For the second time since his eponymous Bushwick gallery opened, Christopher Stout logged onto Facebook to find that his account had been frozen. The gallerist, whose interest lies in “subversive art,” had posted an image of Lisa Levy, who plans to sit naked on top of a toilet for two straight days in order to call out “the bullshit trendy art dialogue” that she says is plaguing the art world. The image shows the long-haired artist sitting sideways, naked. “You can see her top, but you can’t see her bottom,” Stout said. “It’s just such a crazy, conservative kind of standard.”
On Friday, Stout (founder of the Bushwick Art Crit Group) began receiving notifications from Facebook that his post had been reported. This had happened to him once before, leading up to Linda Griggs’s solo show, The First Time Is Not Like Porn. That previous post included a series of images and drawings based on stories Griggs collected from her Lower East Side neighbors and friends about their “first time,” juxtaposed with a number of painted-over images appropriated from porn. “These were all drawings,” Stout said. Nevertheless, in October he was notified by Facebook that he would have to take the images down or lose his advertising privileges on the site.
“My flip censorship response to that was, ‘Fuck you. I’ll do it another way,’” he recalled. “I didn’t feel comfortable or ethical taking down the work of an artist that I represent in order to be able to do social media advertising– it wasn’t a fair trade.”
Stout said he became “very intimate” with the appeals process that would allow him to keep an image of Griggs’ work up on his site (the photo of the artist’s drawing which a blow up doll, is slightly obscured). After the audit, “We were reclassified as an ‘Adult Business,’” Stout said. “So in Facebook’s eyes, there’s no different between my feminist-centric gallery and the porn shop down the street that sells dildos.” He was careful to say that “the porn shop down the street” doesn’t bother him. “I do not believe in sex shaming,” Stout said. “But [with Facebook], it’s a very black-and-white kind of thing.”
After announcing Levy’s show, Stout was once again flagged for inappropriate content shortly after he spoke to Bushwick Daily. The blog’s editor-in-chief, Katerina Hybenova, had told him the post hit it big. “The story received 30,000 hits just in the first two hours it was online and it’s a top-10 ranking story of all time on that publication,” Stout revealed. The Bushwick Daily Facebook post still displays the same press release image (see below) found on the Facebook event page.
Hybenova told us she didn’t actively post the image– “just a link to the article, which featured the preview of the image.” That might be why the site hasn’t heard from Facebook. “Honestly I was a little worried that we might get flagged and banned for some time period,” Hybenova said, “because it has happened in the past with an article about a performance at Grace Exhibition Space.”
Stout finds it “hilariously funny and hugely ironic” that “the only person who’s getting punished for talking about the work online is me, and everybody else is writing about it, talking about it, getting clicks for, selling ads.” He noted that Mashable, Details, and Paper have all posted about his show in one way or another. Mashable, while using the original image of Lisa de-robed for their actual article, censored their Facebook promotional post (see below).
Stout acknowledged that he’s not the first target of Facebook’s nudity ire. After all, New York art critic Jerry Saltz was banned from Facebook for posting his favorite images of medieval art. Which, as he admitted, are fairly gruesome in their portrayal of human suffering, demonic fury, disease, decay and, naturally, more than a few nip slips along the way. “Most of these images are hard to take,” Saltz admitted in an essay. Still, it seems crazy that Facebook users contacted the site, complaining Saltz’s posts depicted “images (made by artists)” that are “‘abusive to women,’ ‘sexist,’ and ‘misogynist.'” Finally, Saltz himself was accused of being “sexist.”
Despite the insane spiral of moral panic and outrage that took Saltz out of the Facebook universe (for a time, at least– he’s back on the network once again), Stout said that he wasn’t exactly expecting this outcome.
“I guess my impression was that I was reaching specifically demographics that were going to be excited and welcoming,” he said. “I’m not looking to offend anyone.” Stout sees Facebook as an invaluable resource for not only connecting and communicating with artists, but for getting the word out about the gallery’s shows. “Facebook is very sophisticated,” he said. “If I want to send something out to people who are over 50 who donate to arts organizations in Brooklyn, I can,” he said.
With so many users on Facebook and such a diversity of interests displayed, the rules seem kind of bonkers. “It only takes one person [to report your post] and you don’t even have the right to know who it is,” Stout pointed out. “If I broke up with you and I just hated you and wanted to make your life hell, I could go around reporting stuff just because. There’s no transparency around it at all.”
On its “Community Standards” page, Facebook outlines a vague policy of censorship enforcement. “We strive to welcome people to an environment free from abusive content,” it says, while acknowledging that “cruel and insensitive content” isn’t necessarily in violation of their standards.
Facebook writes that it will “restrict the display of nudity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content– particularly because of their cultural background or age.” But it admits that its “policies can sometimes be more blunt than we would like and restrict content shared for legitimate purposes.” Images of “female breasts if they include the nipple” are banned (there are a couple of exceptions), but interestingly Facebook says that it will “also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.”
As Saltz opined in his Facebook piece, “the objections are not to photographs or contemporary works of art.” Instead, they were indication that a bunch of “finger-pointing little Napoleons” within the art world were holding Saltz accountable for a general “collapse of cultural values and the like.” So, the critic concluded: “I’d only ask people who hate the pictures and captions I post not to visit my page anymore, please unfollow me, block me, forget about me. Please quit me.”
Stout remains similarly steadfast. “What we do is important, so it’s important that it be out there,” he said.