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I’m a queer feminist artist, and my work is regularly censored online. Until recently, this had been something I accepted and learned to live with. It felt embarrassing when it happened — an Instagram or Facebook message appearing out of the blue saying that something was wrong with my work — but it wasn’t something I wanted to draw attention to.
But this was the straw that broke the camel’s back: A few months ago, Hyperallergic published a review by Heather Kapplow of my solo show at Brandeis University’s Kniznick Gallery. The next day, a friend texted me to say that Facebook had deleted the article from her wall. I tried to go on Facebook and found that I’d been banned for three days, as punishment for posting a link to my exhibition catalogue on Issuu. I was warned that if I violated community guidelines again, I would be banned permanently.
Now, instead of embarrassment, I felt anger. Was I supposed to refrain from sharing anything about my work or career on Facebook? When I logged in after my suspension, there were multiple posts from friends letting me know that their shares of the Hyperallergic article had been removed. It was clear that, at least in my circles, the circulation of this review of my work had been halted and erased, either by Facebook’s algorithm or by its administrators.
Artist Marilyn Minter calls online censorship “the art world version of slut shaming.” Artists like Minter and Betty Tompkins, now art stars, were censored and shunned in the 1970s because they were feminist artists dealing with sex. Minter warns us not to let the same thing happen in the digital age.
I paint large portraits of the bare torsos of women, trans, and gender nonconforming people. The paintings celebrate my lesbian gaze and community, and point to the body as a topography of our life experiences. Scars, wrinkles, stretch marks, and tattoos tell intimate stories of surgeries, survival, and self-determination. In many ways, my work is about confronting and healing shame. I’ve been working with this subject matter since the late ’90s.
So why is my work such a censor magnet?
You could say that it’s just about the nipple — but we have to ask ourselves: is the female nipple ban about shutting out porn? Because if so, it doesn’t work. If you search for ‘tits’ on Facebook you’ll find endless pornographic photographs of breasts, all with nipples covered but not in a way that decreases their highly sexualized nature.
Whose nipples get censored? The rule is: women’s do, men’s don’t. But there is a spectrum of breasts, just like there is a spectrum of gender. There are infinite possibilities of what breasts can look like, and they can belong to men, women, and nonbinary people.
The Leslie Lohman Museum of Lesbian and Gay Art’s 2015 exhibition Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship explored the history of censorship and queer art. A few of the artists in the show — Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and David Wojnarowicz — are well known for their battles with censorship. But there are many more cases that we don’t hear about. The show’s curator, Jennifer Tyburczy, points out that censorship “takes many forms, occurs all the time, and more often than not, happens behind the scenes.” Many stories of censorship, she says, live only “in the memories of the artists whose work was deemed ‘controversial,’ ‘obscene,’ ‘offensive,’ or ‘pornographic’” — and they are permanently lost.
Recently, I posted a 1972 photograph by the legendary lesbian artist Barbara Hammer on Instagram. The photo depicts two women with short hair standing and wrestling outside in the sunshine, wearing jeans but no shirts. It was deleted within a few hours. Around the same time, the Zoe Leonard poem “I want a President” was removed repeatedly from multiple feeds in my Instagram circles. The poem begins, “I want a dyke for president.” It would seem that much of queer feminist culture is unfit for social media.
As artists know, social media can be a kind of magic. It can open doors, archive our professional activities, and amplify our work. Hashtag feeds are valuable interactive records of our careers and exhibitions. Instagram posts in particular are a way for museum and gallery visitors to engage with our work, and for artists to be intimately linked to the work’s reception. Curators look for artists on Instagram; real opportunities and transactions take place there. But every time I post my work, I add a plea to Instagram to please not take it down. Take a look at the hashtag associated with my name, and the posts you’ll see — some mine, some from friends, some from strangers — are just the ones that remain; they are constantly disappearing. I have no idea what percentage is left. But I know that this amounts to a persistent erosion on the platform of my public record, my work, and my history.
When an article, link, or post about my work is removed, suddenly and without permission, it feels like I’ve been robbed. And it is a violation — if not legally, then emotionally, and certainly materially in terms of costs to my career.
Like most painters, I’d rather be painting than doing just about anything else. But I had to write about this, because to be silent when censored is another facet of censorship. I can already feel that self-censorship happening, when I hesitate, think twice, before sharing artwork online — either my own or someone else’s —- that challenges the status quo. As Adrienne Rich wrote, “Whatever is unnamed, undepicted in images, whatever is omitted from biography, censored in collections of letters, whatever is mis-named as something else, made difficult-to-come-by, whatever is buried in the memory by the collapse of meaning under inadequate or lying language — this will become, not merely unspoken but unspeakable.”
During the time of my Facebook ban, I happened across a post of my work on Instagram that made me smile. Someone had shared “Ellen,” my painting of an old woman’s bare torso, and they accompanied it with a long proclamation that sounded like a blessing. It said something like, “May 2018 be the dawn of the return to matriarchal power!”
It was exactly what I needed to see in that moment — an affirmation, reminding me of why I make my work, and why it needs to be seen.
But I wish I’d taken a screen shot, because when I looked it up again, you can probably guess what happened.
Yep. It was gone.
Clarity Haynes will discuss social media censorship of queer and feminist art as a panelist in “The Art Museum as a Political Space,” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, on Saturday March 24 at 2pm. Other panelists include Nato Thompson and Shantrelle P. Lewis, and the conversation will be moderated by Susan Lubowski Talbott.