Facebook’s disabling of my account in November has led me to examine the history of Facebook’s censorship of art as reported in the press, which I share here in chronological order.
New York Academy of Art, original artworks (2011)
The New York Times reported that a drawing and other artworks were blocked by Facebook on the New York Academy of Art’s page. An Academy blog linked by the Times declares that Facebook should not be the “final arbiter and online curator” of its art. Comments on the blog detailed additional acts of censorship by Facebook. The Times noted an “unwritten Facebook policy” that permits nudity in paintings and sculptures. Facebook spokesperson Simon Axton, who pointed out that many Facebook employees are artists, was “thrilled” artists share their work on Facebook. Axton wrote that the Academy’s artwork had been blocked by mistake (“we congratulate the artist on his lifelike portrayal that, frankly, fooled our reviewers”) and added: “we encourage the artist to repost his work.” Axton concluded: “If we’re censoring, we’re doing a terrible job at it. We don’t censor art and have no intention to.” Metropolitan Museum of Art spokesperson Elyse Topalian reported that no art had been censored on Facebook.
Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World, 1866 (2011-2018 and counting)
Danish sculptor Frode Steinicke posted Courbet’s Origin of the World in February of 2011 and Facebook deactivated his account. Many Facebook users utilized the painting as a profile picture in protest. Facebook restored Steinicke’s account without the Courbet.
French educator Frédéric Durand-Baïssas posted the Courbet painting a few days after Steinicke, and his account was deactivated. He sued Facebook in October of 2011. A French court ruling in 2016 kept the suit in France rather than California. The 2018 verdict faulted Facebook for summarily deactivating Durand-Baïssas’ account, but gave him no monetary award. It held that Durand-Baïssas did not prove why his account was deactivated, so he is appealing.
Durand-Baïssas’ account data could not be restored because such data is destroyed 90 days after deactivation. Facebook changed its written policy regarding nudity in art in 2015, and in 2018 Facebook spokesperson Delphine Reyre declared: “The Origin of the World is a painting that has a perfectly valid place on Facebook.”
Medieval manuscript illustrations and contemporary works, (2015)
The most prominent art personality to be suspended by Facebook for posting art images is the National Magazine Award and Pulitzer Prize Award-winning critic Jerry Saltz, who writes for New York Magazine. Saltz, who has an enormous following on Facebook, explains why he was twice suspended in 2015: “I did not run afoul of Facebook algorithms or morality… I ran afoul of art world people sending objections to Facebook about my ‘immoral imagery.’” This raises another censorship issue: anyone with a very large following can be punished for complaints that might not have merit.
Edvard Eriksen, The Little Mermaid, 1913, Copenhagen (2016)
Citing “too much bare skin or sexual undertones,” Facebook censored Mette Gjerskov, a Danish Member of Parliament, who attempted to post an image of the bronze statue that is the most photographed artwork in Denmark. Gjerskov’s appeal was successful.
Easter Simnel Cake, 2016, UK (2016)
A simnel cake baked by Fiona Moseley’s mother was topped by 12 round marzipan balls, representing Christ and his 11 disciples. Evidently misreading the balls (which have a dark center) as disembodied breasts, Instagram (owned by Facebook) not only blocked the cake, it disabled the baker’s account, presumably for the multiple offense of posting six pairs of female breasts! Don’t be surprised when the algorithm mistakes the sacred for the profane.
Did the algorithm mistake this cake for a mutant Diana of Ephesus? No. It only perceives patterns: the patterns of a nipple-licious cornucopia of forbidden social media fruit, a veritable breast pornado. This demonstrates why human moderators must oversee algorithms.
Nick Ut photograph, The Terror of War, 1972 (aka ‘Napalm Girl’) (2016)
Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 photograph features a nude fleeing girl who was the victim of a napalm attack in Vietnam. This controversy centered on the photograph’s status as a signal historical artifact, as reported by the Guardian. When Norwegian writer Tom Egeland used the photograph, the post was deleted and he was suspended from Facebook. Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, included the photograph in a story about Egeland’s suspension on its Facebook page. After they were deleted, Espen Egil Hansen, Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief, accused Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg of abusing his power by serving as a “master editor.” Hanson’s open letter also declared: “I am worried that the world’s most important medium is limiting freedom instead of trying to extend it, and that this occasionally happens in an authoritarian way.”
After the photograph was deleted from the Facebook account of Erna Solberg, the Norwegian prime minister, Solberg protested and Facebook reversed its position. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, informed Solberg in a letter: “…we don’t always get it right… Nonetheless, we intend to do better. We are committed to listening to our community and evolving. Thank you for helping us get this right.” Sandberg said two Facebook officials could meet with Solberg’s staff and added that she was “always available” for consultation. The Norway government’s investment in Facebook was valued at $1.54 billion in early 2016. Facebook can be moved, though it might take the application of enormous forces to achieve this end.
The initial decision to censor Ut’s photograph was made by Facebook employees, not the algorithm. Monika Bickert, head of policy at Facebook, who is responsible for what stays up and what is taken down, later concluded: “Context is everything.”
Caravaggio painting Amor Vincit Omnia (Love conquers all), 1602, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, (2016)
When Facebook blocked an image of the Caravaggio that Milan-based art promoter Hamilton Moura Filho had posted to his page, he threatened to sue and told the newspaper La Repubblica: “This is an offense to history and culture.” Facebook apologized and unblocked his account. Filho thanked the art historians and museum directors who had supported him.
Giambologna, bronze statue of Neptune, 1560s, Bologna (2016)
Giambologna’s monumental statue is the symbol of the Italian city of Bologna, so Elisa Barbari used it to illustrate her Facebook page titled “Stories, curiosities and views of Bologna.” Technically, this was considered an advertisement, and Facebook has extremely stringent prohibitions governing ads, though it permits sculptures. Facebook’s message to Barbari included this passage from its advertising guidelines: “It presents an image with content that is explicitly sexual and which shows to an excessive degree the body, concentrating unnecessarily on body parts.” A Facebook spokesperson subsequently admitted: “This image does not violate our ad policies. We apologize for the error and have let the advertiser know we are approving their ad.”
Venus of Willendorf, c. 28,000–25,000 BC, Naturhistorisches Museum (NHM), Vienna (2017)
This Early Stone Age statuette is the best-known prehistoric statue in the world. When Italian graffiti writer Laura Ghianda posted an image of it, Facebook deleted it. Her four appeals were unsuccessful. NHM director Christian Koeberl, who noted that the museum had never received a complaint about the statue’s nudity, asked Facebook to reverse its blockage of this artwork, which it did. A Facebook spokesperson said Ghianda’s post had been mistaken for an ad, but that Facebook policies “have an exception for statues.” Consequently — even as an ad — the image should have been approved in the first place. Contrary to the above statement, The Art Newspaper says the Facebook advertisement for its story treating the censorship of the Venus of Willendorf was blocked on February 28 and never rescinded.
Additionally, Ghianda subsequently posted three photos of the statuette on her personal Facebook page that were not deleted. Hyperallergic reports that the NHM’s advertisements, including a recent “Valentine’s Day special with the Venus of Willendorf, animal sex, etc.” were never censored on Facebook. Clearly, this Venus’ reign on Facebook has been one of utter confusion, with inconsistent actions by both the algorithm and the human monitors.
Human Monitors: Heavy Workload and Human Error
As is evident in the above discussion, human error has played a critical role in Facebook censorship. In 2011, Simon Axton noted that each monitor examined thousands of cases each day. The NPR article linked above (re: Ut’s 1972 photograph) says they are mostly recent college graduates. It questions whether their training is adequate to assess something like the Ut photograph and concludes that the unit’s million-case weekly workload renders it “an editorial sweat shop.” These regulators also monitor hate speech. ProPublica says it showed Facebook 49 potentially offensive posts and Facebook admitted it got 22 of them wrong, so human error is a substantial factor in this area as well.
Wired reports that Facebook has 7,500 human content moderators for its 2.2 billion users. ProPublica notes that Facebook says it is doubling that number. But according to the short film The Cleaners Who Scrub Social Media (2018), tech companies now outsource most of the actual work to third parties in the developing world. The most disconcerting view comes from the full-length film called The Cleaners (2018). Filmmakers Moritz Riesewieck and Hans Bloc interview former content monitors in Manila. These moniters were expected to review 25,000 images per day, they were under enormous pressure to censor, and they do not seem to share the values of a democratic society.
John De Andrea, Self-Portrait with Sculpture, 1980 (2018)
My Facebook account was “permanently deactivated” on November 16 for uploaded images of the De Andrea sculpture. I had been temporarily blocked by Facebook two days earlier, but received an apology and the restoration of my account when I explained I was posting pictures of a sculpture. Consequently, I thought it was safe to upload additional shots. Facebook prohibits most photos of nude people, but permits nudity in art: “We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.” I made numerous attempts to make an appeal on my computer but only got error messages. I had the same experience on my Kindle, though one of those messages apparently got through to Facebook. I don’t understand why I was deactivated for posting pictures of a sculpture (which Facebook representatives have said is permitted since 2011) unless the algorithm and the moderator both mistook the statue for a real person.
These photos were part of my album dedicated to the landmark Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body exhibition and were accompanied by links to reviews, the Met website, and albums of related exhibitions. The De Andrea is a signal work of its era. Because of conservation concerns, his sculptures are often in storage rather than on exhibition.
Its pairing with Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting Pygmalion and Galatea was the most brilliant juxtaposition of the exhibition. Whereas Gérôme’s statue is brought to life by erotic desire, De Andrea’s is animated by the application of paint, the very act that is at the heart of the exhibition. The unpainted legs seemingly refer to those in the Gérôme painting.
I hope I can get my account back. Up until now, my experience on Facebook has been overwhelmingly positive. It enabled me to make connections with people all over the world. I posted hundreds of albums that I shared with scholars, artists, students, and the general public, who contributed their analysis and insights. I’d planned to use some for future publications, and I even have an important lecture that I crowd-sourced and wrote on Facebook. I would hate to think that nine years of work and the contacts I have made could be lost with the touch of a button.
Dr. Ruben Cordova is an art historian based in San Antonio.
Note: On Dec. 8, a friend of Dr. Cordova created a public Facebook page titled “Facebook Should Not Censor Art,” which includes some press accounts of Dr. Cordova’s ordeal (the story has been reported internationally). and invites people to relate any FB art censorship they’ve encountered. Find it here.