Savannah Spirit, "Self-Portrait in Berlin" (2014) (courtesy the artist)

There was once a dream that was Instagram. For a moment in time, the art world was opened in a way it had not been before, and well-known artists were no longer only cherry-picked from MFA programs. Curators sought and found new voices on social media and the landscape of art began to change, to resemble the democratic ideal we had all harbored hope the art world could be. But maybe it really was only a dream, or only true for some. As the recent viral “Make Instagram Instagram Again” campaign claimed, the platform has changed; it is turning away from democratic image-sharing in favor of algorithmic tik-tok-ification. Championed by the famous as well as the not-so, this was one of the few moments the notoriously opaque social media giant acknowledged users and changed course. But being nostalgic for the old Instagram visuals is only distracting from the real rot at the center: the artists and creators who are being actively pushed off the platform and beyond.

While the dream that was Instagram did once serve artists, many of those artists have now spent years struggling against not just Instagram’s algorithm, but for access across the internet. The rise of moralism online is pushing some artists and creators not just to the sidelines but threatening to push them offline altogether. Increasing legal pressure over sex trafficking and child sex abuse imagery has produced a rising tide of fear and chastity across the internet. Groups like the NCOSE have pushed for “morality” and successfully urged payment platforms and websites to change their terms of service to exclude potentially pornographic material. Accused of violations like “Sexual Solicitation,” the artists who are being pushed out include watercolorists, video artists, animators, illustrators, photographers, and instructors; certainly not sex traffickers or producers of sex abuse imagery.

An image by artist Tiffany Cole that was removed by Instagram for “sexual solicitation.” (used with permission)

This has required artists like Armando Cabba to switch platforms repeatedly, his artwork increasingly isolated to parts of the internet only available behind paywalls and on sites mostly associated with pornography. Having faced regular censorship of his artwork despite Meta’s explicit allowance for nudity in traditional art like paintings, he turned to Patreon to share his art with his community. There, Cabba offered prints of paintings as tier subscription perks, but Patreon would not print the work due to it being “obscene” and against the Terms of Service of their partner printing service, Printly. Increasingly, artists like Cabba are required to navigate multiple terms of service when platforms overlap, which, in the name of protecting their individual communities, confuse art for pornography and censored it. 

Following this event and further threats to his account, Cabba announced that he was ultimately moving to PornHub to offer his popular Bob Ross-style video painting lessons “The JOI of Painting”. Cabba is outspoken about his grateful reliance on sex workers for the imagery in his artwork and uses his voice to advocate for sex workers’ rights alongside artists’ rights — a struggle that is increasingly intertwined online

Robert Andy Coombs’s “Blowjob” (2018) was included in 1969 Gallery’s 2022 Pure Joy exhibition. A repost of the image from the gallery’s Instagram account resulted in Coombs’ Instagram account deletion. (courtesy the artist)

This dance between platforms is becoming common for censored artists. Don’t Delete Art co-founder Savannah Spirit recently opened an OnlyFans account, where she can show her photography in peace without marring it for Instagram. Spirit’s bio states “Punitive and ignorant guidelines mean that artists like myself are targeted for censorship and deletion, and are being marched off of social media […] In order to share my work the way it’s intended, I am pushed to OnlyFans, where I am increasingly told I will be more “welcome.” To her surprise, her “welcome” to the platform was from other artists like herself who had likewise fled other platforms to find safety for their artwork.

Censored artists are familiar with the refrain “someone should create a new platform,” but this seemingly simple solution is everything but that. Artistic success depends on exposure, and a new platform would need to attract the quality of exposure artists need. New platforms have been created, and while nowhere near as successful, they have presented counter-points to traditional social media. Lips Social offers an alternative to the “bro-culture” structure common in Silicon Valley, and their community guidelines are in fact dictated by their inclusive community. Likewise, Vero True Social boasts no algorithm and no ads, but has been mired in controversies over its creator’s former work with Saudi Oger. As of yet, there has been no alternative as powerful or trusted as Instagram. 

Artist Savanah Spirit’s Onlyfans page (Screenshot by Hyperallergic)

Instagram held the promise of a space where artists could connect, be discovered, and level a very uneven playing field. Galleries like Unit London built their reputation on finding artists on Instagram, and have seen the effects of increasing artistic censorship. Director Jonny Burt describes the detriment to galleries seeking out fresh talent on social media 

“The concept of an artist forcing themselves to expose their art to a reduced number of ‘members-only’ isn’t much of a long-term solution, nor does it seem very different to Instagram making their work virtually invisible to the universal audiences these artists once had access to,” Burt said. “I believe a radical change to the existing platforms is needed, one that doesn’t sacrifice accessibility or artistic content.” Unit London is currently displaying Sensitive Content, a group exhibition linking social media censorship to the history of artistic censorship.

For many artists, the dream that was Instagram has turned into a nightmare. Unoffending artwork can still be discoverable, while artwork by censored artists is increasingly pushed out of frame. Moving around to other platforms may seem like a choice for these artists, but in doing so are they only capitulating to pressure and sequestering themselves to parts of the internet that will eventually also be targeted? These artists are the next domino to fall in an internet maze that increasingly slut-shames sex workers, creators, and activists, and bars them from revenue and exposure. The objective should not be to “make Instagram Instagram again,” but to remember the dream of democracy we had for the internet and the art world and finally fulfill it. 

Emma Shapiro is an American artist and activist based in Spain. She is the creator of the international body equality project Exposure Therapy and is the Editor-at-Large for the Don’t Delete Art campaign....