“Instagram Has a Problem”: Betty Tompkins Sounds Off on Art and Censorship
“When I first read about the NDAs, it reminded me of the McCarthy days.”
It’s been 30 years since the cancellation of a planned Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective over fears that a (federally funded) showcase of interracial relationships and nudity would prove too controversial. And while censorship in art might seem like a thing of the past—after all, the Guggenheim mounted a major two-part Mapplethorpe retrospective earlier this year—the threat is still very much real. Just ask Betty Tompkins, the pioneering feminist artist who’s currently ruffling just as many—if not more—feathers as she was when the French government seized two of her works at customs in the ’70s.
Between 2005, when the Japanese government pulled a similar move, and 2015, things were relatively calm for Tompkins. Then, she joined Instagram. According to Tompkins, the app has deleted more than a dozen posts featuring her artwork—a pattern that culminated in April when she posted a photo from a catalogue featuring her photorealistic, explicit work Fuck Painting #1, at which point Instagram deactivated her account.
Six months later, the app invited Tompkins, plus a number of art world figures including the photographer and painter Marilyn Minter, to a closed-door roundtable discussion about its content moderation. Unable to attend Monday’s discussion, Tompkins instead wrote a statement to be read at the gathering. While researching the subject, she experienced a “total shock” of a discovery: She’d actually never actually violated any of the app’s guidelines, which specifically state that “nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK.”
“Over a billion people use Instagram every month and operating at this size means that mistakes are made,” Stephanie Otway, a Facebook company spokesperson, told W on Thursday. “It is never our intention to silence members of our community.” The company also said that it has restored six of the posts that were at one point removed from Tompkins’s account, upon realizing that they were in fact photorealistic paintings rather than photographs. This, the company added, was among several topics it raised to those who partook in Monday’s roundtable discussion.
On Friday, Tompkins posted a portion of her statement to her account. (She’d planned to post it on Thursday, but her account was once again temporarily deleted—though, as she noted, “the people at Facebook and Instagram who got it back up they were humane, generous, and efficient.”) Here, she shares more with W, from her feelings on NDAs to her love-hate relationship with the app.
Your statement is surprisingly short. How did you set about deciding what to write? When they invited me to the roundtable and I couldn’t be there, I said I’d like to write a statement that would be read aloud, and they said sure. I spent like two weeks trying to figure out in my head how I would state this, basically stewing, before I realized that despite all the notices mentioning them, I’d never actually read the community guidelines. Most of them said what I expected them to, but there was this one little section that was a total shock to me—and I’m sure the thousands, millions of other artists who are on Instagram have never read it either. I mean, the sentence has no qualifier: It says “Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.” But apparently not if some ignoramus somewhere on the planet decides they don’t like it, or if the algorithm is just off today or whatever. When I read it, I was laughing and I was furious at the same time. Instagram has a problem. They don’t follow their own guidelines. I wanted someone from the gallery to read it at the roundtable in my place, but they wouldn’t allow that. I keep thinking about it, especially because I wasn’t there. I don’t know if it would be more or less obvious to me if I had been, but meetings between people who run social media and people who are active on their social media, should not have NDAs.
I know that Facebook said it was standard procedure, but it still shocked me to hear about the NDAs. Me too. But since I wasn’t there, I didn’t have to sign one! [Laughs.]
Combined with the absence of the media, it made me wonder, Is there something you guys are trying to hide? Right. Two days after the meeting, they haven’t announced any change—yet. Of course, they may never, but it seems to me that if they wanted this meeting to have a real impact, they would have made it public. [Artist] Michol Hebron said they should have livestreamed the whole thing, and I totally agree with her. They lost a wonderful opportunity. I know everybody had to sign, and so far people are not talking that I can see. But these are artists. My job as an artist is to break rules. And I really can’t think that you could put 20 artists in a room, feed them a hot lunch and they’ll stay shut up.
Have you spoken with anyone who attended the roundtable? Marilyn [Minter] said “Wish you were there” on Facebook, and I said “Me too.” She’s a rulebreaker, but no, I haven’t gotten in touch with her to see what she would say. We’ll have to see what happens. I suppose we have to be reasonable and say we’ll see what they do, but I think from the beginning they just wanted to know what we thought. And as the days are passing, I’m beginning to think that they didn’t have any intention to go further than Now we know what they think, and they don’t like us, they’re a pain. They know that we need Instagram, so basically all the power is with them. But they need us, too.
I do think it’s important that they invited younger, up-and-coming artists, because they’re the ones that this most affects. Absolutely. I can’t tell you how many young artists—well, almost everybody’s younger than me—I heard from who were worried they were going to lose their account when mine was deactivated. So many of them wrote to Instagram to complain about it, which was great, because I was—to put it mildly—hysterical. I was posting on Twitter and Facebook like every hour and a half, telling people to go on Instagram and complain. Because if you don’t have an account on Instagram and if you’re not posting your work for whatever for you is at a normal rate, it’s hard to let people know what you’re working on. For me it’s like a meditation—I do it first thing I do in the morning, before I get up, and then I’m done with it for the day. I try not to spend too much time on social media during the day because I have a lot of work to do. But I paint wet over dry, so there’s 10, 15 minutes. Sometimes I work on something else, but a lot of times I’ll say okay, I’ll go see what everybody’s doing.
Were you hysterical just on principle, or because you missed using the app, too? It actually was both. I was really insulted, and really surprised. I was looking at my account, and what I had posted six months previous wasn’t any different. It was like, Why is this stuff still up? And it had been months since they had taken anything down before they disabled my account, so I was like okay, they finally realized who I was and that this is what I do.
What’s funny about the post that made them shut down my account—which was gone when they reactivated it—is that it was of a catalogue from Stadtgalerie Saarbrüken, this big feminist show I was in. I had opened it to my pages, so there was text about me on the lefthand side and a reproduction of Fuck Painting #1, which they had borrowed for the Centre Pompidou, on the right. It’s a historically important painting, but I’m not even showing the painting. I was really clear that it was a printed page I was showing; you could see the fold. I mean, by that time, I was used to them taking my posts down, because they’ve taken down an awful lot. But that time, they took my account down.
It seems pretty arbitrary, too. In May, you posted that Instagram had taken one of your posts down, but that people could scroll back to see it when you first posted it, the previous October. Completely. I took a screenshot of the one I posted, edited it down to the piece, and put it up again, so it really was the same post. Thank god I hadn’t taken down the original, because I tend to do that so if somebody is taking scrolling through they don’t see the same images five times.
I’m surprised that you were so surprised when they deactivated your account, though. Haven’t you often dealt with censorship over the course of your career? Yeah, and you know what? Each time it’s like the first time—sort of like how you can remember a painful experience, but you can never relive the pain. Before Instagram, there were 15, 20 years between governments censoring me, so I was surprised each time there too. There are certain things I do when being censored to keep my sanity, and for Paris and for Japan, I did censored drawings of the pieces that were actually censored. So after I got my account back, I started to keep a list of what Instagram was taking down, so I’m now doing censored paintings. I’m on my fourth one, and I already have a list of at least 10 more images that I can go to work on. And enough’s enough! I already have enough for the whole series; stop. [Laughs.] And I am going to go through with them, because it keeps me pretty centered to do something positive out of an experience that was 100 percent negative.
If Instagram invited you to another roundtable, but you had to sign an NDA, would you accept? If I had to sign an NDA, I don’t know that I would. Maybe I would as a pro forma thing and just do what I want to do. You know, when I first saw someone mention the NDA, it reminded me of the old days. When I taught at LaGuardia Community College, which is a part of CUNY, in the ’80s, I actually needed to sign a loyalty pledge—an “I never did or will do anything against the United States,” from the McCarthy days. You wouldn’t get the job if you didn’t sign it, and I was desperate for money. I really was instantly I was instantly reminded of the McCarthy era. And J. Edgar—let’s not forget about him.
You offer two ideas for solutions in your statement. Do you have any other suggestions for Instagram going forward? I wish they did it more like Facebook, which owns the app. Facebook has taken down a couple of my things, but when they do it, they send you a notice citing their community guidelines, and you have to check one or two things: whether or not you accept the decision, and whether or not you would like it reviewed by a human being. I have several times now and it’s always come back up, either between two hours and 24 hours, and I am sent a notice of apology—a We made a mistake and we’re sorry. But when Instagram reactivated my account, all the sudden I could just log back in. There wasn’t a word. Not one—excuse me—fucking word. They could give me the right to appeal the decision to a human being, and they could also offer an apology. After ruining my day, I would appreciate that.
Related: Accused of Censorship, Instagram Turns to Artists Like Betty Tompkins and Marilyn Minter for Help