The Art Teacher as Censor

By Petit, David A. | School Arts, April 2004 | Go to article overview

The Art Teacher as Censor


Petit, David A., School Arts


A culture can be remembered and studied by the artwork it leaves behind. The artwork gives us more than a pictorial or historical record of that culture. It also reveals the cultural practices and beliefs that form the accepted boundaries for the expression of culture. These boundaries are aesthetics.

It is human nature to sometimes challenge these boundaries. These challenges produce stimulation and learning. When a culture censors new ideas, it creates an environment in which advancement of knowledge is impeded. Artists, scientists, philosophers, and theologians have traditionally challenged the prevailing thought, or pushed the envelope of accepted human behavior.

Censorship in Art

Western civilization has a long history of forcing cultural aesthetics onto its own and other populations. Cardinals in Rome objected to the nude figures in Michelangelo's Last Judgment altarpiece and had other artists paint loincloths on the figures. In 1190, during the Inquisition, the Talmud and The Guide for the Perplexed written by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides were burned. The charge was blasphemy and immorality.

Western civilization continues to create fences to artistic freedom. In a well-known 1990 court case, Dennis Barrie and the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati fought an obscenity charge for showing the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. In 1991, a school in Eugene, Oregon refused to show Channel One educational TV because it carried a story about vandalism on Michelangelo's David. School officials objected because the video depicted one of the most famous sculptures in the world in all its naked glory. This case is especially ironic because the attack on the statue was, in effect, a personal statement of aesthetics by the attacker. Why was this particular piece chosen? Did it reflect some ideal that the attacker objected to? Did the statue represent some aspect of Western civilization that offended?

As late as 1999, the world focused on censorship of "Sensation," an art exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The mayor of New York objected to a portrait of the Virgin Mary partially made from elephant dung and cutouts from pornographic photos. The mayor ordered the show closed and tried to stop funding to the museum. Courts ruled the action unconstitutional and the publicity resulted in record attendance at the show.

Living in an Age of Suspicion

As America emerges from the terror of the September 11, 2001, attacks, we find ourselves in a different world. Our fear of more attacks has prompted stricter government regulations. In this atmosphere, the populace is asked to watch its neighbors and report suspicious activity. Businesses and schools have become more restrictive and conservative. Americans are caught between the ideals that define the country--equality, opportunity, and trust--and the belief that it must defend and fend off those that would take all this away.

The Challenge of Art Education

How has this affected art education? Should teachers be more sensitive to the political and social climate when preparing lessons and deciding what to put on public display?

Art, by its very nature, provokes responses in thought and emotion. Art creates visceral and spontaneous reactions as well as thoughtful contemplative study. Art is meant to bring people closer to their feelings and perhaps question their true nature. The study of art requires the questioning of the nature of art and aesthetics, and all art teachers must address this with their students of they risk becoming instructors of technique. It is the responsibility of all art teachers to widen the vistas of their students and make them understand that art can be good, whether or not it ends up on the refrigerator at home or matches the color scheme of the furniture. …

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