No Friend of the Nude: A Blushing Facebook Wages a Campaign Against Courbet and Au Naturale Art

No Friend of the Nude: A Blushing Facebook Wages a Campaign Against Courbet and Au Naturale Art

In what is only the latest of a recent series of skirmishes between artists and Facebook, 19th-century master Gustave Courbet's famous provocation "The Origin of the World" (1866) has become a rallying point for critics decrying the social network's prudish content standards. The work, an icon of realist painting that currently resides in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, is a graphic depiction of female anatomy — the British philosopher Roger Scruton once termed it a woman's "lower portrait." Now the painting's acclaimed realism has resulted in a standoff between a Danish artist and the online company, provoking heated rhetoric about Facebook's effects on public discourse.

The flare-up began when Copenhagen-based Frode Steinicke posted an image of "The Origin of the World" to his own page, illustrating some remarks about a racy show on Danish public television (his Facebook profile lists his TV interests as "I hate every TV shows" [sic]). This post apparently led the artist to have his account disabled, when Facebook administrators deemed that the image violated its decency standards. Steinicke has since had his account restored — minus the offending art image. "This is an unreasonable censorship, especially as this famous painting, part of the French cultural heritage, was intended to illustrate my comments," Steinicke told the AFP.

This tiff has touched a nerve in France. Writer Luc Wouters took to the Web site Rue89 to declare a solidarity campaign with Steinicke. Wouters defiantly changed his profile picture to "The Origin of the World" — only to have his account disabled less than 24 hours later. Still, he calls on others to follow his lead, "to disseminate 'The Origin of the World' widely so that [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg comes across this masterpiece of world heritage of humanity, and can admire its unfailing and unrelenting beauty as much as I do."

Wouters called his and Steinicke's experience "a serious attack on freedom of expression," and announced his intention to draw the attention of the French Ministry of Culture to the matter. "Facebook wants to impose a form of Sharia law on the Internet by prohibiting the naked female body from being shown in the splendor of its natural beauty," Wouters fulminates. "Once again, Eve is expelled from paradise."

This rhetoric seems a bit hyperbolic, but the incident is only the most recent instance of art finding itself up against Facebook's nudity police. Just last month, the New York Academy of Art found itself so exasperated by Facebook's insistent removal of relatively chaste nudes on its page that it took to its blog to ask readers, "How is FACEBOOK controlling ART?" The school posted a mini-catalogue of works that had been flagged as violating the site's terms of use, including pieces by Richard T. Scott, John Wellington, Judy Fox, and Steven Assael. Apparently, it was the removal of Assael's ink-on-paper work "Simone" that was the last straw for the Academy.

The story made waves. The New York Times covered the brouhaha, eliciting an apologetic statement from a Facebook spokesman: "We count many amateur — and some professional — artists among our employees, and we're thrilled that so many artists share their work on Facebook. 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."

Such insistence seems definitely not to provide recourse in the case of Courbet's particularly in-your-face image of artistic nudity, however. Stay tuned.