Blog #2: Art Censorship Online: when does the online world reflect reality?

Instagram's community guidelines and their role in moderating the posts available on the platform influence the kind of content that is produced and impose interpretations on the meaning.

This impacts the creation and reception of art as potential censorship can affect what artists will produce, the reception and "success" of a work. Instagram's censorship poses an interesting discussion for social media and artistic presentation. While all sorts of content is available online with just a few clicks - Instagram's limitations adds a critical review of the artistic merit of each post.

While Instagram aims to create an "authentic and safe place for inspiration and expression", the ever increasing incidents of censorship - particularly of nudity - demonstrate how the control over the online art world can influence the progression of art movements in the real world.

By censoring certain content, Instagram is a driving force in identifying what art is "acceptable" or "successful."

Censoring Instagram posts

Instagram will remove a post, either a photo or a video, if they deem it a violation of their terms and conditions or community guidelines. Users can also report any content which they believe to be an infringement.  The challenge with defining these infringements in relation to art is the subjectivity of the meaning behind art.

Yet nudity has always been a part of the art world. From ancient marble sculptures, to painting and understanding the human body, to exploring what our bodies are capable of.

Henri Matisse, Reclining Nude With Arm Behind Head, 1937. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection. BMA 1950.12.50. Image presented under Creative Commons Licence. 

Consider this work by the famous Henri Matisse. His Reclining Nude With Arm Behind Head (1937) is considered a masterpiece. How do you define a work that is 'inappropriate' or an artwork by someone is internationally famous and considered one of the defining artist of the 20th century?

So why does Instagram censor nudity in art? 

Instagram's Community Guidelines state:

We don't allow nudity on Instagram

There are exceptions, but instead of providing clarity, the guidelines have caused many headaches for artists, users and institutions.
Instagram justifies censoring nudity in order to help maintain a safe place for all users. Considering you only need to be 13 in order to join, it is understandable that there are to be restrictions on what can be posted.

So what can or can't you post on Instagram?

You can post photos of:

  • Pictures of nudity in paintings.
  • Nude sculptures
  • You can post male nipples but not female nipples, with the exception of mastectomy scarring.
  • You can post photos of active breastfeeding.

You cannot post photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show:

  • Photos of nudity
  • sexual intercourse
  • genitals
  • close-ups of fully-nude buttocks.

This may sounds complicated, and it is. Because Instagram has become a place where we document our lives, we aim to present our lives to the world through these images, but Instagram wants to ensure that we are only posting about our lives in a heavily modified and moderated way.

But how do you differentiate between the online world and the art world? 

It's becoming increasingly difficult to distance the online world from our day to day lives and this also impacts how we create and receive art.

In my last blog post, I wrote about how Instagram has an amazing influence in enabling access to the art world.  By increasing the access to the art world, Instagram has become a central participant in defining future art movement for both artists, consumers and institutions.

This is both good and bad.

It's good because more people can access, share and enjoy the arts.
It's not always good because historically, art has always been a reflection of our reality.

So how do you define art or artistic merit?

You can't. So here are some examples of the challenges of interpretation of art:

In 2016, the Philadelphia Museum of Art had a post removed for 'suggestive content.' Despite being a highly respected art institution, when using social media to promote an exhibition their post of Evelyne Axell's 1964 work Icecream was removed.

That's right, a painting from 1964. A painting that was famous 46 years before Instagram existed, was removed.

I haven't posted an image on this blog because I want you to think about what an image might need to be that could prompt Facebook or Instagram to remove it. Do you think that an established institution like the Philadelphia Museum should have more (or less) leeway when it comes to what they post? Should they be trusted to share "appropriate" content?

You can view the trailer for the exhibition here:

[vimeo 152462814 w=640 h=360]

Axell’s provocative paintings challenged artistic conventions while also exhibiting a liberated, playful spirit characteristic of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. That's not to say that ideas and acceptable practice hasn't changed over time, but the intended meaning and the intended use of this image did not seem to matter in the eyes of the Instagram guidelines.

The image removed was also an image of a painting. Which according to Instagram's policy should be allowed, even though the painting itself did not actually contain nudity.

Erica Battle, curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said that Ice Cream was featured as a part of the exhibition "because it speaks to so many themes found throughout Pop: consumption, pleasure, and seduction."

"The response to her work on Facebook reflects how these themes interweave to form a complex, probing investigation into social politics that is incredibly relevant to today's digital world in which we are all compelled to share and comment on images of all kinds."

Erica Battle. Quoted from The Inquirer.

And the Philadelphia Museum is not alone. More recently, in April 2017, the Boston Museum of Fine Art had images by Imogen Cunningham censored and removed by Instagram. Interestingly with these images, some of them didn't even feature people, yet they were removed for being suggestive.

Cunningham's abstract photography focuses on contrast and shape to imply meaning. When the MFA attempted to contact Instagram to discuss verification as an art museum and to address censorship standards, they received no response.


Instagram users like Claudia Sahuquillo challenge the censorship guidelines through the #skinisthenewcanvas movement to demonstrate how our bodies and our art can have a powerful impact on political and social elements.

The body-positive movement aims to normalise nudity and demonstrate that nudity does not have to be vulgar or crude, but can be beautiful, inspiring, and most of all: worthy of admiration.

Identifying, let alone explaining artistic merit becomes increasingly difficult when the institutions largely responsible for the critique and presentation of art, can't show any artworks.

The censorship of photos on Instagram has a consistent theme of implied - or arguably imposed - sexuality. As we come increasingly reliant on the digital presentation of our lives and art, Instagram must find a way to ensure that posts artistic freedom and subjectivity is preserved.

If we trust institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art to host exhibitions, and to be an educator in the arts, should they have creative control over what they can post online? Answer below.

[polldaddy poll="9852372"]




Feature Image by Emily Badge.
Artwork by Henri Matisse presented under the non-commercial Creative Commons Licence. See more here.
Instagram post by Claudia Sahuquillo used with Permission. Follow her Instagram here. 
Philadelphia Museum of Art Pop Art Exhibition Trailer used under the Museum copyright policy: "PERMITTED USE. The Materials are made available for non-commercial, educational and personal use only or for "fair use" under the United States copyright laws." See more here.


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