Over the past two months, the photo-sharing app Instagram, and its parent company, Facebook, have trained their controversial censorship policies on, of all places, the Museum of Fine Arts.
Instagram has removed three images the museum posted to promote its ongoing photography exhibition, “Imogen Cunningham: In Focus.”
The company says the offending pictures — a pair of near-abstract black-and-white nudes by Cunningham, an important 20th-century photographer, as well as Judy Dater’s whimsical image of a nonagenarian Cunningham alongside a youthful nude model — violate its community standards, which prohibit nudity including “some photos of female nipples.”
“I was stunned,” said MFA curator of photographs Karen Haas, who organized the exhibition. “These images are so subtle and beautiful and so abstract. They’re all about shapes — about turning the body into something that’s really confounding and difficult even to read as a body.”
In other words, they’re art — showcased by a major US museum and created by a photographer critics have praised for her keen focus and eye for pattern and composition.
The incident marks the latest twist in a struggle that has often pitted artists against the social media services they increasingly rely on to reach their audiences. Besides the MFA, that battle has come to include arts institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, both of which have found themselves on the receiving end of social media censorship.
And like other puzzled artists and institutions whose content has been flagged, museum staffers contacted both Facebook and Instagram to plead their case.
“We said we’re a verified fine arts museum, and we wanted to have a discussion with Facebook and Instagram about their community standards,” said MFA public relations director Karen Frascona. “We didn’t really get a response.”
A spokesperson for Facebook and Instagram declined to comment specifically on the MFA’s case, saying in a statement: “It is not always easy to find the right balance between enabling people to express themselves while maintaining a comfortable experience for our global and culturally diverse community of many different ages, but we try our best.”
Karen North, a social media professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said that Instagram and Facebook are not in the business of making qualitative judgments about whether nude photos are works of art or pornography. Rather, they aim to be inoffensive by hewing to broad standards they can apply across all images.
“From a business perspective, they need to err in the direction that will be most acceptable to the largest group of their core users,” North said. “They cannot create standards that involve the quality of the art. The only thing they can do is talk about specific requirements, so it almost doesn’t matter if it’s by [a famous artist] or it’s your own work: They have a standard that says you cannot show this thing.”
As in so many other professions, social media have become essential tools in the art world. For artists, Facebook and the highly visual photo-sharing app Instagram have enabled them to increasingly bypass the traditional gallery system, connecting directly with collectors and potential buyers. For museums, the services have become a vital means for extending an institution’s brand, cultivating new and younger audiences while also generating excitement about a specific artwork or exhibition.
Museum communications officers plot out their social media strategies weeks or even months in advance, meeting with curators to identify shareable images, coming up with branded hashtags for Instagram and Twitter, and other promotional messaging. Recently, the MFA and the Peabody Essex Museum have even created selfie-friendly installations based on artworks on display, where visitors are encouraged to share photos of themselves.
“It’s really about providing relevance for our audiences in relation to the art they’re seeing on our channels,” said Kimberly Drew, social media manager for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has roughly 6.4 million followers across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Still, it’s an uneasy relationship, as Facebook and Instagram seek to enforce broad restrictions to avoid offending a global user base that can vary dramatically by culture and age.
The result is a sometimes confusing policy. Instagram restricts “some photos of female nipples,” but “photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed.” Nude photographs are largely verboten, but both Facebook and Instagram allow images of paintings and sculptures that depict nudes.
Except when they don’t.
Last year, Instagram deleted the account of an Australian street artist after he posted a mural of Hillary Clinton wearing a revealing American flag bathing suit. Stephanie Sarley, a video artist who specializes in sexually suggestive fruit videos, has had repeated run-ins with Instagram. Other users have been censored for sharing images of menstrual blood and pubic hair, some of which are collected in the new book “Pics or It Didn’t Happen: Images Banned From Instagram,” set for release Thursday.
And that’s to say nothing of Facebook, which once suspended art critic Jerry Saltz after he posted provocative images from the Middle Ages and classical antiquity and banned Los Angeles artist Illma Gore for posting her unflattering portrait of then-candidate Donald Trump with a diminutive penis.
Institutions are far from exempt. Drew said Facebook unceremoniously removed an image of Amedeo Modigliani’s painting “Reclining Nude” from the Met’s account in 2015. Similarly, an Australian auction house cried foul earlier this year after the service blocked an ad featuring Charles Blackman’s painting “Women Lovers.” And the Philadelphia Museum of Art was surprised after the social-media juggernaut removed an image of Belgian artist Evelyne Axell’s “Ice Cream,” a suggestive painting of a woman licking, you guessed it, an ice cream cone.
“The idea that Facebook could not only censor nude images . . . but could also take down images that imply sexuality really hit home for a lot of people,” said Erica Battle, an associate curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia museum.
Battle added that the museum has since reposted the image to its Facebook page, asking followers to weigh in on the service’s decision to remove the image.
“We sometimes take for granted that the material is not filtered when in fact it’s highly filtered,” said Battle, who noted that the second post has not been removed.
For the MFA, the removal of the Cunningham photographs points to another issue as well: That at least on Facebook and Instagram, photography isn’t being recognized as a fine art, the way painting and sculpture are.
“That we’re still fighting the fight for photography to be a work of art is [incredible],” said curator Haas. “It’s a fight that was taking place at the time these [Cunningham] photographs were initially made and was long ago won.”
So, how do Facebook and Instagram decide what gets pulled? The services rely mainly on a global Community Operations team that reviews content users report as offensive. A single report can prompt a review, after which the services will remove a post if it’s found in violation of community guidelines.
What that often means, of course, is that artworks that are in some way challenging, controversial, or boundary-pushing are often the first to be banned.
Eva Respini, chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, said that while museums often try to educate the public, starting conversations about thorny issues raised by art, those efforts can be easily missed or misinterpreted amid the constant churn of Facebook or Instagram.
“Social media sort of lends itself to a more surface treatment,” she said. “It gets ingested and seen in such a short moment with so little opportunity for providing context — that’s the challenge for us as museums.”
The MFA has reached out to several other museums to discuss shared concerns.
Said Frascona: “We’re hoping to gather a consensus and then approach Facebook and Instagram about incorporating photography into their exceptions.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay.