Facebook has recently been the subject of criticism and derision for deciding to remove a series of adverts featuring art by the Flemish painter Rubens. The artist, famous for his depictions of particularly voluptuous nude women, is considered a master of the Baroque period; his works were being used as part of an advertisement for the region of Flanders. These were deemed not compliant with Facebook regulations about sexual content. In response, the Flemish tourist board has written to Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg with a tongue-in-cheek complaint, even releasing a video making fun of the “nude police”. The social media site is not the first to see a particular sensuality in Rubens’ work; even in a gallery full of nudes his art still has the power to raise an eyebrow, whether in disapproval or amusement, and the 19th-century American artist Thomas Eakins considered Rubens “the nastiest, most vulgar, noisy painter that ever lived”.
This is not the first example of Facebook cracking down on artistic nudity. Notably, a French teacher took the website to court for allegedly taking down his entire account in 2011 for posting a picture of L’Origine du Monde, an 1886 painting of a woman’s genitals. Perhaps the most laughable example occurred earlier this year, when a user was banned from posting a photo of the Venus of Willendorf, a 29,500-year-old prehistoric figurine of a rotund naked woman thought to be an early symbol of fertility. In response, the Natural History Museum of Vienna (home of the Venus) protested in a Facebook post, “let the Venus be naked!”
According to Facebook, the banning of the Venus was a simple error on their part. Nevertheless, questions about what Facebook deems appropriate and inappropriate are particularly relevant now given the highly controversial decisions to lend a platform to the alt-right and to not remove posts denying the Holocaust or a US congressman’s call for the slaughter of all “radicalised” Muslims; meanwhile, a post by activist Didi Delgado stating that “all white people are racist” was immediately taken down and her account temporarily deactivated.
Applicants for History of Art may wish to think about the history of nudity in art and how it has been received. Is Facebook’s censorship valid, or does it represent an over-sexualisation of a woman’s body? How do concepts such as the “male gaze” in art contribute to this conversation? Students wishing to study Politics or those interested in concepts such as freedom of speech should consider the question of censorship and freedom. Do private companies or government agencies have the right to censor opinion, and if so where is the line to be drawn?