Instagram is often touted as the digital platform that is democratizing the art world, allowing many artists to share, promote, and sell their works independently, bypassing the need for gallery representation or even physical exhibitions. For countless creatives, that has certainly been the case, and some of them have built hugely successful careers on the app.
But for other artists, particularly those whose work triggers Instagram’s censors, it’s not always a welcoming place. The company has taken down drawings, photographs, paintings, and sculptures depicting nudity, even in partial or abstracted form, and despite its own Community Guidelines, which state such content is permitted in images of artwork. Just last week, Instagram apologized for temporarily taking down a poster for Pedro Almodóvar’s upcoming film that depicts a lactating nipple. (Projects like Micol Hebron’s “Male Nipple Pasty” have drawn attention to Instagram’s especially harsh ban on images of female nipples.)
Some artists have also taken issue with the company’s new “sensitive content controls,” an option to screen potentially “offensive” content that was set as a default on users’ accounts without warning — blocking many artists from their feeds altogether.
Stephanie Otway, a spokesperson for Facebook — Instagram’s parent company — had this to say when reached for comment: “At times, it can be difficult for our technology and our reviewers to differentiate between a photo and a painting, especially when it comes to realistic art. In those cases we may make mistakes and remove content we shouldn’t, we give people the option to appeal our decisions so we can take another look if that happens. We’re always working to improve and minimize mistakes like this.”
For some artists, though, the incidents are recurrent, with a real impact on their careers and livelihood. Here’s a list of works that have been taken off the platform, from Sebastião Salgado’s photograph of Brazil’s Awá tribe to Shona McAndrew’s papier-mâché sculptures and a comic by Peo Michie about defunding the police.
Alannah Farrell, “Cutlet” (2021)
“I was disappointed but not surprised,” said artist Alannah Farrell about Instagram taking down an image of their work “Cutlet” (2021) about an hour after it was posted earlier this summer. The drawing portrays a figure sliding a blade under their right breast, and like many of Farrell’s works, it evokes a poignant vulnerability.
“Certain bodies and images online are frequently censored while others are not. I’ve known Instagram to be anti-art, anti-creators of color, anti-trans, anti-queer, misogynistic, ablest, and bigoted on many other levels,” Farrell said. “I am a painter who is white, thin, trans-masculine, and queer. Because of my identities, this sometimes means I fly under the censor’s radar, and sometimes I am targeted.”
“The harmful part is when many marginalized creative people use this platform for their careers, and Instagram essentially removes their lifeline to financial survival,” they added.