Tough Talk: Conversations with Students, Teachers, Parents, and Administrators about Censorship and Free Expression in High School

Article excerpt

I often ask my high school drawing students to utilize their personal experiences for content for their artwork. Drawing from their own lives and imaginations often provokes them to become more engaged and invested in artmaking than they might otherwise be in an exclusively formal or technical approach to drawing.

In this expressive environment, difficult and occasionally distressing issues are sometimes present in my students' artwork. While most of my students' personal themes are not the sort of issues that would move me to rush to the school psychologist, such as abuse or suicide, topics do emerge that reveal possibly controversial concerns: racism, gender bias, sexual confusion, homophobia, religion, politics, drug exaltation, and sexual activity.

Feeling uncomfortable, I spoke with other art teachers at my school and found that almost all of them have general content restrictions for artwork produced in class including restrictions on nudity, drugs, and violence. Nevertheless, I still felt uneasy; does establishing such boundaries mean students will stop thinking about sex, abusing drugs, being depressed about their achievement, feeling alienated, or any other physical and/or psychological challenges teenagers may face?

Judith Burton (1981) noted, "The ensuing conflict between their sense of past, present, and future selves leaves young people confused about who they are" (p. 60). Adolescent art practices often reflect the conflict of identity development (Burton, 1981; Freedman, 2003). Not surprisingly, artwork can reveal aspects of students' lives, and what is revealed may be distressing (Diket & Mucha, 2002). Common themes in adolescent artwork deal with aggression, power, and relationships (Burton, 1981). After all, an authentic practice of artmaking is utilizing art techniques to portray meaning (London, 1989).

In addition, logic and reasoning during adolescence is not necessarily grounded in concrete examples; teens can enjoy forming and testing hypotheses, finding fault with adult perspectives, and considering multiple viewpoints of the same event, idea, or question (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958). Burton (1981) also wrote, "What is perceived by adults as provocative, anti-social, testing behavior is frequently no more than 'hit or miss' attempts on the part of young people to seek out adequate means of organizing new and often disparate thoughts" (p. 35). Moreover, artmaking as a means of expression and creative actitivity could have positive psychological effects on students (Lowenfeld, 1957). Furthermore, art education utilizes high-level, sophisticated thinking, and problem solving (Eisner, 2002).

NAEA Policy on Censorship and Classroom Practice

According to the National Art Education Association (NAEA), "The freedom to create and to experience works of art is essential to our democracy" (NAEA, 1991, para. 1). Teachers should not endorse particular images or ideas but encourage students to think critically about a diverse array of perspectives. Individuals are encouraged to reject or accept any work but individuals may not suppress the expression of any work. Educators should impress upon students the importance of free expression (NAEA, 1991).

Despite the NAEA policy on free expression and although controversial themes may be developmentally fitting, research shows that censorship is prevalent in art classes for a variety of reasons. In a survey of Georgia art teachers, Bruce Bowman (1999) noted that student work that deals with sexual themes, drug imagery, and violence was heavily censored or prohibited by art teachers. Many teachers cited job security and working autonomously as reasons for censoring or avoiding these potentially controversial topics.

However, David Henley (1997) wrote that avoiding controversy might just be a responsible practice, noting there is a difference between an artist's right to create artwork and an artist's privilege to display that artwork. …