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Instagram is often touted as the digital platform that is democratizing the art world, allowing many artists to share, promote, and sell their works independently, bypassing the need for gallery representation or even physical exhibitions. For countless creatives, that has certainly been the case, and some of them have built hugely successful careers on the app.
But for other artists, particular those whose work triggers Instagram’s censors, it’s not always a welcoming place. The company has taken down drawings, photographs, paintings, and sculptures depicting nudity, even in partial or abstracted form and despite its own Community Guidelines, which state such content is permitted in images of artwork. Just last week, Instagram apologized for temporarily taking down a poster for Pedro Almodóvar’s upcoming film that depicts a lactating nipple. (Projects like Micol Hebron’s “Male Nipple Pasty” have drawn attention to Instagram’s especially harsh ban on images of female nipples.)
Some artists have also taken issue with the company’s new “sensitive content controls,” an option to screen potentially “offensive” content that was set as a default on users’ accounts without warning — blocking many artists from their Explore tabs. (A spokesperson for Instagram shared additional information addressing some of those concerns.)
Stephanie Otway, a spokesperson for Facebook — Instagram’s parent company — had this to say when reached for comment: “At times, it can be difficult for our technology and our reviewers to differentiate between a photo and a painting, especially when it comes to realistic art. In those cases we may make mistakes and remove content we shouldn’t, we give people the option to appeal our decisions so we can take another look if that happens. We’re always working to improve and minimize mistakes like this.”
For some artists, though, the incidents are recurrent, with a real impact on their careers and livelihood. Here’s a list of works that have been taken off the platform, from Sebastião Salgado’s photograph of Brazil’s Awá tribe to Shona McAndrew’s papier-mâché sculptures and a comic by Peo Michie about defunding the police.
Heather Benjamin, sad sex 8 Zine (2010)
“I’ve had a lot of posts deleted, but this one stuck out in my mind because it felt like I had the most severe consequences as a result of it,” said artist Heather Benjamin of a drawing from one of her zines posted on her Instagram in March 2020. “It got deleted after being up for a few minutes, and then I received a notification that my account ‘may be deleted soon.’ A few minutes after that, I lost access to all my DMs, posts, archive, everything — it looked like I was still logged in, but my content was gone.”
Her account and the post were reinstated after a few days, but she has noticed a significant drop in engagement since then.
“Since this has already happened to me so many times, I’m constantly on edge about posting my work,” Benjamin told Hyperallergic. “But as an independent, unrepresented artist, I rely on Instagram as my main method of disseminating my work and as my only source of income since it’s how I make independent sales. For my instagram to be permanently deleted would significantly change the course of my career, if not literally end it.”
If Instagram allowed artists to categorize their work as art, that fate might be avoided, she says. “Right now I think the algorithm lumps in representational artwork with photographs as far as nudity goes, and that just doesn’t make sense to me, and severely disadvantages a lot of artists like me.”
Lena Chen, “OnlyBans” Game Still
Artist Lena Chen describes Instagram’s decision to take down a promotional screenshot of OnlyBans — an interactive game about the censorship of sex workers on social media she developed with Maggie Oates and Goofy Toof — as “ironic.” The image, a collage of fluorescent pink photographs of (clothed) women framed in browser windows against a computer desktop background, was removed on April 2, 2021.
“As an artist and sex worker, I’ve continually faced censorship of my work,” Chen told Hyperallergic. “This censorship has manifested offline as well. When we prepared to exhibit OnlyBans at Science Gallery Detroit, we were prohibited from including condoms or vibrators in the installation, which was supposed to mimic a bedroom cam studio. The curatorial team expressed concerns that it would not be appropriate to expose minors to the condoms and vibrators.”
“We found it striking that similar reasoning has been used by social media platforms to justify digital censorship,” she added.
Robert Andy Coombs, “Untitled” (2021)
A photograph of artist Robert Andy Coombs on his wheelchair and a male figure sitting on his lap was taken down from his Instagram “after months of being up,” he told Hyperallergic. In his experience, works often get removed when he gets an influx of new followers and traction to his page.
“When that happens, people tend to report my photographs, which ultimately ends up in them getting taken down,” Coombs said.
“When they censor me and my artwork they are erasing the existence of me and my work,” he added. “Representation is so important and that’s why I am making the work I’m making. I make the images I want to see you in the world. Instagram and Facebook pride themselves on being open platforms for social justice and in their ad campaign’s they want you to be a ‘vanguard,’ but only under their extremely vague and subjective rules.”
Imogen Cunningham, “Triangles” (1928)
In 2017, Instagram took down a post of a work by 20th-century photographer Imogen Cunningham shared on the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s account to promote its survey of the pioneering artist. The photograph, “Triangles” (1928), is a black and white view of a nude woman’s torso, captured in Cunningham’s elegantly abstracted style.
The banning of “Triangles,” as well as a 1974 photo of Cunningham gazing at one of her models, shown nude, made headlines. In an interview at the time, MFA Boston’s photographer curator Karen Haas said, “Here is this artist who has been dead for a long time, who had this seven-decade career, who fought the fight to have photography considered as fine art along with her contemporaries so long ago, and we felt this fight was long since over.”
Alannah Farrell, “Cutlet” (2021)
“I was disappointed but not surprised,” said artist Alannah Farrell about Instagram taking down an image of their work “Cutlet” (2021) about an hour after it was posted earlier this summer. The drawing portrays a figure sliding a blade under their right breast, and like many of Farrell’s works, it evokes a poignant vulnerability.
“Certain bodies and images online are frequently censored while others are not. I’ve known Instagram to be anti-art, anti-creators of color, anti-trans, anti-queer, misogynistic, ablest, and bigoted on many other levels,” Farrell said. “I am a painter who is white, thin, trans-masculine, and queer. Because of my identities, this sometimes means I fly under the censor’s radar, and sometimes I am targeted.”
“The harmful part is when many marginalized creative people use this platform for their careers, and Instagram essentially removes their lifeline to financial survival,” they added.
Shona McAndrew, “Charlotte”(2016-2017)
“Charlotte” is a papier-mâché sculpture by Shona McAndrew of a woman who has just come out of the shower. Her lower body is wrapped in a fuzzy towel and her wet hair is tangled in a patterned scarf. It is a joyful, lighthearted embrace of a mundane life moment. It is also one of the many works by the artist that have been “removed, censored, and/or algorithmically suppressed,” McAndrew says.
“‘Charlotte’ has gotten my Instagram account deleted, pictures taken down, and my ability to post restricted. The censorship reminds me that a lot of the people in my boat are people on the forefront of change and often their existence alone makes people uncomfortable (regardless of if they follow community guidelines or not),” McAndrew told Hyperallergic.
“If you bother nobody you won’t get censored, but now Instagram and similar tech companies assume the responsibility to police an opaque system that often doesn’t follow their own stated rules,” she added. “A handful of people in Silicon Valley shouldn’t be able to decide for everyone whose comfort level is more important than others and what is culturally inappropriate and what is not. ”
Peo Michie’s “Defunding the Police” Comic
Last year, amid Black Lives Matter protests against racist violence, artist Peo Michie wanted to create a work that would reflect her intersectional identities as an LGBT and POC creator. She came up with a drawing of two Black lesbians sitting on each others’ laps having a sexy conversation — about ending systemic violence and defunding the police.
Instagram took down the piece and issued a “hate speech” violation.
“The police [don’t] need Instagram’s protection from hate speech because the police are not a community, the police are not disempowered, and the police are not vulnerable,” Michie told Hyperallergic. “It’s still just another racist institution of colonialism, now using systemic violence and punitive criminal policy to subjugate people. It’s a bastard, racist institution that deserves to be parodied, criticized, defunded, and abolished, and that isn’t hateful to say.”
Michie re-uploaded the drawing, this time covering up one of the figures’ “ACAB” tattoo (an acronym for All Cops Are Bastards) and the speech bubble referring to police defunding. She explained in the caption that the original work had been removed, and the piece went viral.
“In a backwards way, Instagram helped me get my message out there because so many people saw the deletion as the gross censorship it was,” Michie told Hyperallergic. “Unfortunately, I have felt the ramifications from that violation ever since. ‘Hate speech’ violations are serious [and put] a really bad mark on your page. And try as I might to get Instagram to remove the violation from my account, they still haven’t budged.”
Sarah Palmer, The Startling Reality of Things (2020)
On December 22, 2020, artist Sarah Palmer posted a photo of dye-sublimation on aluminum print proofs from her series The Startling Reality of Things (2020). The small, vibrant works were displayed on a shelf, propped up against books; one of them, “We Meet Ourselves” (2020), featured a ripped-up photo of a female breast, though it was barely distinguishable amid the kaleidoscope of visuals. Instagram promptly removed the post.
“It certainly seems to me that the algorithm is sensitive primarily to nipples — even hidden in fragmented bodies, in my photographs within photographs,” Palmer told Hyperallergic. “There is plenty on Instagram and Facebook which is more overtly sexual (and also, differently, dangerous) than the nipples/nudity in my and other artists’ work. Had I hidden the nipples behind tape or a digital sticker, the posts likely would not have been flagged.”
Betty Tompkins, “Fuck Painting #1” (1969)
Instagram suspended painter Betty Tompkins’s account entirely on April 26, 2019, after she posted a photograph of an exhibition catalogue from her show In The Cut at Stadtgalerie Saarbrüken. The catalogue was on her lap and opened to a double page with a reproduction of her canvas “Fuck Painting #1” (1969).
“I was so upset that I was posting on Twitter and Facebook every few hours asking people to write to Instagram and protest. I realized immediately the enormous impact Instagram had when I lost ability to use it,” Tompkins told Hyperallergic. “I was fortunate to get some art world press about it. Instagram does not like negative press. I was also fortunate that a collector of mine knew people on Instagram. She called them and insisted they restore my account and they did. I am forever grateful.”
Tompkins’s account was taken down a second time, but it was restored in a few hours; someone on the platform’s review team had allegedly mistaken one of her paintings for a photograph.
Sebastião Salgado, “Awá indigenous community from the village of Juriti at a hunting encampment near the Carú River” (2013)
Brazilian documentary photographer and photojournalist Sebastião Salgado is celebrated for his candid and complex images of nature and humanity, and has been recognized for his ability to capture diverse socioeconomic circumstances with empathy and integrity. Just over a week ago, one Instagram user attempted to share a photo from Salgado’s series The Awá, part of a campaign to advocate for the rights of one of the last nomadic tribes in Brazil. Because members of the tribe sometimes go without clothing, the subjects in Salgado’s black and white photograph appear completely or partly nude. Instagram took down the post because it depicted “nudity of sexual activity.”
Carolee Schneemann’s Performances
When the American feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann passed away in March 2019, social media was brimming with posts in her memory. Many of these included documentation of her performances as well as photographs in which she reclaimed women’s bodies and sexuality through an assertively female lens. According to the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), many of the Instagram posts were “taken down repeatedly and en masse because of her nudity.” The irony weighs particularly heavily because the artist was a frequent target — and vocal critic — of censorship during her lifetime. In her groundbreaking 1991 essay “The Obscene Body Politic,” she describes how a gallery invited her to exhibit, and then refused to hang, her 1963 photo sequence Eye Body, defiant self-portraits of the artist that explore her own sensuality.
Of these and the many other instances in which her work was censored, she wrote, “Are these works obscene because I posit my female body as a locus of autonomy, pleasure, desire; and insist that as an artist I can be both image and image maker, merging two aspects of a self deeply fractured in the contemporary imagination?”
Fortunately, more recent posts of the Eye Body series and other important works by Schneemann have been allowed to stay up on Instagram.
Honorable Mention: Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” (1866)
French Realist painter Gustave Courbet’s painting of a woman’s vulva and torso is included on this list as an honorable mention because the controversy around it took place not on Instagram but on Facebook, the platform’s parent company. And Facebook technically never avowed to suspending the account of Frédéric Durand-Baïssas, the French teacher who shared a link to the famous nude on his page, for that reason. But the fact is his profile was inexplicably deleted shortly after he posted the link, which generated a small thumbnail image of the painting. Durand-Baïssas sued the company on claims of censorship, and after a long legal battle, Facebook settled the case in 2019, agreeing to make an unspecified donation to a French street art association.
Editor’s note 8/18/21 4:40pm EST: This article has been updated to specify that the new “sensitive content controls” impact the Explore tab, not general feeds.
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