the tale of modern censorship
In the online world the phrase “Send Nudes” refers to a situation when while texting one party asks the other to send nude photos. According to the Urban Dictionary, this request also typically comes from someone who doesn’t actually have the right to ask such a thing. It is also a punchline of myriad videos on social media mocking this phenomenon of our complicated online relationships reality. In my opinion, it is also an indication of a society that has come to fully accept nude forms — especially female nude. Just think of all the bikini selfies from your high school crush appearing in your feed. Do we really care or consider this form of expression extraordinary? Not really. And even those of us who have always been half asleep during history lessons that our society has not always been this way. Here’s to the selfie era a.k.a the Golden Age of the Civilised Nude.
So we accept nudes. We share them. The discussion goes further, raising issues like body positivity. More artists than ever before choose a nude body to be the subject of their work (protest art is just one example) because we have come to fully acknowledge it as a normal practice.
Paradoxically, in this increasingly liberal society of ours, there is another growing parameter: censorship. And not the government or religious type, but rather community censorship, both on- and offline. We’ve all heard of social network moderators (a necessity of the Internet!) blocking images and art that don’t violate community standards but challenge the status quo. IRL, Manchester Art Gallery temporarily puts off-display a 19th-century piece that might be considered unsuitable and offensive for modern audiences for there are naked teenage girls. Or eleven thousand visitors demand a “sexually suggestive” painting be taken down in the Met, again a young girl in a provocative pose. All this is happening while the society continues to relax social norms, shifts its perspective on women, changes attitudes towards online dating, increases diversity. Isn’t there a clash? Are modern standards conflicting with the moral necessities of the digital media era? Is it going to become a problem? Is it already a problem? What do we do?
What’s more, the censorship of those ages might have also set us back in accepting ourselves as we are. Only now, with our selfies attitude, are we moving towards the knowledge of Ancient Greeks and Renaissance folks, and their admiration of the naked form.
So maybe we could take something from history here.
Museums have art as well as rooms to show it, and they decide what should be on view, or rather which people, events and viewpoints are represented in their displays. By supporting institutions in taking down “offensive” art for the sake of being politically correct, we signal that it is acceptable to set rigid standards of cultural representation. Let’s face it, people painted prostitutes, nude teenagers, downright offensive things: this is the cultural legacy that we have to recognize. Putting it off public display is the equivalent of only subscribing to people and sources you like on Instagram — with time it creates an information bubble that is not representative of the real outside world (I know I am guilty of that). By doing so we only pretend that the rest of it doesn’t exist, we do not eliminate its existence. As a matter of fact, social media now has algorithms to help us keep the bubble intact. Why should we extend it to other displays of self-expression?
In case you are puzzled by the sheer amounts of nudity in art museums, don’t be: this is just the way our ancestors used to think. The greatest flourishing of the arts was accompanied by the admiration of naked human forms. We are a different society now. We don’t want to see certain things. But as with many other aspects of the human past, like slavery, it is useless to pretend they didn’t happen. The solution is to acknowledge it, make sure we learn the lesson and move forward, more open-minded and diverse than before.
Of course, some images might be objectively very hard to look at. On the other hand, everyone has a subjective opinion of what is offensive. A discretion note, a warning, a guard notifying museum visitors of explicit content would be enough to assure that in both cases it is not seen by those who don’t want to. Going beyond that would put at risk our cultural heritage but, more importantly, future creativity and freedom of thought.
While researching for this article I explored the #sendnudes hashtag on Instagram. By the time I hit “publish” it had been disabled — I guess, offensive content was hiding among funny videos. Social media are young, so they are still figuring out the blurry boundaries of what is acceptable and how to protect it. In the end, bikini selfies do change the way we look at ourselves.
this story originally appeared on FRAMED / FAMOUS.
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