36 x 24 inches, oil on panel
Last month, after posting several recent paintings of nude female figures to his Facebook page, Daniel Sprick, an artist who lives in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, got a surprise in his e-mail box. It was a warning from Facebook, notifying him that several images, including a recent oil painting of a pregnant woman, had been removed from his profile for violating the site's policies. After feeling upset "...for about 60 seconds" Sprick came to the realization that Facebook simply was not right place to display his recent figure paintings. The artist moved on promptly, setting up an online exhibition of his nudes at OpenMuseum.org, a site that offers artists and viewers social networking features.
24 x 18 inches, oil on panel
Sprick is a realist artist whose range of subjects -- still life paintings, landscapes and nudes -- is in fact utterly traditional. Add to that, his technique is academic and highly polished, to the point that many of his oil paintings appear close to photography. His stellar resume includes a one-man exhibition at the Denver Art Museum in 1999, and his paintings are in collections that include the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian, the Colorado State Capitol building and the United States Court of Appeals in Denver. That said, his nudes were not welcome on Facebook.
Facebook has gained a reputation as a site that is working hard to avoid some of the problems that others sites, including MySpace, have had with obscenity. When a Facebook user uploads photos to his or her profile, for example, they are asked the check a box certifying that the image is not pornographic. A search for the term "nudity" in Facebook's help section brings up a reminder that "Photos and videos containing nudity, drug use, or other graphic content are not allowed." Facebook employees respond to any reports of images that may violate these standards, and remove images deemed inappropriate. Keeping in mind that Facebook has many users under the age of 13, these policies seem appropriate and welcome.
For visual artists, this is where things seem to get murky. Sprick certainly does not consider his art obscene or pornographic. In depicting nudes, as he has done in the past two years, he is following a tradition that is at the humanistic core of Western Art. When he added the selection of his nudes to his profile, he knew that they would be seen by his nearly 1500 Facebook friends, including his 80 year old mother-in-law and his daughter. Would it ever cross the mind of an artist that his academic nudes would shock people who had in fact "friended" him knowing he was a fine artist?
After hearing Sprick's story I contacted Facebook to find out more about their policy in regards to art and nudity. Simon Axten, a Facebook representative who responded to my questions, e-mailed me the following response:
"Our policy prohibits photos of actual nude people, not paintings or sculptures. We recognize that this policy might in some cases result in the removal of artistic works; however, it is designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for all users."
In other words, Facebook is really looking to delete offensive photos, not works of art. What may have happened, in Sprick's case is that his paintings, which appear nearly photographic, were not recognized as works of art. Also, someone at Facebook made the judgment call that his images were in some way offensive. Was it the blunt realism of his images, or perhaps the suggestion of a sullen mood on the part of the pregnant model? Part of the brilliance of Sprick's painting is that is gives us a bracing visual reality combined with powerful human emotions. In creating his works of art, Sprick pays close attention to the actual and the credible.
According to Simon Axten it is the idea of "actual nude people" that keeps the Facebook staff on their toes. Considering the shocking incident in which Emma Jones, a 24 year old Welsh teacher working in Abu Dhabi, committed suicide after nude photos of her were posted on Facebook by an unknown party, their vigilance is more than understandable. "Actual" people can be deeply threatened by nudity, especially when they lose control of the image of their own body. I have to wonder: did the fact that Jones was a European working in an Arab culture, where women are expected to carefully cover their bodies, add to the tension?
In this tense situation, is there still room for art? If I were to post a nude from an art history textbook -- maybe Michelangelo's "David" or Botticelli's "Venus" -- would Facebook need to pull that? Even though Michelangelo's "David" displays male frontal nudity, he is not an "actual nude" person per se, right?
Sprick wonders if maybe one of his Facebook "friends" reported his nude to Facebook. Would the same "friend" have been offended by Jan Van Eyck's 1432 depiction of a pregnant Eve in the Ghent Altarpiece? It has been public view in a church for over 500 years, but would it be suitable for Facebook? It is an oil painting of a nude pregnant woman, after all. She was one of the first female nudes to appear in the early Renaissance, and maybe the fact that she was embarrassed by her own nudity is one of the reasons she was acceptable in a painting.
In my view, Facebook isn't the problem. The problem is that digital technology has over-exposed the body, especially the sexualized body. With teens "sexting" cellphone photos to each other, and an estimated 28,000 viewers looking at internet porn every second, the dignity of the human body is being trashed. The fact that Facebook has to be so vigilant about nudity says something about the era we live in, and it isn't pretty.
The downside of this atmosphere of vigilance is that the work of a committed, highly skilled artist, depicting one of the most moving, beautiful subjects possible -- a pregnant woman -- got tossed out as a result. I have to wonder how much damage this vigilance is doing in other realms as educators, parents and others "protect" young people from the nude as it increasingly becomes tainted by the association with obscenity. There was a time when the nude was banished from sight, and it was called the Middle Ages.
No doubt about it, if our children want to see true obscenity, they will find a way to Google it when we are out of the room. If they do, and chances are they will, they will get a lesson in how the body can be stripped of its dignity. Will they, on the other hand encounter works of art that will let them see the nude figure through the eyes of accomplished artists? Will they come to understand the body the way it should be seen, as the ultimate reflection of humanity and beauty?
If their parents and teachers are doing a good job, and exposing young people to the right works of art as they develop, they will. Left to their own devices, they will see -- for better and for worse -- what the internet has to offer. On Facebook, the body is in an uncertain situation, and in my mind the art museum just became even more important. In the meantime, the staff at Facebook is struggling to determine what people, especially young people, should and shouldn't see. Facebook is also international, and issues across cultures must be hot as well.
My guess is that they are having a very tough time. They are dealing with uncertainly about the nude body and how it should be seen by society at large. Interestingly, that is exactly what artists like Daniel Sprick do.