Has The Internet Made Art More Prudish?

2015 Artwork Has the internet made art more prudish article

Quite a while ago, I read an online article [NSFW] by the art critic Jonathon Jones about Facebook’s decision to censor a 19th century painting called “The Origin Of The World” By Gustave Courbet. Apparently, this world-renowned historic painting (of a part of the human body) fell foul of their policies about nudity.

And, as an artist, it made me wonder whether the internet has made art more prudish than it used to be?

For a long time, it was accepted that nudity was an integral part of art as a whole. Before I started making art regularly, I never really quite understood why artists liked to paint nudes but I understood that it was just one of those things that “proper” artists did.

Now that I have more experience with art, I understand it a bit better – not only are nudes one of the most technically challenging things for an artist to paint or draw, but they can be used for dramatic effect in all sorts of different ways.

At the most basic level, painting a nude is a way of being shocking without actually being shocking. It can also be a way of making your art look timeless (since naked people have existed as long as humanity has) or a way to make an otherwise dull painting look more interesting. There are literally thousands of reasons why artists paint nudes.

But, one thing I noticed when I started to post my art online is that most websites either ban or restrict this type of art. In fact, when I went through a brief phase of painting nudes last year- I, to my shame, actually pre-emptively censored them on here and posted the full paintings on another blog (and on DeviantART) because I was worried that this blog would get flagged as “mature content” if I posted the full paintings here.

To give you an example of what I mean, here’s one of my self-censored nudes from last year (which was a parody of “Le Déjeuner Sur L’herbe” by Manet):

"Dejeuner Avec Sherlock Holmes (censored version)" By C. A. Brown

“Dejeuner Avec Sherlock Holmes (censored version)” By C. A. Brown

It’s the same thing with DeviantART – although I’ve posted nude paintings on there, you have to mark them as “mature content” – which reduces your potential audience quite significantly (since you have to be a member of the site to view art that has this tag). Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of nude artwork on DeviantART – but it’s walled off from the public and only viewable by members.

Thanks to countless moral panics about risque content on the internet (and the inherent prudishness and puritanism of both British and American cultures), I can understand why many art sites may have over-cautious policies that restrict depictions of nudity.

Or, rather, I can understand why websites might restrict photographic depictions of nudity. Although photographic nudes can be art, it can be a little bit more difficult to distinguish “arty” nude photos from other types of nude photos.

On a more practical level, there are additional legal issues that have to be considered with photographic nudes (eg: permission forms etc…). So, I can understand websites placing restrictions on photographic nudes.

But, when it comes to depictions of the human body that have been created entirely by an artist (either through drawing, sculpture or painting), I don’t think that there’s any case or justification for restricting their online display whatsoever. They are works of art in the purest sense of the word – they were something that was created entirely by an artist.

Hell, even the film censors here in Britain recognise that films featuring renowned nude paintings aren’t worthy of any kind of censorship. They recognise that they are art, rather than anything else.

So, why is the internet any different?

Artistic nudes are an integral part of the western artistic tradition, but we seem to have a rather curious attitude towards them. Once a nude painting is old or famous enough, then it can be hung in a gallery and viewing it is, quite rightly, considered a “cultured” activity that should not be restricted in any way by either the state or corporations.

However, as soon as anyone makes a new nude painting in the same tradition and/or tries to post one of these historic paintings online, it’s suddenly considered worthy of censorship by a whole host of websites. For a medium that has revolutionised freedom of expression, the internet can sometimes take a curiously retrograde view of it.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

2 comments on “Has The Internet Made Art More Prudish?

  1. babbitman says:

    I guess the main issue behind any censorship (certainly in the West) is the old mantra of “context is everything”. Once nudes were accepted into ‘Art’ (which arguably began with classical Greek & Roman works of art) after the Renaissance, it was kind of difficult to reverse, especially as many of the works were commissioned by religious patrons such as the Pope. But they were not widely accessible, generally viewed only by the elite or the pious. With the advent of public museums and galleries more people could see them, but again the context was ‘great art’ not ‘phworr’. Although ‘mucky drawings’ had existed for centuries for titillation, the invention of photography enabled the establishment of a porn industry. Hot on the heels stills came the movies and official distribution channels and the need to have some kind of board of censors to validate what was acceptable and (here’s the important bit I’ve been vaguely building up to) since the introduction of film classifications they look at the context of the scene(s) and the overall intention of the film. We may not agree with their decisions, but at least there is some kind of yardstick to enable us to decide whether we want to look at it.
    The two main problems with nude art on the internet are 1) there’s so much material no-one can possibly act as the filter to give some kind of contextual classification and 2) there aren’t really any national boundaries, so one society’s ‘art’ is another’s ‘porn’. Hence the easy option of website admins saying ‘if it’s naked, it’s for over 18s only’.

    • pekoeblaze says:

      True, I guess that I didn’t really think that much about the arguments relating to context. Although, I think that trying to control what goes through someone’s mind when they see nude artwork has always seemed like a bit of a futile exercise. At the end of the day, I’d probably take the view that it’s supposed to be art but if some people see it otherwise, then that’s their choice.

      Ah, I have fairly strong views about officially-imposed/ corporate-imposed censorship. Although I can sort of see the need for some kind of content warnings for things, the idea of a board of censors that get to control which creative works people see (and, by extension, what people think about) has no place in a democratic society in my opinion.

      Of course, there are probably a few rather obvious exceptions to this (eg: material that promotes terrorism etc…) but, for the most part, the government [edit: and censorship boards like the BBFC] has no place controlling what ideas, works of art, films etc.. people choose to see.

      As for the thing about context and the internet, this is why I think that there should only be no restrictions on non-photographic nudes. I mean, it’s pretty hard to argue that a nude drawing, painting or sculpture isn’t anything other than a work of art that has been created by an artist. It’s very nature says that it’s art.

      As for the thing about the internet being international, I’d argue that this is one of it’s major strengths – on free speech grounds at least. But, taking this argument to it’s logical extreme, we’d have to censor the entire internet to fit into the strict standards of the most censorious/ repressed countries on Earth.

      I don’t know, at the moment, we seem to have the situation where most of the internet has to meet American standards (since many major websites are US-owned) and, although this isn’t perfect, it’s probably better than making the internet meet the standards of several less-liberal countries.

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