Needless to say, this post is going to be NSFW… or for Facebook… or Instagram… etc.
Shortly before christmas, I got an email from a friend who has been designing my Billy Sheahan Photography apps for Android and Apple iOS for the past few years. Actually I received two emails from him, a short time apart. (Here’s his TheFolioApp site, with homepage imagery you’ll find very familiar if you know my work!)
The first email was to let me know that Google had suspended my app along with all other apps that contained nudity of any kind, even implied nudity, including some that only featured nothing more than photographs of women in bikinis. And then I received the second, a couple of days later. Apple was preparing to do the same thing with all of their iPhone/iPad apps. He had taken the precaution of removing my fine art nude gallery from my iOS app, so we could get the next app update through without getting banned. He wanted to know my thoughts.
Gentle readers, this is going to be a long blog posting. My apologies in advance.
I actually began writing this blog post back in 2011, always meaning to come back and finish it. I continued writing near the end of 2014. And then the idea of self-censorship and free speech became an international discussion with the murder of the Charlie Hebdo editors and cartoonists. Censorship, more specifically self-censorship or choosing not to self-censor in media was pushed to the front page in dramatic fashion.
I think the reason I’ve hesitated talking about my own views on censorship was because I really try my best to put only positive things out there and I didn’t want to appear to be complaining. But I do believe it is a very important discussion to be having. I get it. Whether it’s my art or someone elses, some of it isn’t for everyone. Frankly, I wouldn’t want it to be.
If my mission was to always create art that was absolutely acceptable and inoffensive to everyone, anywhere, what really would be the point of that. Would it truly be a personal expression of what I find inspiring or moving in my heart?
No. It certainly wouldn’t be my honest point of view and where my art is concerned is one place I feel I shouldn’t express anything less than my own truth and vision. There are plenty of other compromises and rules I must follow every day when others are paying the bill. But when it comes to my personal art, that’s a different matter. My art is mine.
I create what inspires me. What I like. If anyone else likes it too, well that, as they say, is just gravy. That’s pretty much been my philosophy for the past 30 years. I’ve found that on the rare occasion when I forget that and I start to wonder in the act of creating what others might like, that’s when I get into trouble. The art isn’t honest, and rarely good. It’s not my voice.
A great deal of my work, perhaps half of it, involves nudity. Unfortunately, the displaying of the human form in public, whether artistic or not, is a stigma in many cultures, including my own. A sense of shame. In my opinion, that is very unfortunate, even hypocritical, especially in the States where the media pounces all over every nipple slip or revealing fashion mishap, and more recently, private celebrity nude photos hacked and posted. Many would-be viewers are aghast in their reaction, yet continue to fall for the click-bait and look at these images in “horror.” Condemning the images loudly, while at the same time, unwanting to look away in a giddy giggling schoolboy sort of way.
Heh heh. Boobs.
Perhaps because of my travels, or perhaps because of the kind of subject matter I have studied and gravitated to in my own artwork the last three decades, I do have a much more European mindset about such things. A more open and wider view about art than many. Which is just fine. Everyone has different tastes.
A few years ago, I was reviewing my fashion portfolio with someone in the industry who sees hundreds of portfolios a year and she told me she didn’t see my work being accepted in the U.S. fashion marketplace.
“It’s much more European. It reminds me of Helmut Newton’s work,” she offered.
Well, that was about the greatest compliment she could have possible paid me. It’s true. I find the photography in French Vogue, at least as it was during the Carine Roitfeld years, so much more compelling that its American counterpart. Inventive and creative. Often including nudity. But those respective markets and sensibilities are so completely different, it’s not really surprising or unexpected.
The topic of nudity in art can go off on many tangents, and I will do my best here to limit them here, but here’s our first exit.
Nudity in Art Throughout History
Even in France in 2014, before the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, there has been an uncharacteristically puritanical conservative backlash in art there. Even in Paris. Very surprising to see this happening in a city that is usually far more open-minded about art and expression in relation to the things that make us human. I’ve come to expect that level of artistic conservatism here in the States, but in Europe and especially France, this has been a eyebrow-raising development for me to see happening.
The human form has been the subject of art for thousands of years. Pretty much since humans began painting on cave walls. Walk through any major museum that features work by artists of the last several hundred years, and yes, nudity is there. Nudity in art.
It would be amusing to imagine that I alone had discovered that the curves and lines of human geometry have a quality about them that inspires awe. But I am only one of the recent ones among many thousands of artists through the ages who have gravitated to creating art with the human form. What I am doing is, at its core, neither new nor original, although hopefully what I do has a style and point of view that is unique to me.
Nudity vs. Violence
I do find it fascinating that in many cultures, and especially here in my country, that we seem to be mostly fine with art that depicts violence. Violence is in our daily news. It’s in our politics. And because art imitates life or vice versa, of course it’s in our art. In our movies. And all over our social media. And for the most part, many here in the States seem to be okay with that. Hell, I grew up watching Tom and Jerry and Road Runner & Wile E. Coyote cartoons. I was weaned on violence.
My fascination gets even more amped up when I see truly violent and hateful things on Facebook, often aimed at women, that seem to be fine with the FB overlords, but show a human female nipple, either artistically or even breastfeeding, and you certainly run the risk of having your account banned when someone who is offended, reports it with a simple click.
I’ve seen it happen to many of my artist friends. It happened just a few days ago to a wonderful Australian photographer friend of mine, Mel Brackstone. She posted a link to her Tumblr page, and the thumbnail included nudity. Beautiful, inspiring, artistic nudity. Her 24-hour ban from Facebook was swift in coming. But that was only because one of her Facebook followers reported it as offensive. One angry person lashing out is all it takes to have such art removed from view for the rest of us.
My circle of artist friends all continue to be mystified why someone who might be offended by our work would be following us in the first place. There is plenty of hateful content that I find offensive. But rather than reporting it, I turn it off. Unfollow. Unfriend if it’s really that offensive. Why would you want something in your feed that you have such strong negative feelings about? Why should a single person get to decide what everyone else sees?
Change the channel if you don’t like it.
Artistic Nudity and Women in Art
I find most of my artistic colleagues to be a sensitive, thoughtful group. We’re all very aware of the messages we are expressing in our work, both specifically our own points of view as well as how our work may be interpreted. Many of my artist friends who are men seem to be more in touch with the feminine sides of ourselves than average, which I believe informs all of our work, even though we may create in very different styles and genres. Growing up, our interests in traditionally masculine things like sports and cars were often considerably less than more artistic ones.
When I began collaborating with women and creating images with them involving nudity, I was always very aware of the gift I was fortunate enough to experience with them. Something I never took for granted. It took me a very long time to be able to properly articulate why I choose to create nude images with women. First, it was an area I felt I was good at in terms of making images that I found represented the, at the time, vague feelings of something I wanted to express. I experimented with many genres when I was trying to find my own style as a photographer. Portraiture, fashion, architecture, documentary, travel and art nude, to name a few. Even as an emerging photographer in those early days, it became clear what types of photographs I was good at making and those that didn’t come as naturally to me, or were just plain bad.
Oddly enough the two areas that showed the most potential were one, black and white street photography when I would travel, inspired by masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson. And second, fine art nudes, influenced by the style of great photographers ranging from George Hurrell, Helmut Newton, but especially Herb Ritts. In those days I was miles away from making images even in the same neighborhood of the brilliance of those influential artists, but I could certainly feel myself being pulled in those directions.
I came to understand that vague feeling I had when photographing women was simply one of awe. That is how I came to articulate it in one word.
As primarily a self-taught artist, my formal education involved very little deep study into the art history and the theory of art. The Golden Ratio, the Rule of Thirds, and Negative Space were terms I didn’t literally know, yet almost intuitively, I was using all of those artistic concepts in both my street photography and my nude photography. What I was experiencing when I began photographing women was the naturally pleasing and inspiring nature of the female form. The ratio of the curves and intersecting lines that were very different from that of a male. Strong, yes, but not aggressive in my eye. Graceful.
But it was more than simply human geometry. To me, women represented the most inspiring aspect of human nature. Women are creators in the most basic sense. Often but not always nurturers. Givers and teachers in a very different way than men can be. That place appeals to my sensibilities as an artist.
In a word, inspiring to me, both from the physical and cerebral point of view.
And I found myself being drawn to create art with those qualities in mind. As I said, in those early days I didn’t understand the why. In fact, I avoided asking or answering the why question for years because I feared that if I knew the answer it might affect my ability to instinctually create the art I was most passionate about. I just created it, more out of artistic inclination than anything else.
The profoundly interestingly thing I came to discover, was that women seemed to love my work. When I began showing in galleries, it was women more than men who seemed to appreciate and in many cases purchase my photography. I found myself very pleasantly surprised with that affirmation. It wasn’t something I consciously set out to do, but if my work was speaking in such a way to women, in a way that made them feel good about being a woman instead of it triggering thoughts of imagined inadequacies, that was a positive thing. The self-doubt in many women after being subjected to years of being told how they should look as portrayed in commercial media and advertising is something I’m sure I can’t imagine. But my photography seemed to be the opposite of that to them. I came to realize that my work must be working on a more affirming level I hadn’t considered. It was artistically positive.
That was a wonderful and important discovery for me as I continued to form my artistic point of view.
The Culture Question
In the past year, the question of how women are viewed, treated and portrayed in the various cultures around the word has also been brought to the forefront of public discussions in a larger fashion than I can ever remember it being. Exploitation. Objectifying. Rape culture. I think it’s a critical and good discussion to be having. And even though artists already tend to be an introspective lot by nature, me and my circle of photographers, painter and model friends alike have spent far more time in the past year than we can remember previously, pausing for a moment to consider our artistic creations and what ripples, good or less so, that our artwork might be contributing to the world we all inhabit.
I distinctly remember the moment last Spring when I heard the news reports of the misogynistic man in Ilsa Vista, California who went on a shooting spree, and his manifesto of retribution to women who had rejected him. That was tragic enough, but that shock was only amplified when it started to become clear that his twisted views were not as uncommon as many of us may have assumed. It seemed to uncover what was beneath a very dark rock in the minds of a surprising number of men, exemplified in the hateful and demeaning comments that began to appear with increased regularity on Facebook and other social and news pages.
All of a sudden, my conversations with fellow artists became far more introspective, if not urgent. And greater in number. Much of the creation of art is a very personal and solitary thing. It’s not that we don’t talk about our art among ourselves as artists, but our conversations began to include a more serious tone. It seemed that individually, we were all taking stock in our own art, for those of us whose artwork involved nudity and women, we asked…
Were we contributing in a negative way to how women are perceived by themselves and by men in society?
It wasn’t so interesting to me that we were having such introspective conversations, but that we were all seeming to be having them. At the same time. Those conversations continued for months and still continue. It’s as if my circle all decided that considering this question in our own heads, the way we usually consider what and why we create what we do, wasn’t enough in this moment. We all needed to talk about it together.
What we were doing without even realizing it, was conducting a series of checks and balances in our own artistic community. And I found that even though it was unusual to be having the quantity of deep philosophical discussions we were having, I wasn’t really surprised that we found it important to have them.
As I mentioned before, the artists I know are a thoughtful and sensitive lot. I like to say, we artists are usually more sensitive than average. Not fragile, but more tuned-in in how we process the world. In other words, in order to create the art that we do, we do tend to feel things a bit more loudly. Our happy is more happy. Our sad is more sad. We notice things in a way that others may not. When we are truly inspired, it really washes over us. We are moved to create when we may experience beauty or anger or love. Life is much louder to us. It’s not to say we are better or worse, it’s just my personal observation of how I believe we often feel. We are a bit different. We are the crazy ones. Proudly crazy.
So, of course we would be feeling that question quite intensely.
In the end, after many late hours of conversations, we all came to the same conclusion. We’re okay.What we’re doing is okay. At least in my group of artists and especially when I have had similar discussions with women friends who are not artists. The question of whether we were contributing to the world in a negative way, was quickly met with a shaking head and a “No,” before I could even finish my thought.
The place we were coming from when we created the art that we did, was not a place of negativity or manipulation. Exactly the opposite. Uplifting, honor, awe, inspiration, wonder, admiration, respect, reverence, were the kinds of words that kept coming up in our discussions. Whether our work was perceived as exactly that by everyone who viewed it, was secondary. Viewers bring a myriad of experiences when they are engaged by art. It’s very nearly a mirror of their own experiences rather than solely what the artist may be expressing. That’s one of the most wonderfully beautiful things about art.
It’s a personal thing. Both for the artist creating it and the viewer experiencing it.
Self-Censorship and Playing Nice in the Public Sandbox
No, all art isn’t for everyone. And I think I speak for most artists when I say we create for ourselves first. We’re perfectly fine in knowing that our art may not be for everyone. Most of us prefer it that way. Not boring or unable to have the potential to really move someone.
Art is a very selfish thing. It’s supposed to be a selfish thing, unless you’re creating art that by its design and initial premise is to be acceptable by everyone. Few serious artists that I know ever start out to create something for everyone. That’s not honest art. It’s art by an enormously large committee. McArt. Art that is comfortable over the average American suburban sofa or in a corporate lobby. Safe.
If an artist is going to express something that moves him or her and in turn perhaps some who would view it, it has to speak to the artist, first. And there is no guarantee that whatever it is that the artist is trying to express is going to be received in exactly the way it was intended. Again, that’s the beauty of art. It’s different for everyone. How very human a thing that is. Some might love it. Some might hate it. Or somewhere in between, which I more often consider a miss in my opinion. Meh, is a miss.
And all artists know that depending on the public space we choose to exhibit our art, whether in a physical location like a gallery or on a website or social media, we may run into opposition to express absolutely everything in a manner we choose to present it. What is appropriate for one venue may not always be appropriate in another. Although the decision of appropriateness is often rife with murky and inconsistent and often contradictory bias. That’s the tricky and frustrating thing we all experience.
For example, if I choose to post my nude work on Facebook or Instagram, I have to self-censor it with boxes or bars over anything beyond what you might see on a public American beach. If I don’t, someone can report it as offensive to them and I face a timeout or an outright ban and deactivation of my account. If I choose to play in that sandbox, those are the rules.
However, on my photography site or other less restrictive social media sites such as Ello or Vimeo, or at least for now, Tumblr, for example, there are no such artistic compromises to be made. Those are the rare social media islands. Some even feature a way to tag artwork as NSFW or Mature, which is actually a very democratic way of allowing users to choose what they want to see. A pre-emptive channel change, so to speak. And reasonable.
The United States is an interesting place. And it often looks very different from within than from the outside. Full of both wonderful things and maddening contradictions. We’re often helpful, and just as often, dangerous. Certainly unpredictable… sometimes. And sometimes completely predictable.
There is a lot of, “Wait, you’re okay with this, but not with that?” from citizens of the world looking at us from across the borders. We may be over 200 years old, but sometimes we seem to have the temperament of a three-year old who has missed his nap.
I often feel like our self-repression in some areas, handed down by our Puritan founders, gets released like a steam value in very messy ways. I grew up attending catholic school. I know repression, first hand. Nuns, man. Nuns.
We seem to be very uptight about nudity here in the States, yet we tease ourselves to death with almost-nudity.
Yes, I just made that up.
Almost-nudity is the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. (And go ahead and click on that last link right now. John Oliver. Brilliant. I’ll wait right here.)
See?! Wasn’t that great?!
Almost-nudity is every cover of Maxim magazine with a woman teasingly tugging on the side of her bikini bottom. NFL cheerleaders. The underlying sexual subtext of lots of advertising, e.g., GoDaddy. (Although it was fascinating to see advertisers during the recent Super Bowl, continue to back away from the, until recently, very acceptable concept of using sexy women to sell their products. It was more or less completely absent this year. Although the Sad Bowl, as I now call it, seemed to be a case of advertisers oddly grasping around in the dark for their feelings. Sometimes awkwardly unsuccessful or over the top in their execution.)
But back to the almost-nudity idea. I’ve always felt that working people up into an aroused frenzy with almost-nudity is more detrimental than actual full-on realistic human nudity if you’re really concerned about that kind of thing. Almost-nudity may contribute more to infusing people with repressed sexual and body issues and poor relationship skills than anything else. But that’s just my opinion.
If you’ve ever watched TV in Europe you’ve seen a philosophy about nudity that hasn’t amped up the concept of a naked body like it has been here in the States. They’ve normalized nudity in a more healthy context. They’ve made it not a big deal and so it isn’t. Less shame. Fewer body issues. They treat it as the natural human thing it is.
What About the Children?
Yes. What about the children. These days, the children are a click away from a torrent of both teasing almost-nudity and every full-on explicit sexual fetish imaginable. Even without the internet, they see a mind-numbing number of images every day that are often designed to manipulate them in ways I consider more potentially unhealthy for them, than viewing the occasional image of artistic human nudity in a less commercial and realistic context.
I truly understand the concern, but I often wonder if kids had regular exposure to nudity in a more natural human artistic sense, it might balance out the more exploitative images and perhaps they wouldn’t grow up with so many body issues and skewed relationship expectations. Kids are being unmercifully teased by commercial media. Context is everything. Balance the manipulative with the healthy.
Take them to a museum or art gallery. Have a discussion.
The Black Censor Bars
So yes. I’ll continue to self-censor my work where I have to. Or at least until I get tired of doing so and roll the dice on getting banned. WordPress, which is the tool I use to write my blogs, even has a feature which allows me to select a specific alternate self-censored image that gets used when I post to Facebook. An image with censor bars. Anyone who cares to view the uncensored version, can always click through to my blog.
Or you can change the channel. Or unfriend me. I’m fine with either.
The photographs above were all made in Paris with my wonderful model friend, Frances.
Thank you, as always, gentle readers for your very kind support. We should all keep talking about this.