visibly unshaved bikini line. Because there’s roughly a zillion images of girls in bikinis on Instagram, the issue was clearly that Petra’s body didn’t meet society’s standard of “femininity.” As Petra said, “It’s an example of the pressure to succumb to society’s image of beauty literally turning into censorship.” It’s ridiculous to censor photographs of historical paintings, women breastfeeding, and unshaven bikini lines, but then for some reason to allow Kim Kardashian to post the photo of her nude, oiled butt, which graced the cover of Paper magazine late last year.
Apparently, Instagram has appointed itself the body police. But by censoring nudity, it is hindering people’s ability to share and discuss art, film, and photography, or to create a dialogue around sexual politics and sex-ed. By choosing to allow sexual images — for example, Playboy’s Instagram, full of women in tiny bikinis — but to remove comic or artistic depictions of nude female bodies, social media sites are sending a clear message: women’s bodies exist solely to be sexually stimulating, and if they are not serving that purpose then they should be removed from sight.
Being a journalist, I am predictably against censorship of any kind. At the same time, I can understand the desire to prevent Instagram (which is for people as young as 13) from turning into a porn aggregator. But is a strict no-nudity policy the only way to achieve that?
I love porn, and I love art, but I understand that they are not the same thing. The definition of pornography extends far beyond nudity — porn is the explicit display of sexual organs or activity, with the specific aim to stimulate sexual excitement and climax. Anyone with half a brain understands that this is not the ambition of art. But Instagram’s current policy leaves no room for distinction. Of course, there are always gray areas, and the argument over where to draw the line between art and pornography will probably never end. But lines are drawn all the time, and people who have an advanced knowledge of art are better suited to be drawing those lines than people who don’t. If it’s someone’s job to decide that #faketits and #underboob are acceptable hashtags, but that #cleavage isn’t, then surely it’s possible for an artistically literate person to decide whether a specific image containing breasts is pornographic, and therefore inappropriate for Instagram, or if it’s art and therefore of social value.
“Facebook wields more power [today] in determining who can speak,” said the influential legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen, “than any Supreme Court justice, any king or any president.” That’s a scary thought. And while social media sites claim to support free speech, they all create “terms of service” that disregard our legally protected, basic human right to freedom of expression.
Instagram claims that its restrictions are there to protect its users. But protecting and censoring are two different things. It’s a slippery slope when the private tech companies that run social media sites are proactively stepping in to decide what information is valid for public consumption. The bottom line is whether or not we look at a photograph or watch a video, it should be our decision. And while government censorship is unfortunately a familiar battle, mass censorship by a private tech company is something new, something different, and something we should not passively accept.
Ideally, we would live in a world free of censorship. But in lieu of utopia, I suggest that filters should be available on request rather than be imposed. User’s feeds could be rated the way we rate films.
Realistically, people on the Internet are fickle: if and when we become fed up with the censorship of Instagram, or any other social media site, we will happily drift away to the next thing. The fear, however, is that we’ve become so accustomed to being silenced and controlled that we will soon no longer care, or worse, notice.
[Table of contents]
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John ArmlederRead the article
Celia HemptonRead the article
Despacio Sound SystemRead the article
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Andra UrsutaRead the article
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