Over the course of history, nudity has come to represent many notions. It can be categorised under any label from art to pornography: it has been classified across the board. From the eroticism portrayed in Ancient Greek and Roman engravings to a celebration of natural form within religion, an effigy of the perfection of a god’s 'creation' which takes precedent in much Renaissance period art. People often end up on the opposite sides of the argument concerning the fine line between art and pornography. Artists sometimes include nude depictions or descriptions of the human form in their work. The artists and many other citizens of the art world argue that it is important for artists to feel the freedom to express themselves in any way that they wish. The problem with this liberty is that many people find the nude body offensive and believe that these images should not be considered art but pornography instead. Is there a line that exists? At the beginning of the digitally saturated 21st century, a key cultural and sociological issue in the emerging internet age is the representation of nudity, now easier than ever to be shared publicly (and for free) to anyone who has access to the internet. Social media, along with porn sites being the most prevalent platform for this. These sites decide plainly whether it can fall into one of two apparent categories: art or pornography? Internet nudity laws have long been in place especially on two of the most prolific social media websites at this current time: Facebook and Instagram. As what have been branded ‘sharing platforms', there are frequent reports of these sites blocking and removing photographs and pages which seem logically to fall into the inoffensive bracket. Comparatively: In the case of one woman who ran a Facebook page aimed at educating women on pregnancy, Facebook administration decided a labelled anatomical diagram of a vagina was ‘inappropriate’ for the site, and hence the page was removed. However Facebook hosts many pornographic fan pages which are free to view. From a logical standpoint, it is hard to argue that a photo of a woman in underwear looking up to the lens from a submissive angle, captioned ‘MILF’ or ‘She should be a porn star.’1 is less sexually provocative than an anatomical, illustrated diagram. What is so offensive about a woman’s breasts? Facebook claims to ‘restrict the display of nudity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content - particularly because of their cultural background or age.’2 However it is arguable that the majority of people who are part of this ‘global community’ would be sensitive to one of many groups similar to ones such as these: “Kicking Sluts in the Vagina” and “I know a silly little bitch that needs a good slap,”3 which consist mainly of threatening and demeaning anti-women sentiment, and if categorised would presumably fall under the threat of sexual violence, which Facebook also claims to deem ‘inappropriate’. The double standards are hard to justify.
Instagram lists similarly vague reasoning, permitting only ‘some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.’4 Facebook also rules that photographs of paintings, sculptures and other art that depicts nude figures’ will be permitted. With this rule, they are putting themselves in the position to gauge the artistic value within an image. When it comes to social network nudity ruling, where is the differentiation between art, erotica and pornography and how does a photograph become classified as offensive content, as opposed to a work of art?
History and Censorship: How Ancient Art and Literature Affected Current Attitude towards Nudity within Society
This is a valid and important dilemma, as Dennis Barrie, director of Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati, was indicted and eventually acquitted for the exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, depicting nudity and human bondage. He describes art in a speech that was published in Art Journal, ‘sometimes art is not beautiful, and sometimes it’s challenging, and sometimes it’s even offensive, and yet it can be art, even if it’s all those things’5 . Artists should always be allowed to express themselves fully and not fear public reprimand. Our laws are created to protect one’s self as well as others so it is important to attempt to meet everyone’s needs as much as is possible in a free society.
So, where do we draw the line when we don’t want to offend people yet we want everyone to have the right to freely express him or herself? It is not fair to any artist to expect him or her to only partially convey themselves in their art. And even if it was, it is impossible to define these boundaries. Today in Western society it is very difficult to distinguish what is appropriate and what is not. As Walter Berns says in his article ‘Pornography Versus Democracy’, ‘it is not easy to formulate a rule of law that distinguishes the non-obscene from the obscene’6. His point is that everyone sees obscenity as a different thing. The problem with this is that no one can estimate the social value of anything. So, who
decides what pieces have artistic merit and social value?
To define what obscenity is it may help to define where we got the idea of obscenity. Humans are, as far as we know, the only creature capable of shame and self-reflection. For centuries there have been cultural stigmas strengthening this notion. Larissa Bonfante touches on the history of nudity saying ‘we see this clearly in the Bible, for example, where nakedness was a mark of poverty, slavery, and defeat’ 7. She says that in the art from classical Greece, women who appear naked are usually meant to represent prostitutes. She also says, ‘To Homer, nakedness still represented shame, vulnerability, death, and dishonour’8. She gives several examples of eras and places where nudity was represented negatively.
While American culture has grown apart from the cultures of ancient Greece, the strongest cultural influence for most Americans is religion. The majority of Americans consider themselves Christians, therefore, the Bible is a huge influence on the culture. The Bible has many examples of depicting nudity as disgraceful. The most influential and seemingly most important appears in Genesis - ‘And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them’. According to the story there was no need for clothing before sin. Covering our bodies is a form of symbolically showing ‘God’ that we do not wish our sins to be known. This extends also to 'non-believers', because they live in a culture highly influenced by Christian beliefs.
Also, we need to consider how differently our entire society’s view of obscenity has changed as a whole. Many things that were considered not at all acceptable one hundred years ago are not thought of as being even remotely obscene or offensive. Many great artists in the past have received negative feedback for their work in their own time. Robert Atkins wrote an article called “A Censorship Time Line” where he attempts to pinpoint every situation that marked a new age of censorship. He says ‘It can be traced back to the early nineteenth-century Baltimore, where residents were outraged at the appearance of busty neoclassical goddesses by Hiram Powers’9. Also, referring to a man he credits with standardising modern censorship ‘Comstock instigated the arrest of the art dealer Herman Knoedler, raided the Arts Students League in New York in 1906 for its use of nude models, and cautioned that ‘obscene, lewd and indecent’ photos are ‘commonly, but mistakenly called art’10. Today it is almost impossible to find a school of art that does not offer and possibly require a class in which the student is to use a nude model for reference. This inconsistent view of obscenity makes it extremely difficult to decide what constitutes it and how to regulate it.
Bonfante says that in Ancient Greece ‘The erect penis served as a reminder of the powerful magic of the alerted male member.’ 11 When ancient civilisations bring us nude or sexually explicit art we often have no problem accepting it. When art is brought to us from a credible and socially recognised source it is automatically disqualified as anything resembling pornography. One example is the book of 'The Kama-Sutra' which is compared to a religious text and is not considered pornographic in a negative sense, but an important piece of literature.
Social Networking and Double Standards: Misogyny and Social Media Censorship
We don’t need to search far to see how women are portrayed through a standardised male point of view across other, more established cultural genres. Note the recent debate surrounding the male-directed depiction of lesbian sex in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Or recall Steinem’s response to the Miley Cyrus hype last year: ‘I think that we need to change the culture, not blame the people that are playing the only game that exists.’13 This proliferation of male perspective may be one of the reasons why Instagram is the most popular of social media platforms. It feels like ours; it feels like we have a choice in how we represent ourselves. It’s the closest, most controllable representation of our selfhood in the digital realm.
One notable exception, however, is naked bodies. Particularly naked female bodies. It is not only the issue ofpornographic content. One major issue is the strict dichotomy of who can be topless and who cannot. Men are socially permitted to be shirtless in private, public, and on the web. However, if a woman publicly exposes her chest and breasts, it is assumed to be a sexually provocative and inappropriate display.
With Facebook, Instagram, Google and Twitter becoming a daily part of all of our lives, they know a lot about our public and our private lives; however, there are some things social media websites fail to understand, whether it is the touching moment of a new mother breastfeeding or a stimulating artwork. Works from the biggest names in the world suffer at the hands of social media censors regularly. From Gustav Courbet to Richard Prince, some images get students’, magazines’ and galleries’ Instagram pages blocked - no matter how iconic the work. Alongside this, protest artworks can disappear from a user’s timeline, purely because Facebook decides the images are too controversial. Under the guise of “protecting children”, social media sites can remove the academically stimulating or just the mildly amusing because human anatomy is on display. Nudes don’t deserve vilification, and artworks that push boundaries, whether politically or socially, have a right to be seen and to be shared.
Nudity Restrictions and Online Publications
Model Anja Rubick's erotic fashion publication, 25 Magazine, was removed from Instagram without warning last year after they posted images showing the female nipple. Offending images included a catwalk image of the founder in one of Anthony Vaccarello’s near-transparent A/W 2014 designs - an image that had appeared in newspapers and magazines worldwide. The world renowned image ‘L’Origine Du Monde’ by Gustav Courbet has been routinely removed from Facebook user's timelines and has even lead to Facebook accounts being deleted. After complaints, Facebook still does not allow it, despite it being one of the most viewed artworks at Musée d'Orsay, seen by thousands every year. Regardless of there being no actual nudity involved, images of 'Bliss Dance', a 40 foot wire and mesh sculpture, were taken down by Facebook moderators from artist Marco Cochrane's timeline. After numerous complaints, Facebook reversed its decision, apologising to Cochrane for its unfair removal.
Front man for The Flaming Lips, Wayne Coyne has repeatedly been removed from Instagram for posting images of artworks on display at WOMB Gallery. After posting his controversial photograph 'Spiritual America' on his Instagram feed, which depicts 11 year old Brooke Shields nude, veteran artist, Richard Prince was quickly removed from the site in March 2015. Although this image had been censored from gallery shows previously, the removal of his popular art based account was taken by Prince, amongst others, as a personal assault on the artist:
‘Getting kicked off Instagram for posting Spiritual America was strange and confusing. I felt betrayed. I know there was nothing promised, but I felt cheated. I was happy sharing my work, my snaps, my pics. I enjoyed posting pictures of my own artwork and artworks by other artists. At times it felt like curating.’14
Online magazine Artlog had their popular Facebook page blocked for 24 hours, and photos removed from their timeline after posting an image from iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. This lead to many supporters contacting Facebook to point out that institutions such as Tate Modern, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Guggenheim, where Mapplethorpe's work is readily on display, are comfortable with the most graphic of his homo-erotic photography: Facebook, whilst claiming to support LGBT groups, censor even his most conservative works.
However, most frequently, body censorship online is focused on breasts. When we begin to draw lines in the sand over which type of women are allowed to portray their sexuality and bodies, and the angle by which they choose to do so, online social convention begins enforcing the ironies of 21st century womanhood: don’t be a ‘slut’, but don’t be ‘frigid’. Show your breasts, but nipples are too sexual. Perhaps it boils down to semantics. Would a male nipple even be deemed as partial nakedness? It begs the question; who are these rules aimed at?
Free The Nipple
In the 21st century, we have replaced personal diaries with updates about life on the internet. Through using these public forums, we can stay connected and are constantly able to share the minutiae of our lives with the world. This phenomenon of censorship has sparked an online campaign - #FreeTheNipple. It seeks to dismantle double standards related to the sexualisation of women’s bodies as enforced by society and the media. The recent campaign is centred around female empowerment and questioning basis of gender inequality online. Lina Esco documented the movement in her comedy film following the true story of the campaign to decriminalise nakedness in the streets of New York City 15. On its release, it was given a rating of NC+17 and regarded as pornography, despite having no sex scenes. Just as you may imagine, the work of censorship shows off the very thing it was trying to ban. As actress and activist Casey LaBow puts it, parents would ‘rather their kids see a terribly violent film than see a female areola’16.
This has sparked a heated response from celebrities and popular female Instagram users. Scout Willis, daughter of actors Bruce Willis and Demi Moore decided to raise awareness about the issue after shirtless photo she posted was deleted from Instagram. She took to the streets of New York wearing only a skirt and shoes, and posted photos on Twitter with the caption “legal in NYC but not on @instagram.” She is not the only one, as Rihanna’s Instagram account was also deleted after she continually posted topless photos. 17
Petra Collins and the Generation Y / Third Wave Feminism
And On Her Essay ‘Censorship and the Female Body’
The question of nudity having the capacity to be considered art or just pornography is a difficult one to answer. There can never be any final decision made that can correctly determine what should be deemed 'art' or 'pornography', what can be allowed in museums and what should not. However, no one should attempt to tell an artist what is obscene and what is not, or more specifically what is acceptable subject matter and what is not. No one should have the power to make decisions for others on how they project their public image, on or offline. It is not a question of morality, and the differentiation does not have to be made. It is important that artists continue to produce new and exciting pieces of art that stimulate our culture whether that means the inclusion of nudity or not. Art should ask questions. To ensure that we are always in the position to do that, we must always defend the artist’s rights, the individual's right, even if the art he or she is creating could be considered offensive.
1 John Raines - www.change.org/p/demand-facebook-remove-pages-that-promote-sexual-violence
2 Facebook Terms and Services
3 Public Facebook Pages
4 Facebook Terms and Services
5 Barrie, Dennis. “The Scene of the Crime.” Art Journal 50.1 (1991): 29-32.
6 Classical art (Berns, Walter. “Pornography Versus Democracy.” Society 36.6 (1999) )
7 Bonfante, Larissa. “The Naked Greek: How Ancient Art and Literature Reflect the
Custom of Civic Nudity.” Archaeology 43.1 (1990): 30-35
8 Bonfante, Larissa. “The Naked Greek: How Ancient Art and Literature Reflect the
Custom of Civic Nudity.” Archaeology 43.1 (1990): 30-35
9 Atkins, Robert. “A Censorship Time Line.” Art Journal 50.1 (1991): 33-37.
10 Atkins, Robert. “A Censorship Time Line.” Art Journal 50.1 (1991): 33-37.
11 Bonfante, Larissa. “The Naked Greek: How Ancient Art and Literature Reflect the
Custom of Civic Nudity.” Archaeology 43.1 (1990): 30-35
13 kinseyconfidential.org - #FreeTheNipple Questions Gendered Double Standards About Nudity
14 kidsofdada.com - The Bare Truth
15 kidsofdada.com - Body Police
16 dazeddigital.com - The all-women art collective that’s going global
17 Instagram Terms of Service
18 huffingtonpost.com - Why Instagram Censored My Body- Petra Collins
-Online Privacy: Towards Informational Self-Determination on the Internet
-New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law by Lynn Comella, Shira Tarrant Ph.D.
-motherboard.vice.com - I Asked a Privacy Lawyer What Facebook’s New Terms & Conditions Mean For You - Michael Grothaus )
-dazeddigital.com - Facebook won’t let this artist post images of Louvre nudes - Thomas Gordon
-Bad Girls and Dirty Pictures: The Challenge to Reclaim Feminism by Alison Assiter
-The Genius of Photography by Susan Sontag