Gustave Courbet, "L'Origine du Monde" (1866) (animated GIF by the author)

Gustave Courbet, “L’Origine du Monde” (1866) (animated GIF by the author)

It’s been more than four years since French teacher Frédéric Durand-Baïssas, after posting a link to a documentary about Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du Monde” (1866) on Facebook, returned to the social network to find the post removed and his profile suspended. The link had included an image of the risqué painting, which Facebook’s censors took for pornography. The legal battle that began six weeks later endures; most recently, a court in Paris ruled that it has the authority to hear the case, despite Facebook’s insistence that, per the terms and conditions that every user must sign when joining, all its legal cases must be tried and decided in California.

“I was really very angered that a 19th-century French painter, whose work is in the Musée d’Orsay, should be treated as a pornographer,” Durand-Baïssas told the Europe 1 radio station. “This fight is to defend Courbet, condemned by the Americans, even though we are in France and he’s in the Musée d’Orsay.” He was due back in court today, where Facebook is appealing the Parisian tribunal’s decision.

Acknowledging that the protracted legal battle has been both trying and costly, Durand-Baïssas is now seeking €20,000 (~$22,200) in damages from Facebook and to have his profile reinstated. “Facebook has a very Anglo-Saxon conception of freedom of expression,” Durand-Baïssas’s attorney, Stéphane Cottineau, added. “On Facebook we can read homophobic and racist comments, or comments that praise terrorism, but we don’t have the right to see a thigh or a bit of breast in a nude photo.”

In the four years since Durand-Baïssas’s run-in with Facebook’s censors, they have racked up an embarrassing track record, censoring painted gloves, realist watercolor paintings, photos of butt cracks, and more. It got so bad that a Facebook glitch last month was widely assumed to be the doing of the social media site’s overzealous censors. Nevertheless, a Facebook spokesperson reassured the Independent that “photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures” do not risk being censored anymore, and even Courbet’s painting “wouldn’t pose a problem today.”

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...