Facebook sent me to time out last week. What threw me into the no-no corner was an automatic repost from Why It Matters to WIM’s Facebook page, but in this particular case what reposted was forbidden fruit. The bane of human existence. The most dangerous image known to mankind.
For 30 minutes or so, WIM’s Facebook followers might have glimpsed a nipple.
This wasn’t just any nipple, of course, but rather a lady nipple. Those are the only ones that are offensive. If said nipple is attached to a male it’s perfectly fine, even if that male is a stripper.
But that’s a slightly different topic. American society long ago decided that lady nipples are the Devil’s bonbons while male areolae are just fine, and while I may think that distinction is silly my opinion is beside the point. Community standards are all that matter, and Facebook cares deeply about its community:
We restrict the display of nudity or sexual activity because some people in our community may be sensitive to this type of content. Additionally, we default to removing sexual imagery to prevent the sharing of non-consensual or underage content. Restrictions on the display of sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless it is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes.
The social media giant has been called to the mat several times over the years for this policy. “Nudity” and “sexual activity” are hardly synonymous, after all. Nicolle Rochelle’s topless protest at the Cosby trial was neither sexual nor titillating, yet it was newsworthy. I’m sure that more than one Facebook user shared that story on his or her timeline. Similarly, photos of cancer survivors or breastfeeding mothers can hardly be considered salacious, except perhaps by the most puritanical whackadoos (I’m looking at you, Mr. Vice President). This point has been made many times over the years, and the benevolent Facebook gods finally heard your concerns:
Our nudity policies have become more nuanced over time. We understand that nudity can be shared for a variety of reasons, including as a form of protest, to raise awareness about a cause, or for educational or medical reasons. Where such intent is clear, we make allowances for the content. For example, while we restrict some images of female breasts that include the nipple, we allow other images, including those depicting acts of protest, women actively engaged in breast-feeding, and photos of post-mastectomy scarring.
But what about art? Artists have been depicting the human figure since we first mashed mud into mammaries. The Venus De Milo has proudly displayed her alabaster breasts for over 2,000 years–should marble nipples that serve an artistic purpose be banned? Never mind breasts: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling sports penises, though not particularly impressive ones (I’m looking at you again, Mr. Vice President). Should Facebook’s policies on nudity be more stringent than the 16th century Catholic church’s? Would such a policy reflect 21st century community standards?
Of course not, so Facebook begrudgingly allows us to see the icky parts provided they are part of an artistic expression:
We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures.
It’s the clause “and other art” where Facebook’s morality police (or more specifically their morality policing artificial intelligence) and I differ. I collect records, and I’m particularly interested in the art of the album cover. Whether we’re talking Jack Davis’s cartoon sleeves, Frank Frazetta’s man nipple fantasy art, or the sometimes surreal, sometimes nude sleeves from Hipgnosis, to my eye those 12″ x 12″ hunks of cardboard are every bit as valid of an artistic expression as Michelangelo’s teeny weenies–perhaps even more so in their own little way. Art made for the big stage, like the Sistine Chapel, often reflects not who we are but what we aspire to. On the other hand, disposable art–ephemera like advertisements, television commercials, and, yes, album covers–reflects who we are at any given moment in time.
In other words, while fine art appeals to some social, aesthetic, or intellectual need, commercial art only wants to sell us something. Because that’s its sole purpose, commercial art cuts directly to the crux of who we are. This is the difference between a Campbell’s soup can (“buy soup”) and an Andy Warhol painting of a Campbell’s soup can (“what is art?”).
Over time, ephemeral art becomes historically significant because it unintentionally reveals a truth. We might choose to believe, for example, that institutionalized racism didn’t exist in mid-twentieth century America, but Aunt Jemima will rat out our ancestors faster than you can say “Whoo-ee!” Just look at this print ad for pancake mix. Today such blatant racial stereotypes offend virtually all community standards, but when this ad was published it wasn’t considered even slightly offensive by either its creators or its intended audience (with emphasis on the word “intended”).
These days, not so much. Even in terms of fiction, I can’t imagine putting into a character’s mouth the words “Dey’s all shoutin’ fo’ my temptilatin’ Down South Buckwheats!” If you’re like me, you probably cringed just reading that sentence, but that’s precisely the point: This print ad for pancake mix reveals an awful truth about our past selves that completely contradicts our Norman Rockwell vision of that era (which is a horrible example, given that Rockwell, too, was a commercial artist). Whether posting this particular image is offensive depends entirely upon the context in which it is presented.
That brings us to the topic of “cheesecake” album covers, the corner of my record collection reserved for LP sleeves depicting attractive women. It’s not just that these jackets feature pretty ladies–if that were the case I’d stick my Linda Ronstadt and Heart albums in this section. No, in my opinion what qualifies an album cover as “cheesecake” is when sex is clearly being used to sell music, and the greater the disconnect between the packaging and the music, the greater my interest. For example, Ferrante and Teicher were two homely, middle-aged male pianists who played watered down classical music and hits of the day. Their label’s art department knew what they were working with, and so they often spiced things up with a cheesecake album cover.
While “sex sells” is hardly a revelation, it’s still fascinating to see how it has been used over the years to sell music. Sleeve designers have covered women with honey, leered at them through drawn shades,and played out dominance-submission fantasies. Occasionally, they’ve reduced them to nothing more than crotches, asses, and breasts. Hey, but that’s rock and roll, right? Not always. Check out this sleeve for a 1966 recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes:
That’s the sleeve that earned me a 24 hour Facebook suspension for violating their community standards, and that’s their prerogative. It’s their bouncy ball, so we all have to play by their rules. And while their rules state that they “allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures,” the brat with the bouncy ball is known to change the rules as he goes.
I’m sure that this album cover was designed specifically to titillate buyers when it was released a half century ago, and if the image aligns with your libido it probably still gets the job done. While fans of Chopin or Ivan Moravec would have picked this record up even if the sleeve depicted an empty ketchup bottle, just how many Moravec-aniacs were out there? We’re not talking Liberace here. We’re not even talking Ferrante and Teicher. If the label was going to move some product, they needed to juice it up a bit, or so presumably they believed.
This album cover is about as pure of an example of using sex to sell a product as I’ve ever seen. I can’t correlate the Nocturnes to a nude bather splashing around in the ocean, no matter how hard I try. The disconnect between the album’s musical and visual content is enormous. This is nudity for the sake of sales, and thus it’s commercial art telling us something about the time in which it was created.
Suggesting that I appreciate cheesecake album covers solely for their historical value would be more than a little disingenuous. Unlike our Aunt Jemima example, these artworks don’t just morph from their intended purpose into something else over time. They will remain titillating as long as humans continue to have sexual urges, which might not be much longer if porn and political news continue overlapping. I can hold up Chopin Nocturnes Volume 1 as a particularly egregious example of mid-century sexploitation, but hey, it’s still boobs. And it’s still art, which according to Facebook’s own guidelines means that this album cover conforms to their community standards.
Frankly, this whole conversation is a bit ridiculous. You’re reading this on the biggest porn jukebox mankind has ever created. Whatever fetish you can think of (and several that you can’t) is no more than a few clicks away, and speaking of search engines: Google returns nearly three million results for the words “president pee tape.” “Grab them by the pussy” returns around eight million. If you think a little 1966 album cover nipple is offensive, you may have been frozen for the last 50 years–or even the last two.
The days of pretending you dig Chopin just so you can bring home a cheap thrill are long gone. Cheap thrills are a click away. For that matter, the days of pretending that Victorian social norms still apply are long gone. Facebook claiming that a boob violates community standards is a bit like the rude customer service dude claiming he’s offended when you call him an asshole. “Why I’ve never heard such profane language, nor must I sit here and take this abuse. Where are my fainting couch and my smelling salts? I feel a spell coming on.” Who the hell is Facebook to define community standards? Have they never logged into their own site? Are they unaware of the damage they’ve done to our society? Let he who is without nips cast the first stone.
If I have to see one more gun meme, beaten dog, or anti-immigrant rant I’m going to–well, I’m not going to do anything because Facebook is the only game in town. My choices are to accept their bizarre vision of morality or get off of their platform. But I can say this: Facebook as an arbiter of community standards is a giant hypocrite and it is welcome to kiss my boy nipples, which are in no way offensive according to their impeccable moral precepts.
I plan on learning as much about their stringent community guidelines as I can so that I don’t make the same mistake twice. Maybe I’ll start by revisiting that nipply Chippendales Facebook page.