By: Laura Ames
This October, OnlyFans, the social media platform known for hosting explicit content, gained a rather surprising new account: a consortium of Viennese museums. The museums are using their account to post pieces of nude fine art from their collections that have been censored or taken down by other social media sites. This unique solution is a symptom of larger issues surrounding social media sites grappling with what content to allow and the imperfect application of guidelines.
Museums Take Action Against Censorship
According to a spokesperson for the Vienna Tourism Board, the museums launched their “Vienna Laid Bare” program after they found their social media accounts suspended for posting images of their nude artwork. The Board’s website identifies these institutions as “casualties” of a “new wave of prudishness” from social media platforms, proving that the fight against censorship that these artists originally faced is still going strong over 100 years later. The Tourism Board directly frames this campaign as a reaction to and protest against censorship. In response to censorship and bans, the museums turned to OnlyFans to post their banned work, ranging from paintings to a 25,000 year old limestone figurine.
Founded in 2016, OnlyFans is marketed as a social media platform that is “inclusive of artists and content creators from all genres.” OnlyFans requires users and creators to be at least 18 and has become the platform for explicit content. As of January 2021, the site had over 100 million users and over 1 million creators. As with other content on the platform, users must subscribe to the Vienna museums’ account in order to access their content.
Social Media Sites’ Rules and Uneven Application
Vienna is not alone in its struggle to post content containing nude artwork. Institutions have been running afoul of increasingly rigid nudity policies for years. Most social media sites’ guidelines purport to allow exceptions for some explicit content, including art. For example, Facebook’s Community Standards say that users may post nude artwork even though explicit content is generally banned. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has a similar rule allowing nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures. Rounding out the trio of commonly used sites, TikTok’s policies say the platform may allow exceptions to banned nudity for certain purposes like educational and artistic content. OnlyFans itself, even though it is marketed as an adults-only site, has not been able to avoid this censorship debate. In August 2021, OnlyFans announced it was banning explicit content due to credit card companies’ discomfort with handling pornography-related transactions. This announcement prompted a panic and outcry among creators and many left the platform. In response, the platform reversed its decision just a few days later.
Given that these policies all seem to allow exceptions for art, the question becomes why the Vienna museums needed to turn to OnlyFans at all. The answer comes in the shape of these sites’ uneven track record in applying their standards. In a similar situation, the Flemish Tourism Board complained in 2018 that Facebook had repeatedly censored nude paintings from famous artist Peter Paul Rubens. That same year, a French court held that Facebook was at fault for removing a French teacher’s post of a nude painting by Gustave Courbet. Similarly, online arts magazine Hyperallergic wrote earlier this month that Facebook contacted its marketing team about promotional material for the magazine’s upcoming exhibition of work by artist Suzanne Valadon. Facebook told the team that the paintings featured in the advertisement were inappropriate for the platform. In affirming this decision, Facebook directed Hyperallergic to a webpage explaining its policy for explicit content, which seemed to contradict the decision by saying that a photo of a nude statue would be appropriate. And this year, TikTok banned Vienna’s Albertina Museum for posting nude photography. It appears that these sites are often overbroad in their efforts to take down or censor banned material. These accidental removals are often due to sites using artificial intelligence to flag banned content.
Larger Censorship Issues
With this uneven application of guidelines, it makes sense that the museums would turn to an alternative site to post their content, but those involved in the project argue this effort is about more than generating clicks for the institutions. Nobert Kettner, Director of the Vienna Tourist Board, says the OnlyFans account will not be a permanent feature but is an act of protest against censorship and a way to prompt discussion of the issue. Artists and others argue that finding alternative platforms to post nude art cannot be the only solution to combating censorship. Artists point out that efforts like this one chiefly provide visibility to historical and established artists, while the larger issue is that current and new artists are falling prey to social media platforms’ restrictive rules and struggling to get exposure.
Beyond the ramifications for museums and artists, this debate about censorship is taking place amidst larger discussions about social media sites’ power to moderate and remove content in general. For example, several states have proposed or passed legislation aiming to prohibit social media sites from censoring certain content, particularly political content. These bills would allow private citizens in these states to sue social media platforms for removing or moderating content based on a user’s politics. Lawmakers behind this legislation in Wisconsin argue that these laws will require companies to be transparent and consistent with their policies. Critics argue that some amount of censorship is necessary to prevent the spread of misinformation and that social media companies have First Amendment rights to decide what content to host. Currently, these efforts to curb censorship of political content have gained more attention than similar efforts in the art world, but the debate over censorship of all types of content rages on.