Facebook censors Swedish fan pages: Transatlantic culture wars brew over the social network site’s ban of nude artworks and naked Scandinavians

STOCKLHOLM:  Swedes generally have a liberal and permissive attitude toward nudity. When in 2009 four precocious young Swedish guys danced butt-naked with only crispy bread to hide their manly jewels, the Swedes whooped it up. (The full-monty number was quite darling. You can see the YouTube video of it at the end of this post. A fair warning though: don’t click on if it will upset your prudish local community standards.) It would be a stereotype, however, to say that Swedes are sexually promiscuous, porno-crazy or more sexually liberal than other Europeans. Most Swedish women are rightly tenacious in seeking equality between the sexes, for example. So when political parties exploit images of naked women for political or commercial purposes, Swedish women’s groups have been known to cry foul. Swedish society listens to women’s voices of exasperation.

Nudity and social networking don’t mix either. Recently a Swedish court ruled that an independent school in Luleå (Norrlands Entreprenörsgymnasium, if you must know) was unjustified in sacking its principal after he joined a number of sexually themed groups on Facebook — groups with names like “Multiple orgasms,” “Vi som är sexgalna (Sex maniacs like us)” and “All sexy bikinis 4U.” Worse, his employers found out that he posted half-naked pictures of himself in sexually suggestive poses on this popular social networking site. ”This was the first trial in Sweden that assessed an individual’s Facebook habit,” according to The Local, an English-language  Swedish news portal.

A gorgeous panorama: The City Hall in Stockholm (Stockholm Stadshuset)

The good news is that a Swedish district court ruled that the 55-year-old headmaster’s dismissal was unfair, and the school had to pay up for damages and lost wages. The bad news is that the legal battle unraveled over two years. And on two other previous occasions another Swedish court, which had looked into Swedish employees’ social media activities (specifically: personal blogs), ruled in favor of the employers. Conclusion: even in supposedly sexually liberal Sweden, be prepared to waste time, money and reputation if your Facebook habit tends toward the bold and the risque.

When it comes to nudity in art, the story is far more complex. Fotografiska, the new Stockholm-based museum of photography, has become the latest Swedish target of Facebook‘s notorious zero-tolerance policy, which bans images containing nudity.

To promote an exhibition of the controversial U.S. photographer Robert Mapplethorphe exhibition, which runs through October 2, Fotografiska is showing Mapplethorpe works on its Facebook page depicting nudity — but with the offending areas of the body covered by blue rectangles with the text “Facebook-friendly square” that mimic Facebook’s corporate logo. Apparently, Facebook had twice deleted uncensored photographs by Helmut Newton and Mapplethorpe from Fotografiska’s page at www.facebook.com/fotografiska. Facebook “dislikes nakedness whether it is in paintings or photography,” the spokesperson said, adding that the blue patches were slapped on partly to stop Facebook from removing the images but also “to trigger a debate.”

Fine. Let me start a debate then:

Fotografiska's self-censored "Lisa Lyon" by Robert Mapplethorpe (1982)

American imperialism or garden-variety corporate banning?
The independent museum, which opened in May 2010, sits in the Södermalm district of central Stockholm and has attracted 370,000 paying visitors in its first year. Fotografiska is a very swanky space. One of the attractions is that the cafe overlooks the wide expanse of river that cuts across Stockholm, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Entire rooms of works in Fotografiska’s Mapplethorpe exhibit are categorized under the labels of “Nude” and Sex.” Showing the works of many challenging contemporary artists on Facebook is “an important marketing channel,” the Fotografiska spokesperson conceded.

Björn Borg's “Swedish export of the week" offends Facebook no-nudity policy | Photo by Jacob Mohr Hansen

Underwear giant Björn Borg's “Swedish export of the week" offends Facebook no-nudity policy. So the Swedish company slapped on "facebook-friendly" patches | Photo by Jacob Mohr Hansen

As everyone knows, Facebook users must agree, upon joining the site, that they “will not post content that is hateful, threatening, or pornographic… or contains nudity.” Fotografiska’s decision to preemptively censor the Mapplethorpe nudes was taken with this in mind.

Robert Mapplethorpe's "Lisa-Lyon" (1982)

Fotografiska’s self-censorship of its Mapplethorpe advertising on the web was clearly spurred by an earlier case this past March when the clothing firm Björn Borg discovered that a picture of two naked men cavorting in an autumnal Scandinavian wood and jumping for Björn Borg underwear drying on a clothes line had been deemed pornographic and was erased from the firm’s Facebook page.

Also, in May, a Swedish film distributor’s attempt to use an image of two women kissing in an advertising campaign suffered the Facebook boot.

That’s not all: A painting by the late Anders Zorn, one of Sweden’s most prized painters, had contravened Facebook’s anti-nudity policy. Danish performance artist Uwe Max Jensen was furious after Facebook removed a copy of Zorn’s 1905 painting The Girl in the Loft that he had posted to the social networking website along with several other paintings by the Swedish artist, who died in 1920. Apparently, Facebook has now blocked Jensen from posting any further images to the site. ”It’s cultural imperialism if Facebook is going to determine what’s pornography and what’s art,” Jensen told the Sydsvenskan daily.

Are these cases of cultural imperialism — or illustrations that Facebook is too conservative for modern art?

Interestingly, both the Swedish corporations Fotografiska and Björn Borg chose to deal with the issue by making use of a blue square with the words “facebook-friendly” covering, respectively, the breasts of a naked women and the buttocks of the naked men. Since 2007, Björn Borg has been exploiting (for free) the works of others by turning its Facebook page into an interactive platform for user-generated content. Fans upload their own images. Every week the company chooses a picture, which becomes the “Swedish export of the week.” This particular image, taken by Jacob Mohr Hansen from Denmark, got many hits. Many users left comments. But by the evening it had been erased. Kazarnovicz’ Facebook account had been frozen. To get his account back he had to promise not to upload any more “pornographic” images.

“We realized it was probably the most daring image we had ever uploaded, but were confident it was still within what is considered OK,” said Micke Kazarnovicz, who is responsible for digital communication at Björn Borg. “They saw this as pornographic, but to us it was really more a laugh, completely tongue in cheek. There is no eroticism at all in the picture, just nudity.”

What likely happened was this: someone reported as offensive the Zorn painting, the Mapplethorpe nudes and the Hansen photograph of the two hotties jumping after Borg briefs. We don’t know who, of course. (The truly appalling part of this brouhaha is not Facebook’s predictable disabling of accounts but the unaccountability preserved by anonymous users who don’t exhibit a sophisticated understanding of controversial art.) A moderator then automatically decided to remove these images based on a clear rule-book principle. With Facebook members as young as 13 years old using the site in countries all over the world, it was no problem to take down the images or disable the accounts.

"Ajitto" (1981) by Robert Mapplethorpe

Neither the U.S. social networking site nor its founder Mark Zuckerberg, so far as I know, routinely check the millions of pictures posted on the site for the explicit purposes of censorship.

Comparing American vs. Swedish cultural mores
Facebook is a global U.S. company, and that identity is part of the tension. “Values differ and do not always meet with our Swedish values,” the Fotografiska spokesperson said. “We understand their [Facebook's] position, but at the same time we don’t think that it is right.”

Kazarnovicz, the Björn Borg rep, further compared the differences between U.S. and Swedish cultural mores. “In the U.S., violent scenes in films are accepted, but if a nipple is visible there’s a huge controversy. In Sweden it is the opposite,” Kazarnovicz said. “They probably don’t have a policy to do this, but in reality, as soon as they moderate content according to the likes and dislikes of the average American, that’s exactly what they are doing.”

Kazarnovicz’s point about violence is well-taken but beside the point. The Björn Borg photograph may have incited homophobic reactions, which could be why someone reported it. But that’s speculation. What’s more pertinent is this: almost all the cases reported on in the global media thus far have centered on the artistic representation of naked women. Here are more examples:

  • In September 2011, Facebook repeatedly disabled users’ accounts for posting images of Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World (L’Origine du monde), 1866, a graphically erotic work of art which you can see in its unyielding glory in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It was posted by Copenhagen-based artist Frode Steinicke. Following the incident, many other Facebook users defiantly changed their profile pictures to the Courbet painting in an act of solidarity with Steinicke. (“So that Mark Zuckerberg comes across this masterpiece and can admire its unrelenting beauty as much as I do,” says the French writer Luc Wouters.)
  • Earlier this year, Facebook removed the ink drawings of Steven Assael posted on the profile of the New York Academy of Art. The academy spoke out on its blog, writing: “As an institution of higher learning with a long tradition of upholding the art world’s ‘traditional values and skills,’ we find it difficult to allow Facebook to be the final arbiter—and online curator—of the artwork we share with the world.” Facebook was severely criticized and then apologized.
  • Last year, the website’s monitors removed an image of a popular sculpture installed in the Nevada desert during the annual Burning Man festival: Bliss Dance, Marco Cochrane’s 40-foot-tall metal and mesh sculpture of a female dancer. Facebook apologized for removing the Bliss Dance picture and encouraged the user to repost it.

Why did Facebook apologize for its deletion of the Assael ink drawing and the photo of Cochrane’s dancing nude sculpture — but not Courbet’s painting? Because the women in these images showed mostly female breasts. Courbet’s oil-on-canvas L’Origine du monde, on the other hand, depicted a close-up view of the vagina and abdomen of a naked woman lying on a bed with legs spread. Is there a more provocative image in the history of painting?

Taking together all the existing evidence, another intriguing fact — from a philosophical perspective, a tidbit worth deeper exploration, because it might yield profound insights into the nature of photography versus the older arts (Mr. Arthur C. Danto, are you reading this?) —  is that while Facebook routinely censors naked photos of “real” people, it will apparently allow the posting of drawings, paintings and sculptures of nudes.

Robert Mapplethorpe installation at Fotografiska in Stockholm

Community pages and groups have since perked up on Facebook in protest of the U.S. social networking site. “Artists against Art Censorship” and “Stop Censorship of Modern Art” document daily deletions that arise from Facebook’s censorious policy.

Preserving the right of free speech and the value of modern art
Art is speech. But to expect Facebook and other social websites to defend free speech is to be faux-naïve. Censorship of the mindless, crowd-sourced kind seems to be at work — but what’s also operating here is a clash between the inconsistent media cultures of U.S. and Swedish corporations with their own profit-making agendas. Facebook wants to be the dominant global platform. Fotografiska and Björn Borg want to exploit Facebook’s potential as a powerful marketing instrument. These are not cases of suffering or neglected artists struggling to reach as many people as possible.

Uwe Max Jensen, Björn Borg and Fotografiska all agreed to the site’s terms of agreement when they first signed up. So why are they surprised when they taunt or break those rules? They knowingly pushed the social-media envelope. ”Our purpose,” the Fotografiska spokesperson told The Local, “was to bring attention to the issue and to open a discussion. Facebook thinks that naked bodies cause offense. They remove our photos. For them, it does not matter if it is art or not. If you would like to see the photos in their full glory, we invite you to visit us (italics mine).”

My sense is that, emboldened by Facebook’s deletion of the naked Scandinavian guys on the Björn Borg page, Fotografiska successfully courted a media controversy by drawing attention to its own censorship of Mapplethorpe’s photography in order to raise its visibility and to attain the competitive advantage of being publicly noted as a cutting-edge new museum.

Consciously or not, the Swedes preyed both on the current wave of dissatisfaction with Facebook (who among us are not ticked off by unnecessary “innovations” of its news feed?) and on the charged anti-U.S. feeling that is pervasive right now in Europe by arguing that a U.S.-based social-networking site is holding the rest of the world to what they deride as a strictly American code of sexuality. That argument could have had traction — except that its teeth were blunted at the very moment the Swedes censored the explicit body parts themselves before Facebook and its users (snitches, I almost wrote) had a chance to expose their own their narrow-mindedness and their reflexive philistinism. We do not expect Facebook to be an enlightened curator of modern art. By setting up rules that ban naked images, Facebook has abandoned any pretense to standing up for free speech and free expression.

But we do expect Fotografiska as an emerging cultural institution to defend modern art, however or wherever it is exhibited. Instead the museum displayed a failure of nerve in the guise of triggering a fake debate. The Björn Borg corporation also acted cowardly and  from a strictly market–capitalist standpoint against its own interest. This giant purveyor of underwear clothing could have raised its brand by locking heads with Facebook censoriousness or by waging a campaign that could have educated us with the superiority of Swedish cultural attitudes around the ideas of sex, art and nudity.

Instead Fotografiska and Björn Borg capitulated to Facebook. Ironically, slapping on those blue patches were indeed doubly “facebook-friendly,” because they served to further solidify and reify Facebook’s growing hegemony as an American corporate symbol. In this image-drenched and socially networked world, the lines between the visual arts and society are less distinct than ever before. The world need gutsy defenders of modern art who will act as free-speech soldiers on those front lines.

In a sense, modern art may be its own warrior in these new transatlantic wars brewing over the global effects of social-networking. The best news in this Digital-Age brouhaha which pits Facebook against the Swedes is that 145 years after it was first painted, L’Origine du monde still has the power to awe and offend. —RG

Banned by Facebook: Courbet's painting "The Origin of the World," a drawing by art student Steven Assael and a sculpture by Marco Cochrane shown at the Burning Man last year

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3 thoughts on “Facebook censors Swedish fan pages: Transatlantic culture wars brew over the social network site’s ban of nude artworks and naked Scandinavians

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