The New Fig Leaf

Bea Arthur’s Boobs—and What It Says About Art on Facebook

A 1991 portrait of Bea Arthur by John Currin—which sold for $1.9 million this week—got The Daily Beast temporarily kicked off Facebook. But whose responsibility is it to decide the difference between art and porn? By Isabel Wilkinson.

05.17.13 8:45 AM ET

On Wednesday night, a topless painting of Bea Arthur by John Currin sold for $1.9 million in Christie’s Contemporary Evening Sale. On Monday, we posted a picture of that painting in a story about the upcoming auction—and shared that post on Facebook. By early afternoon, the post had been shared thousands of times. And, like clockwork, a few hours later, The Daily Beast’s Facebook page had been temporarily suspended—along with the individual Facebook pages of its 22 administrators. 

“I have posted countless potentially offensive stories on our Facebook page,” wrote my colleague Brian Ries. “From the sexual proclivities of porn stars to purported cannibalism in Syria. But not until we linked to a piece about the Golden Girl’s breasts did Facebook shut us down.”

In the end, Facebook acknowledged its mistake—the company claimed that in the millions of posts it reviews for inappropriate content each day, someone had thought the painted boobs were real boobs and mistakenly blocked the page. “Our policy prohibits photos of actual nude people, not paintings or sculptures,” a company spokesperson told me. “Unfortunately, this image was erroneously removed under the same clause we use to prevent more graphic images from propagating on the site.” If anything, that’s a compliment to Currin—and the hyperrealism of his painting.

Unfortunately, Facebook censoring nude art is nothing new. Though the company says it allows nude art on its pages, it encounters a slippery slope when it comes to drawing the line between porn and nude art. It leads to a central question: what is art and—in this new constellation of social-media sites—who’s really responsible for defining it?

The answer to that question appears to be anyone and everyone. In this age of citizen-policing and anonymously reporting violations, it’s up to each user to flag what they find offensive—and then, if something is sexually explicit, it is sent to Facebook’s “Abusive Content Team,” where staffers consult the company’s Community Standards bible to determine whether content is inappropriate and decide whether to warn or block the user. On Facebook, it’s that department’s responsibility to distinguish between nude paintings and nude photography—and nude fine art photography and erotica.

For The New York Academy of Art, a graduate school of fine arts whose curriculum places an emphasis on human anatomy, sharing student work on Facebook has been an ongoing struggle. In 2011 the school ran into trouble when it uploaded a picture of an ink drawing by Steven Assael, a teacher (and prominent artist) that depicted a woman’s exposed breasts. Its director, David Kratz, told The New York Times, ‘'As an institution of higher learning with a long tradition of upholding the art world’s ‘traditional values and skills,’ we, the Graduate School of Figurative Art, find it difficult to allow Facebook to be the final arbiter—and online curator—of the artwork we share with the world.” Now a staffer at the school says the institution takes pains not to share full-frontal artworks on its Facebook page to prevent it from happening again. 

A similar thing happened to Paris’s Pompidou Center in 2012, when a Gerhard Richard painting of a nude descending a staircase was blocked from its Facebook page. In 2011 Facebook blocked a picture of a woman’s “lower portrait,” Gustave Courbet’s classic painting The Origin of the World 1866.  

The New York Academy of Art

It begs the question: would things have been different if the subject of Currin’s painting was anonymous—an unknown studio model might have been clearly denoted as Art. But somehow with Arthur—with her tufted hair and warm smile—it became an image of a famous person naked, and therefore somehow inappropriate. (Incidentally, the title of the painting is Bea Arthur Naked rather than Bea Arthur Nude—a choice that subtly implies a person without her clothes on, someone for us to look at, rather than nude, in her natural state of being.) 

And it’s not just on Facebook: even on Live With Kelly and Michael Thursday morning, Bea’s boobs were a sensitive subject. Kelly Ripa waved around a copy of The New York Post as she described the Christie’s auction—except for the fact that a piece of black tape obscured the nipples. A spokesperson for Live With Kelly and Michael, meanwhile, tells me that the decision to censor Bea’s breasts on the show was a decision made by the show’s executive producer. “Our EP made a judgment call as to what he felt was appropriate for our show, our audience, and our time period,” she says. It summed up something basic and instinctive: here’s something inappropriate and off-limits to our viewers. It’s porny and not allowed. 

Sure, a black bar would make sense for something that was actually porn. But for a John Currin painting?!