Clarity Haynes, “Janie” (2014), oil on linen, 62″ x 58″ (image courtesy the artist)

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.

(screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

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?

(screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

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.

Barbara Hammer, “Wrestling, Hornby Island, British Columbia” (1972) (photo courtesy COMPANY, New York)

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.

Zoe Leonard, “I Want a President” (1992) (photo by Avi Lubin for Tohu Magazine)

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.

Clarity Haynes, “Breast Portrait Triptych” (2002), 22″ x 80″ (image courtesy the artist, collection Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

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.

Clarity Haynes is an artist, writer and educator living in New York City. Her Breast Portrait Project is a multidisciplinary, socially engaged work that is grounded in the practice of painting from observation....

15 replies on “I’m a Queer Feminist Artist. Why Are My Paintings Censored on Social Media?”

  1. Clarity, thanks so much for using your voice and sharing your story. It’s baffling to me that facebook can’t distinguish between art that involves nudity and pornography. I’m routing for you as your work pushes boundaries.

    1. Absolutely right. ~ FB banned “The Venus of Willendorf” = a prehistoric fertility goddess with unbelievable voluminous “sexual” markings. Every art student gets to see her in an Art History introduction course. Obviously, FB censor-board needs its heads examined. Shameful..considering almost all of its staff is ivy-league educated.

  2. Facebook will casually allow the leak of 50 million addresses to topple a president, but will throw up its hands at a nipple or two. This dreadful, dull, dreary, airlessly monolithic entity remains rooted, intellectually and spiritually, in the provincial, parochial world of Orange County’s 1960s Mothers for Moral Stability. Pathetic.

    Fantastic art by the way and Zoe Leonard’s piece gives Allen Ginsberg more than a run for his money.

  3. Clarity, Thank you for taking the time to write this story. Your work gets me in the gut as an artist and a cancer survivor. Al Gury introduced me. The sheer gigantic humanness of it is breath taking. I went to your website and pinned images of your work onto a board on Pinterest. If someone clicks on one of these images it will take them to your website. I also pinned this article. There were a few images of yours already on Pinterest, but not many. It is an amazing research tool and I use it as part of my own research and use it with students all the time. I have been pulling artists work into the Pinterest space for years. Its a way to put the images into a much larger context than the art world. I have never had anything removed from Pinterest, but I will watch and see what happens.

  4. Poor queer feminist artist…get used to it. Embrace being a semi-underground queer feminist artist. Don’t have all these expectations like the world revolves around a queer feminist artist. Homosexuality will gradually lose it novelty with the world.

    Real underground art goes far beyond what you do. But in our liberal run pc world they want to make sure no one is offended, so it trickles down into your art as well. I’ve been banned from 90%+ of the sites where I show my photos. I just move on to venues that don’t censor as much. Queer feminist artist, do your art for love and you will never be disappointed!

  5. Facebook is a private business, with bourgeois (profit-making) values. If you use it, you submit yourself to it. There are less restrictive channels, most of them more cooperative and less authoritarian, less connected with the state — Diaspora, for example. Or, you can stick with Facebook because it is big and ‘everybody does it’. Your choice.

  6. Your paintings are gorgeous and deserve to be seen. I am not a stranger to censorship myself. Thank you for speaking about this!

  7. What you describe is deplorable — even overwhelmingly so — that that is the reality in today’s world. However, in a world I would choose, one’s sexual orientation or preferences, as well as one’s politics or religion, or nationality, et al, would make no difference, and would therefore have no place in an article such as yours. Only the work (the art) itself would matter. None of what I have listed above makes anything better or worse, though it may make it more valuable ($$) — at least for the moment. You do excellent work. It stands above the crowd. Let it stand at that.

    It is an ugly fact that we live in a world where the evening news and prime time drama graphically display a range of horrors and gore, and yet artists and others are regularly censored on social media. Since when is a nipple more ‘dangerous’ than a shot through the head?

  8. Dear Clarity,

    I’ve been put in Facebook purgatory 3 times — for 24 hours, 3 days, and 7 days — for posting images of artwork that include nudity that FB’s own “community standards” say clearly are exempted. The first two bans were executed by a computer algorithm; I know because the bans hit within seconds after my postings which were done at 5 am. The third ban occurred after a delay and was issued because I posted a link to an article I wrote for Medium concerning my previous bans and including images that had occasioned the bans, plus images of nudity that had escaped the algorithm’s scrutiny!

  9. Though there’s no truly equivalent alternative, we need to abandon Facebook and establish alternative means.

Comments are closed.