Art School Runs Afoul of Facebook’s Nudity Police
By MIGUEL HELFT
Facebook apparently had determined that an image the academy had uploaded to its Facebook page ran afoul of its ban on nudity. Yet the image — an ink-on-paper drawing of a woman’s naked upper body by Steven Assael — was hardly racy. It was the kind of drawing you might see in galleries and museums the world over.
Days later, when a school administrator was uploading images from a faculty show to Facebook, the school’s account was suddenly blocked from uploading anything for seven days. “They must have decided that we are a repeat offender,” said David Kratz, president of the academy. “We are a graduate school of figurative art. We teach people classical skills and technique.” Mr. Kratz said he and his staff were at a loss for what to do, since “there is no obvious way to contact anyone” at Facebook.
The academy took to its blog, where it wrote about the incident, posted the image in question and lamented Facebook’s actions and its power as a curator of online culture. “As an institution of higher learning with a long tradition of upholding the art world’s ‘traditional values and skills,’ we, the Graduate School of Figurative Art, find it difficult to allow Facebook to be the final arbiter — and online curator — of the artwork we share with the world.”
So what happened? Facebook now says it made a mistake. While the company bans nude photographs, its representatives say the company has an unwritten policy that allows drawings or sculptures of nudes. It explained that it only reviews images that are flagged by users, and that its staff reviews many thousands of images a day.
“We count many amateur — and some professional — artists among our employees, and we’re thrilled that so many artists share their work on Facebook,” Simon Axten, a Facebook spokesman, said in a statement. “In this case, we congratulate the artist on his lifelike portrayal that, frankly, fooled our reviewers. Each member of our investigations team reviews thousands of pieces of reported content every day and, of course, we occasionally make a mistake. We’re sorry for the confusion here and we encourage the artist to repost his work.”
But a number of other figurative artists say they too have had their work removed by Facebook, and in some cases had their accounts blocked. They say they feel that Facebook is taking aim at their work and accuse it of censorship.
“It seems like they have really gone after artists,” said John Wellington, an artist in New York who is a graduate of the academy. “The images they are taking down are clearly paintings.” After one of his paintings was taken down recently, Mr. Wellington said he deleted from Facebook all the images that he had uploaded that showed a nipple, for fear that his account would be disabled.
Richard T. Scott, another graduate of the academy, who lives in Paris, said some images he had uploaded were also removed. He said he knew of more than 50 paintings, including some entered into an online contest of figurative drawings, that were deleted by Facebook. Mr. Scott said he was particularly concerned because Facebook had allowed him to showcase his work and to be discovered by galleries and collectors. “For figurative painters, Facebook has been a democratizing force, and it has been pivotal for my career,” he said.
Last year, The Huffington Post reported that a Colorado-based artist had had his work removed for similar reasons.
How widespread these cases are is difficult to ascertain. Facebook faces many challenges in policing everything from cyberbullying to threats among its more than 500 million users.
A check of a handful of major art institutions suggests that while the academy’s experience is not unique, it is perhaps not so common either. Elyse Topalian, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said the museum had never encountered problems when posting artworks with images of nudes on Facebook. It has done so many times to highlight works from its collection.
Mr. Axten said: “Anyone can do a search on Facebook and find thousands of images of artwork. If we’re censoring, we’re doing a terrible job at it. We don’t censor art and have no intention to.”
Mr. Axten also pointed out that Facebook members who have had their accounts blocked can appeal. However, there is apparently no way to appeal when a single image is blocked.
Randy Kennedy contributed reporting.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
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