Accused of Censorship, Instagram Turns to Artists Like Betty Tompkins and Marilyn Minter for Help

A painting by Betty Tompkins

Betty Tompkins, Censored Painting #1, 2019. Acrylic on canvas.

Courtesy of Betty Tompkins and P·P·O·W, New York

This past April, the pioneering artist Betty Tompkins revisited her monumental, photorealistic Fuck Paintings series by posting a photo of one of them—which looks exactly what it sounds like, but closely cropped—to Instagram. The platform swiftly disabled her account. It wasn't the first time that Tompkins, who's in her seventies, has dealt with censorship; the French and Japanese governments, both of which have stopped Tompkins's work at customs, haven't taken too kindly to her practice either. But it was emblematic of Instagram's increasing crackdown on nudity on the app, which has disproportionately affected women artists at a moment when an active Instagram presence is almost mandatory for those trying to establish or maintain a reputation in the art world.

At this point, Instagram should have known that attempting to silence Tompkins would be akin to handing her a megaphone to air her increasingly vocal criticism of the app. For as long as it's existed, since 2010, Instagram has repeatedly removed posts that it considers to be in violation of its guidelines since it launched—and thereby repeatedly prompted followers of the user in question to unite in a rallying cry in support of the artist, and against the app. For newly established photographers like Harley Weir and Petra Collins, getting banned is practically a rite of passage, and one often as simple to bring about as Instagramming a hint of pubic hair, or a nipple that—gasp!—might not belong to a man.

And yet, those days might finally soon be in the past. Instagram not only hosted a roundtable discussion on how its so-called "community guidelines" for moderating content have affected users in the art world on Monday, but it also invited Tompkins. And while Tompkins wasn't able to attend, several artists and museum leaders spoke in her stead—among them, Siddhant Talwar, who runs an account documenting stories of male sexual assault; Micol Hebron, who describes herself as the "creator of the digital male nipple pasty," Joanne Leah, who has used her Instagram to highlight the group Artists Against Social Media Censorship, and Marilyn Minter, who, like Tompkins, has repeatedly struggled with censorship over the course of her decades-long career.

All in all, around 20 representatives from the art world participated in the roundtable, the vast majority of whom were women who've had posts removed because of Instagram's policies regarding content. Aside from Tompkins, though, there was one other notable absence: members of the press, making Instagram's request that attendees sign non-disclosure agreements about the day's discussion all the more conspicuous. Still, ARTNews managed to conduct an investigation into what exactly went on behind Instagram's closed doors.

According to a Facebook spokesperson who spoke with ARTNews, Monday's gathering was a "meeting with the community in the art world to understand their feedback," much of which centered on the app's policies regarding nudity. Instagram apparently also maintained that NDAs are standard practice for visitors to any Facebook or Instagram facility, though that didn't stop several of the roundtable's participants from sharing details about the meeting. As Tompkins put it to ARTNews: "If you’re bringing artists into a room and telling them they can’t talk about a couple of hours they’ve lived through, you’re dreaming. This is our job as artists: to break the rules. That’s what makes it art—it doesn’t conform."

"I felt like this was an exchange of ideas from forward-leaning people trying to do the right thing," Minter told ARTNews via email after the meeting. "These were difficult conversations from well-meaning people trying to find solutions. Some of the artists had grievances but there was no hostility. If we are going to grow and change we need these conversations. I left feeling that this topic is a work in progress." So far, it seems, so good: "Instagram and Facebook had no trouble admitting their mistakes."

Tompkins, whose absence excused her from signing an NDA, plans to post the statement that she asked to be read aloud at the roundtable on Instagram later this week. In an excerpt that she shared with ARTNews, though, she breaks down why the app's community guidelines have been so harmful to artists "whose work is challenging or thought-provoking" in particular.

"Instagram has nominated themselves to be the online voice for the art world," Tompkins said. "And they’ve succeeded. You can’t be active in the art world without a voice on Instagram." Of course, you also can't have a voice on Instagram if the app deletes your posts or shuts down your account—a practice they don't seem to be moving away from any time soon. "It seemed that Facebook was very interested in engaging that conversation," a representative of the National Coalition Against Censorship also in attendance told ARTNews of how Instagram's policies can reflect the app's respect of its users' voices. "But I will say that willingness to make hard commitments was lacking."

From the sound of it, though, that was the point. "For us it’s a case of taking away the feedback that we heard, and bringing it to the broader teams to understand what we can and can’t implement," Facebook's spokesperson said. As for what's next: "Nothing specific at the moment."

Related: Petra Collins and Betty Tompkins: An Intimate Conversation About Women and Art