Censorship and the Social Network giant

Last week, an appeals court in Paris ruled that Facebook can be sued for suspending the account of a Frenchman who displayed an 1866 painting of a female nude on the social media site some five years ago. The decision came down even though Facebook limits legal issues to California courts and even though Facebook concerns that “some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content.” The object of Facebook’s disaffection is Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World,” a detailing of female anatomy from navel to thigh on public display at the Musée d'Orsay since 1995.

Stéphane Cottineau, attorney for the suspended Facebook subscriber -- Durand-Baissas -- explained his client’s stance for the press this way: “On Facebook we can read homophobic and racist comments, or comments that praise terrorism, but we don’t have the right to see a thigh or a bit of breast in a nude photo.”

Au contraire, Stephane. Courbet’s nude is no “bit of breast.” What you get is a targeted view of female genitalia.

The painting bothers me, too, because the very parts that allow thought and volition -- the head and arms -- are missing. Diego Velasquez showed how to picture a nude woman while allowing her a mind and motor skills two centuries before Courbet. “Rokeby Venus” describes the Roman goddess lying uncovered before a small mirror held by Cupid that reflects only her face. How cool is that!

Another part of my peeve with Courbet (admittedly unfair), is that his painting was previously owned by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, better known as the “French Freud,” who famously wrote that “women add nothing and are ruled by their reproductive functions.”

Granted Facebook now allows photographs of paintings and sculptures of nudes.

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You’d think they’d know from the beginning that they had a weak case for censorship. Art history makes clear that nudes in painting and sculpture have always been the dominant subject. Had Facebook’s original policy stood, most art making in history would have been barred.

And more than half a century ago, art historian Kenneth Clark offered a useful distinction between nude and naked -- naked being our bodies when we take out clothes off, and nude standing for “educated usage” as in artwork that portrays our bodies not vulnerable and defenseless, but confident, even triumphant.

He called such nudes “re-formed bodies."

What’s more, rules of the road for nudity in the public square were pointedly established in 1990 when Cincinnati museum director Dennis Barrie was put on trial for showing Robert Mapplethorpe’s homo-erotic photographs. After only two hours in the jury room, eight citizens in a town so conservative that sales of Playboy were banned, decided that Mapplethorpe brought refinement to his images, which made them art, not porn.

The jurors’ reasoning is not unlike that of Musée d'Orsay, which excuses the rawness of Courbet’s “The Origin of the World” for his “great virtuosity.”

Apparently, anything goes in art as long as you do it masterfully.

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