A logical question plagues artists experiencing censorship on social media: If my art is targeted for censorship, will it prevent support and recognition in the art world? Unfortunately, this worry is becoming a reality for many artists who are censored on Instagram, and the implications could compromise the whole industry as we know it.
Social media has undeniably changed the art world, allowing artists to share, connect and access opportunities like never before. It gave many artists a chance to confront traditional standards on an impactful scale, ostensibly creating space for marginalised voices and bodies. But, in reality, these artists often are met with “community guidelines” that (despite explicitly allowing for nudity in art) lack the nuance to discern art from obscenity, and therefore result in extensive censorship of marginalised creators.
One such artist, Robert Andy Coombs, is a renowned self-described “gay, disabled artist” who is outspoken about ongoing censorship of his work on social media. Despite widespread respect for his art, on Instagram he says that he is “limited to just a few images that I can actually show… and if I’m in a group show, they can’t promote my work because it will be censored”. Coombs says that during his time During his time at the Yale Photography MFA programme he made meaningful connections with influential artists but they could not share their appreciation of his work in the same way that they could with other students’, putting him at a legitimate disadvantage.
Despite periodic mea culpas to famous artists, Instagram has done very little to address the concerns of censored artists over the years. Their careless approach towards artists has been compounded by the passing of SESTA/FOSTA, laws that now make platforms liable for obscene sexual material posted by users. Erring on the side of caution, Instagram is targeting any material that could be even remotely considered sexually explicit—namely, any images that include the naked body. The attacks against art and artists lead not only to post and account deletion, but also shadow-banning, which limits the reach of an account to the point of futility.
While artists’ accounts are affected, so are the accounts that share their work. Tiffany Cole, an artist perpetually struggling with Instagram censorship, describes the catch: “How are we supposed to work in this environment, when our paintings and censored photographs are deemed too harmful to share? If a gallery is unable to share the work of the artists they choose then we can’t pretend this does not have an effect on who they may choose to work with.”
The anxiety of censorship is a looming presence on social media, and one that continues to grow. Censored artists not only lose the opportunity to share their work, they lose the chance to be promoted by an art world also hindered by this anxiety. While our institutions profess to support marginalised artists, where are their powerful voices on the growing impact of social media censorship? Is it, just as artists fear, that the potential risks are keeping them silent?