Several weeks ago, Copenhagen-based artist Frode Steinicke received an unexpected message in his Facebook inbox:
What could Steinicke have possibly done to merit such a violation? Apparently, Steinicke posted an image deemed unacceptable to Facebook — an image which currently resides in Paris's Musee d'Orsay. Hoping to illustrate his comments about a Danish television show, Steinicke attached an image of Gustave Courbet's “The Origin of the World,” a graphic depiction of female anatomy. Following the incident, many other Facebook users defiantly changed their profile pictures to the Courbet painting in an act of solidarity with Steinicke.
It's certainly not the first time the provocative Courbet painting has come under censorship. In February 2009, police seized copies of a book with the image on its cover as public pornography. The original work, a rejection of academic painting's idealized nudes, was not publicly exhibited until 1988, a full 120 years after it was painted. So although Facebook is definitely not the first to censor the infamous painting, its new role as censor raises several interesting questions:
To begin with, what is Facebook's role as an online curator, and how do social media sites affect what images we do and do not see? The incident is not the first example of Facebook policing nudes in artworks. In January, Facebook removed figurative drawings of nudes from the New York Academy of Art's page. Although Facebook eventually apologized for its actions and re-posted the artworks, the Academy raised an interesting question on its blog: “How is FACEBOOK controlling ART?” While the Internet — and Facebook in particular — make key contributions to free speech, they are not nearly the utopic, democratizing forces some would claim. Although sites like Facebook offer users new ways to share information, users should always ask themselves how these sites ultimately determine what is shared and how it's shared.
How do we appropriate images as beautiful or pornographic? Who makes these decisions? In its blog post condemning Facebook's actions, the New York Academy of Art describes itself as “an institution of higher learning with a long tradition of upholding the art world's 'traditional values and skills.'” However, we should always call these “traditional values and skills” into question. Perhaps we should not allow Facebook, as the Academy alleges, to be the “final arbiter” on the images we see and how we label them. However, neither should an institution like the Academy have the final say on what is art and what's not art. While the Academy claims to uphold traditional art values, there's simply no such thing, as the cycles of censorship and re-censorship with Courbet's image certainly illustrate. If art has any traditional values, they are the values of questioning the self-evident, not the values of upholding artistic tradition for its own sake.
How do we weigh concerns about free speech against the threats, cyber-bullying and pornography that Facebook must police? Often, Facebook must walk a thin line between free speech and harassment. For example, the site allows Holocaust denial material to remain on its site but takes down content linked to larger hate campaigns. And when the site does allow uncensored content, it risks being censored itself. Last spring, for example, Facebook refused to take down pages related to “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day,” a protest defending free speech in the aftermath of the Muhammad cartoon controversy. As a result, the entire site was blocked in Pakistan and Bangledash for several days. A lack of censorship on Facebook, therefore, might actually compromise free speech, opening the site up to governmental censorship as happened in the Draw Muhammad event. On the other hand, the censorship of harassing content might also boost free speech by allowing users previously too threatened to post content. As these examples illustrate, increased censorship does not necessarily correlate with decreased free speech or vice versa, and the end results are much more relative and much less intuitive than one would think.
Since this incident erupted, many images otherwise unnoticed by the general public have attracted national attention. In effect, Facebook's supposed censorship of inappropriate images has actually led to the proliferation of these images. Now, because we are only coming across these images in reference to the recent scandal, these images are framed in a certain way, priming how we should react to them. On its blog, the Academy asks us to consider how Facebook is controlling art. Yet, we must also consider how those advocating against censorship are also controlling art.