You may be familiar with the fig leaf used to censor the nether regions of Greek marble sculptures. They were applied to art pieces in the 1500s when the Catholic church in Italy deemed nudity to be obscene, instead of the symbol of purity it had been before. Since then, many of these pieces have been restored to their former intended nudity. But has the Western world returned to embracing nudity in art? The art censorship rampant on social media platforms suggests not. With nudity in photography, paintings, even pencil drawings, routinely getting removed from platforms by algorithms, are we in danger of being forced back into the medieval mindset of modesty?

How and why are social media platforms censoring art?

There has long been a debate on social media over what level of nudity is deemed “acceptable” to post. The #freethenipple campaign, now running for over a decade both in real life and social media, argues that where male-presenting nipples are permitted, female should be too. Currently, most social media platforms remove this right to expression from women, trans and non-binary people. However, platforms like Instagram claim to allow nudity in an artistic context. But content moderation is often carried out by AI algorithms. These aren’t humans with a capacity to think critically, so any whisper of nudity is removed, no matter the context. The more laws are brought in to punish social media platforms for showing harmful content, the more they sweep all content away that could be deemed sexual in nature, whether it is or not.

I’ll give you a couple of examples of algorithmic failure. A silly one is Twitter‘s banning of a bird charity for repeatedly posting woodcock photos. If you hadn’t guessed, a woodcock is a species of bird. But the vaguely suggestive name was suspected to have been deemed unacceptable by the content moderation system. Off the platform it was booted. Then we’ve got the case of the poster for Pedro Almodóvar’s film Madres Paralelas getting taken down for featuring a lactating female nipple. Despite the poster clearly presenting the nudity in an “artistic context”, it was not safe from a prompt removal. Almodóvar took to his brother’s Twitter account to speak out against censorship by algorithms:. “You must be alert before the machines decide what we can do and what we cannot do.”

Obviously, this system has a terrible impact on an artist’s career.

As seemingly everything in our lives move online, so does the art world. Social media allowed artists to share their work with wider audiences, gain a greater following, and access opportunities they may not have been able to otherwise. However, it can also harm their careers in unexpected ways. The algorithm can label an artist’s work as “obscene”. This leads to post removals, shadowbans and account bans, resulting in loss of audience and opportunities. The artist Tiffany Cole describes this issue to The Art Newspaper:. “How are we supposed to work in this environment, when our paintings and censored photographs are deemed too harmful to share? If a gallery is unable to share the work of the artists they choose then we can’t pretend this does not have an effect on who they may choose to work with.”

But has the Western world returned to embracing nudity in art?

My focus in this post has been on nudity in art, but the censorship spreads further than that. Emma Shapiro, an American artist, writer, activist and “Editor-At-Large” of the Don’t Delete Art campaign tells Hyperallergic:. “There’s definitely some artists who are voicing certain politics with their artwork who are being hit with certain kinds of suppression based on the text that goes with their artwork…”. The gallery of censored art on the Don’t Delete Art website features some pieces that seem like unlikely censorship candidates, but were taken down for one reason or another. The massively famous like Almodóvar have enough of a following to appeal against censorship decisions, but many do not.

Even the way art is made is being warped by these censorship trends.

In a piece for The Art Newspaper, Emma Shapiro discusses the way artists are changing how they make and present their art to survive in this world of censorship. From blurring and blocking out potentially problematic material, to incorporating elements to shield work from the algorithm, artists are trying their best to get their work seen. Even posts about art shows in real-life need to be censored for the internet. Artists are having to limit themselves creatively because “Internet visibility has largely superseded in-person art experiences”. With the highly controversial rise of AI-generated art now threatening the already precarious livelihoods of artists, is this shift of the art world online sustainable? Are we going to lose swathes of artists who can’t get their work seen, and quit making art to survive?

The relationship between social media and the way we consume art needs to change.

The human need for artistic expression is yet another reason we need to break up with social media. LifeBonder‘s ethos is that life lived in reality, in the mesaverse rather than the metaverse, is life better lived. Actively seeking out art in real galleries/shows/museums, let’s us have a deeper connection with the art we consume. The artists can then present what they intend, not what they’re pressured to. Social media provides artists with a wider audience, but reduces their art to something to ‘like’ and scroll past. It’s forgotten immediately. It’s washed away in a sea of everything, the tides an algorithmic mess. Artists deserve to have their work seen in reality, and should be given more opportunities to do so.

Polly Cumming

Polly Cumming is a British literary graduate keen on writing about human existence in this moment in time. She's thrilled to see some positive change in the world of social media.