Art fans will be familiar with the steady drip of stories about the social media giant taking works offline for obscenity. It’s become such a common story that we decided to investigate the questions raised. What’s behind this continuous stream of problems? How has the company evolved in relation to complaints from the art community? And what is Facebook — which otherwise seems to be bent on gathering as much data about its users as possible — doing to better identify artists and art institutions, to avoid such embarrassing incidents?


The Process

To get at the root of the problem, it helps to know how Facebook goes about identifying and removing obscene content in the first place. When an image depicting “sexually explicit” content gets reported by a Facebook user, it heads to the “abusive content” department, one of four teams that work around the world and around the clock to monitor time-sensitive material (the process is detailed by a chart on the website NakedSecurity.) The team then measures the photo against Facebook’s community standards, which define what type of content is prohibited, including content containing violence and threats, self harm, bullying and harassment, and “graphic content,” which among other things includes nudity and pornography. 

If the image is found to have violated a standard, the team will issue a warning. A second offense causes the account to be disabled. There is no algorithm or auto-delete that searches for offensive content, save for a software called PhotoDNA, which polices the platform for child pornography.

We reached out to Facebook for a clarification on what is acceptable and what is not, given the recent scuffles over artworks. In an email, Frederic Wolens, a representative of Facebook’s Policy Communications, explained: “Photographs that depict nudity, regardless of context, are against our Terms. This is because with over 1 billion people using Facebook we have to put in place a set of universal guidelines that respect the views of a wide range of people.”


But should hardcore pornography, a documentary on breast cancer, and Francesca Woodman’s probing self-portraits all be classified as “nude” and therefore offensive? Facebook’s sheer size and influence on today’s social life brings new urgency to the age-old question, “what is art?”  

Wolens went on to clarify, saying, “This policy concerns photos and digital images (since we allow Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, for example).” This example itself points to the fact that Facebook’s guidelines have evolved in reaction to complaints about art: Courbet’s iconic image was once famously banned by the platform, touching off protests; now, the company thinks it is specifically worth defending, while photographic work remains beyond defense. Yet the fact that there still isn’t an “art exception” for photographic material upsets organizations that have spent years promiting this medium.

The History

Facebook’s community standards offer the following, hopeful sentence: “We aspire to respect people’s right to share content of personal importance, whether those are photos of a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David or family photos of a child breastfeeding.” Again, this sentence clearly indicates that the platform is evolving, however reluctantly — its prohibition on breastfeeding imagery was a significant early controversy for the site. Meanwhile, the question of artistic uses of nudity has proved a constant problem.

In February 2011, a Copenhagen-based artist, Frode Steinicke, posted an image of Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” (1866) to Facebook, an act which led to his account being disabled. The story soon made waves. Steinicke’s story was picked up by the AFP, which set off writer Luc Wouters of the French website Rue89 to campaign against this act, calling on advocates to stand by Steinicke by making the image in question their Facebook photo in order to “disseminate ‘The Origin of the World’ widely so that [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg comes across this masterpiece of world heritage of humanity, and can admire its unfailing and unrelenting beauty as much as I do.” His account was disabled 24 hours later. Facebook was ridiculed around the world. 

Similarly, artistic nudes were systematically taken down from the New York Academy of Art’s Facebook page in the beginning of 2011. Frustration with the censorship boiled over on the school’s blog, which kept a post titled “How is FACEBOOK controlling ART?,” cataloguing artworks that were removed from its page. After Steven Assael’s drawing “Simone” was taken down, the New York Times took notice, which in turn led to apology issued by the company: “In this case, we congratulate the artist on his lifelike portrayal that, frankly, fooled our reviewers. Each member of our investigations team reviews thousands of pieces of reported content every day and, of course, we occasionally make a mistake. We’re sorry for the confusion here and we encourage the artist to repost his work,” Simon Axten, a Facebook spokesman, told the New York Times.

This response hinted at the underlying distinction being made between photos and painted or drawn artworks. Yet more recently, the removal of the Pompidou Center’s image of Gerhard Richter’s photorealistic “Ema” again called into question the company’s ability to make a clear distinction. After the famed French museum’s digital projects manager, Gonzague Gauthier, took his frustration with the issue to Twitter, Facebook again issued an apology, stating that the censor had once again confused the famous painting with a photo. 

The most recent large arts organization to make a fuss was London’s Saatchi Gallery — and this time the battle was squarely over photography’s status as art. Just last month, the photograph “Voluptas Mors” by Philippe Halsman, depicting Salvador Dali beside a surrealistic specter of a floating skull made from nude female bodies, was taken down by Facebook. Via email, gallery director Rebecca Wilson told ARTINFO that this was not the first time Facebook removed one of their images, and that Facebook threatened to close the Gallery’s account if it “continued to post offensive images.”

“I would love to know who polices Facebook and why it isn’t possible educate its staff so that they can tell the difference between offensive pornography and the work of some of the greatest artists in the world,” Wilson wrote. “I guess we should be thankful Facebook don’t run the world’s great museums otherwise there’d be a lot of empty walls!”

Facebook’s Stealthy Evolution

How difficult it would be for the Facebook teams would be to simply look at the identity of the organization posting the image to determine whether it was “art,” rather than simply adopting a blanket ‘if it’s nude it’s lewd’ approach? When we proposed the idea, company spokesman Wolens replied simply, “We don’t have any comment on future policy changes.”

Such a cagey reaction baffles members of the art community — particularly those who spend their time making the case for photo-based work to the public. “Facebook strengthens the conservatism of public about ‘what is art?’” the Pompidu’s Gauthier wrote to ARTINFO. “It’s a classical question in art history, specially linked with body and sexuality… a painting equals art, but a picture doesn’t?” The social media site’s ad hoc solution to the problem of obscenity in art seems to have only produced another, different problem.

Other Social Networks

Facebook may be the most prominent social network, but it isn’t alone. Other social networks recognize the issues raised by obscenity (a notoriously problematic concept) and have developed their own policies to deal with it. Pinterest and Tumblr, for instance, have prohibitions on nudity and, most notably, “thinspiration” or pro-anorexia content (the latter of which made headlines in early 2012). Like Facebook, these platforms make it clear that nudity of any kind is prohibited.

However, Tumblr, a platform with a large arts community, has its own hybrid policy: It only polices content on so-called “featured tagged pages,” as in, pages that come up when you search for things tagged #art, #fashion, etc. (a fact attributed to the anti-nudity policies of Apple and Android); nudity, however, may appear in content that merely goes into one’s personal feed (the posts that come up in your own feed of those you follow). As for Pinterest, along with content promoting self harm, it states that no pins involving “[s]exually explicit content or photographs containing exposed breasts, genitalia and/or buttocks” can be pinned. However, Mashable reports that even though they have publicly denounced “thinspo” content, the site has done little to stop it, and it appears the nudity policy is also fairly loose. Perhaps the issue of obscene art has simply not come up yet.

The most significant example, however, may be YouTube. The video site has similar policies against clips containing nudity, and also will only review a video once it’s flagged. Even then, if reviewers deem the video to be not pornographic, they may place an age restriction on the content. Yet it’s approach appears to be markedly more sophisticated: In a recent article, Gizmodo explains that actual humans in an office determine whether the “artistic context of a video outweighs the sexual context,” on a case-by-case basis. In addition, in YouTube’s community standards, it states that “[t]here are exceptions for some educational, documentary, scientific, and artistic content, but only if that is the sole purpose of the video and it is not gratuitously graphic. For example, a documentary on breast cancer would be appropriate, but posting clips out of context from the documentary might not be.”

The Solution?

Organizations like the Saatchi Gallery, the New York Academy of Art, and the Pompidu Center are hardly obscure. YouTube has over 1 billion unique visitors each month, about the same amount as Facebook, and it has found a way to take artistic merit into account. This is even more surprising considering YouTube’s teams watch entire videos — obviously more time consuming than the single issues that have created problems for Facebook.

A policy that would at least be a partial answer seems clear: When a user creates a Facebook page, they are required to classify it — why can’t Facebook recognize images posted by an arts organization as art? Based on Facebook’s gradual clearance of photos containing breastfeeding and paintings depicting nudity, we predict some evolution in this direction. Yet given how notoriously inscrutable its policy changes are, you’ll likely have to keep your eye open to see what does — and what doesn’t — get censored to guess at the new policies as they happen.