Shall we get Facebook 'friendly squares' and wear them with pride?

Fotografiska, the Swedish photography museum, has self censored images on its Facebook pages to avoid them being deleted by Facebook for contravening its rules on nudity. The museum currently has a show of around 200 Robert Mapplethorpe images. The image produced by the museum has itself become art, and sent a flurry around the art news media of the world. They have created this censored version of a Mapplethrope image because of Facebook’s infamy when it comes to portraying naked flesh, whether in the form of photographs or painted works of art. Facebook in fact says it has no problem with artwork, though it does have a history of taking work down when it has offended, whether art or not. What is OCA to do when it comes to portraying art portraying nudity on its own Facebook site? Self censor? The gallery deliberately chose to deface the Mapplethorpe image with a Facebook ‘friendly square’ partly to stop Facebook censoring their publicity but also, they say, to provoke debate. Facebook had previously deleted photographs by Helmut Newton and Mapplethorpe from the gallery’s Facebook site. Fotografiska is an independent museum and gallery. It opened in 2010, attracted 370,000 paying visitors in its first year. “Facebook is our most important marketing channel,” they say.

Gustave Courbet’s erotic The Origin of the World, 1866 has repeatedly fallen foul of Facebook’s porn police. This image in particular has triggered campaigns to get users to change their profile pictures to show the work. Facebook also drew criticism when the high profile New York Academy of Art posted erotic ink drawings by Steven Assael on its Facebook site. Facebook sent the Academy the following message: “You uploaded a photo that violates our terms of use, and this photo has been removed.” The Academy said “As an institution of higher learning with a long tradition of upholding the art world’s ‘traditional values and skills’, we find it difficult to allow Facebook to be the final arbiter—and online curator—of the artwork we share with the world.” Facebook apologised and said that the image had ‘frankly fooled our reviewers’.

Various challenges to Facebook’s nudity policy have re-affirmed the need for pressure on Facebook. Uwe Max Jensen (Danish artist) challenged Facebook when he uploaded work by Anders Zorn, whose work is more than 100 years old, and is peppered with images of voluptuous naked women. Other Facebook campaign activities include the setting up of pressure groups including “Artists against Art Censorship” (403 members) and “Stop Censorship of Modern Art” (99 members). It does seem incredibly crass to have such a policy. Is it a case that they have a web crawler robot that indiscriminately throws out any nude image, no matter what its provenance? Surely even a Facebook robot wouldn’t have mistaken the Bliss Dance image placed in the Nevada Desert as part of the Burning Man festival as raw flesh? Well it did, and then apologized and suggested the user re-posted the image.

What does this tell us about the Facebook overlords? Facebook says that it only reviews images that are flagged by users, and that its staff reviews many thousands of images a day. In a society in which we are faced with undiluted nidity in the High Street, on the internet, in advertising, everywhere, what does Facebook think it has taken on? It seems a naive stance to have adopted, especially since many art colleges, artists and advertisers use Facebook as marketing tools. They may see a march away if this confusion about offensiveness does not abate.

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18 comments for “Shall we get Facebook 'friendly squares' and wear them with pride?

  1. 29 September 2011 at 11:25 am

    Facebook aren’t the only idiots in this field. The firewall on the IT system at my college seemed to preference blocking everything over the possibility that a student might see something that their maiden great aunt might be supposed to disapprove of. Great system for an art department!!!!!

  2. Stevepigman
    29 September 2011 at 11:55 am

    It is annoying and I find censorship of this kind an insult. I suppose they would equally censor a Jenny Saville Painting, or would that cause them too much confusion.

  3. Lerpy
    29 September 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I find that a lot of American(s) non-virtual sites have a very prudish attitude to bare flesh as well as their virtual partners. Considering the amount of porn that they as a culture consume I find this attitude very Victorian in that they, (the Victorians), were very much against any form supposed sexual display whilst having one of the most prevalent sex-for-sale and mistress industries of all time. It therefore doesn’t surprise me that Facebook, who have a terrible track record on all sorts of subjects, should also be art philistines.

  4. 29 September 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Facebook’s stated policy is to improve the social experience of it’s members, however it’s recent marketing moves suggest that it’s motivation is providing a better experience for it’s advertisers. F/B’s new social networking tool around “stories” requires the user to opt out, rather than opt in in respect of sharing with the world and FB would be embarrassed if it’s less liberal social dependents were to start receiving any naked flesh, let alone some of the examples you provide. A core usage in the bible belt, Eastern puritanism and others will conspire to increase its vanilla flavour.

  5. 29 September 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I can’t believe that people still go to Facebook, with the amount of control it has over what content is allowed and how it is displayed.

    What’s also worrying is that Facebook tracks you everywhere, how long until Facebook censors other “partner” content, such as music from Spotify or what you will be watching when NetFlix comes to Britain.

    People (and businesses) need to take care of their own content and stop being lazy and allowing Facebook to control their content and Internet experience.

  6. Dave B
    29 September 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Well I don’t use FB so I’m not aware of the finer points of it’s attitude / rules towards nude images or of any continuing ‘attitude’ to nude art images. Seems to me that FB is not censoring art they are simply protecting themselves. I am certainly not leaping to the defence of a service I know little about beyond what is public knowledge. However it seems to me that ……

    If we make the providers of a web service responsible for the material displayed on that web service (as, as a society, we always seem to trying to do) then we cannot expect that web service to do anything other than create rules and procedures to protect then selves

    We OCA’ers, people like us, Fhotografiska and organisations like it are unrepresentative of the standard FB social network user so both our tolerance to and appreciation of ‘the image as art’ is something FB will have difficulty in understanding.

    FB rules surely exist to stop FB becoming a triple X-rated porn site. There will never be a situation where a FB type service will not try to ‘police’ freely posted content both for the benefit of the standard user and due to the fact that their advertisers would not wish to be associated with an ‘anything goes’ web site.

    The way that FB ‘police’ their site will, by necessity of the volume of material, will always be crude (excuse the pun, ha-ha). You could never throw enough manpower or image recognition software at it to be successful.

    Even if FB staff do review “many thousands of images a day” they will not necessarily recognise the ‘art works’ that you or I would. Any automatic systems they may use will always pick up on art work, sculptures, sketches etc.

    As far as I can gather if your image is identified as falling foul of the FB rules then they will automatically pull it (I would). However if you can demonstrate it’s provenance they are open to reinstate.

    FB is free, if you don’t like their rules then don’t use it. Alternatively keep using FB and lead your punters to your own web site to view material that may fall foul of the FB code. If I offered my lounge window to local artists to display their work for free to passers by I would be quite entitled to place conditions on what they were allowed to display in case it offended (and boy is that a big subject to discuss) or was illegal.

    I can imaging Waterston’s deciding not to place a full frontal nude poster or book cover in an ‘Art’ window display -or- if they were contracted to do so then placing some sort of cover over it ….. is that not the same thing

    It would be a far different story if The Bridgeman Library was taking the FB approach to nudity, then I could understand the holler.

    But hey, I’m happy (keen even) to be persuaded otherwise 🙂

    Dave B.

  7. John Belcher
    29 September 2011 at 3:07 pm

    If Facebook relax the rules to allow nudity in art on their site then that would be seen as a green light for some people to show similar subjects which they might class as art but no one else would. When does art become a topless holiday photo?

    For, Facebook, the easiest route to take is the one that they have – no nudity. A clear line which is easy to enforce whether it is art or “holiday” photos. It is their site and they have their rules on what can and can’t be posted.

    “What does this tell us about the Facebook overlords?” It tells me that they have a policy and are being ultra cautious. Maybe they did not recognise the image for art as I would guess that the reviewers have seconds to review and decide if it contravenes their rules. In this case they made a mistake.

  8. 29 September 2011 at 7:29 pm

    I’ve always said “you’re your own censor, if it upsets you in any way, then turn it off or turn it over” Perhaps an age requirement on FB, with proof (such as a Credit Card in your name) this will allow you to view anything that may be classed as “Adult” such as Deviantart or any other mature website! It will also stop all the youths abusing FB…You’d essentially create two seperate FB’s!

  9. Nigel Monckton
    29 September 2011 at 7:34 pm

    “Various challenges to Facebook’s nudity policy have re-affirmed the need for pressure on Facebook.”
    What need for pressure? Some people in the art world don’t like the idea of their pictures of naked people being censored. Some people in other parts of the world don’t like their kids seeing nakedness. Who is to say who’s right? I don’t wish to appear illiberal but why does the latter view have to be put down as prudish, Victorian, puritanical etc.
    Why should all art automatically have to be be accepted everywhere? As Dave B notes above we are scarcely a representative sample of the Facebook demographic, and we have plenty of other ways of seeing Mapplethorpe or Helmut Newton photos.
    Frankly if the museum doesn’t like Facebook’s stance it has a bit of a cheek – perhaps even a smidgin of hypocrisy – using it for promotion.

  10. anned
    30 September 2011 at 8:44 am

    I suppose all institutions have their own policies about “offensive” material. I notice the illustrations above are all fairly innocuous naked women. I don’t suppose Courbet’s origin of the world would be thought of as being appropriate. In fact it wasn’t that long ago I remember the OCA taking down a photograph of someone at a village fair shooting clay pigeons in case it caused offense somehow or other;)

    Surely it comes down to what is appropriate and in what context, the last time I went to an art gallery showing potentially offensive material I was officially greeted at the door by a man in black and warned about it before I went in. Also museums and art institutions generally have an educational role to explain their decisions in these sorts of matter so that people who are likely to complain understand why the particular images are being shown – why they are valid as art – my view is that that is one of their roles, to help avoid complaints from those who may be violently offended otherwise and so avoid having to have any form of censorship.

    I think facebook is just trying to avoid complaints, I dont think it has an educational role in this sort of matter so its being pragmatic and I can’t really get very excited about them doing that.

  11. tom smith
    30 September 2011 at 11:42 am

    Well done facebook,the only attatched comments that i have read that do not agree with the facebook friendly squares,are the people that would readily ogle a naked woman.To me the only reason for there displesure is because there own pleasure would be diturbed.Once again i say well done facebook.

  12. Alanw
    30 September 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Facebook seems to have been put to far more sinister use in many ways than the display of nudity. Nudity appears regularly in the press and the media. What’s all the fuss about? Who’s trying to impress who?

  13. 30 September 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I agree with most of the comments from Dave B onwards. I also think this is a great publicity stunt for the museum and its show. I doubt that it is accidental that the image shown here is of a kind that could be mistaken by the casual viewer as a piece from a Pirelli magazine or similar. It isn’t really representative of Mapplethorpe’s work, either generally of in this exhibition, but is the sort of picture that makes good media soundbite.

    I think there are many interesting discussions to be had about what censorship and what we as a society consider is or isn’t appropriate for general viewing but this doesn’t feel like one of them.

    Did anyone see this piece on the BBC’s website yesterday, about the film censor, and how society’s changing preoccupations were reflected in censorship decisions? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15107384

  14. Nigel Monckton
    30 September 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I actually caugh the last 3/4 of the programme itself Eileen, and there was some refreshingly frank discussions about the impact of politics on the censor among other things. I have to say that a couple of the things they showed from 120 Days of Sodom made me feel a bit queasy!
    The final conlcuion seemed to be that if the censor kept the liberals happy then he offended the conservatives and vice versa – nothing new there.
    I remain intrigued that the outrage in this thread has been directed at Facebook – if a large multi-national had defaced a piece of artwork for publicity purposes I doubt it would have received the rapturous welcome that this gallery has.

  15. 30 September 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I saw the programme on censorship and it suggested what I had always thought that censorship is at best misguided and at worst a contrivance of the establishment – whether maoist, marxist or fascist to control the people – and it always fails.
    Why people think that if Facebook lifted the ban on nudity it would ipso facto turn into a porn-site defeats me. People will inevitable turn to what suits them. If porn suits them they will find it. It is interesting also that it is the nude that the focus is on here. Facebook will and does censor a lot more than nudity, the same as Murdoch censors to gain a commercial foothold in China or India. It’s just about the money and shareholder value

  16. Penny B
    3 October 2011 at 10:28 am

    We already have a picture block on our computer, we installed it as we have 3 boys. I guess it’s the old thing where do you draw the line on whether its art/ something else. I agree with Facebook being tough on this. It is difficult when I believe that we are a created work of ‘art’ and then say I feel it shouldn’t be posted all over the place. Although my thoughts are with being a parent as well, it may be said that it makes art accessible to the ‘masses’ but is it all art?

  17. 3 October 2011 at 4:46 pm

    If Araki’s work has made it into places like the Barbican then surely Mapplethorpe’s and Helmut Newton’s can be shown on the web. Nudity resonates with ‘savagery’, which from the Enlightenment stands as the opposite to ‘civilised’. Since we are very much a product of that era, here in the West, I’m not surprised we consider nudity a taboo.

    We’re not going to change that so perhaps what we need to think is how we can portray nudity so that it tells people something about us, people, without it being regarded as gratuitous pornography.

    That’s the main challenge for OCA students wanting to explore nudity with photography: finding a context and a rationale.

  18. John Belcher
    3 October 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Sorry but I think some people have missed something. Nudity can be shown on the web however not on Facebook. It is their site and they have set the rules. Is it right that they should change them just because others find they disagree?

    Flickr for example allows nudity but you have to set a filter on the images.

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