As many of the list know, this thread is of special interest to me
as I have been looking at censorship and self-censorship in art
teaching at all levels of education for the last eight-plus years.
I was musing the other day that when I began my research we had not
experienced Columbine, not 9-11, not Homeland Security, not two
contested elections of our President, not the war in Iraq, not a
heated up Culture War between Blue and Red thinkers.
All of these events have had an impact or trickle down effect on
what and how we are able to teach any number of subjects.
And I thought about Woody's post, of how we baby boomers grew up in
the 40s 50s. How simple that postwar time was for kids in this
country. And I was one of the kids who was free to wander around
the neighborhood until the street light went on. But that was
before the defining war in Vietnam, the killing of kids at Kent
State, the assasination of two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther
King, Watergate and an impeachment, widely disseminated stories
about pedophile clergy and scout masters, pediatricians and so on.
That was before Etan Patz (whose killer was just identified for
sure this week) and Jon Benet Ramsay; before kids pix on milk
cartons. Before OJ Simpson, Before "I did not have sex with that
woman." It was before Bert and Ernie, Sponge Bob, Buster and the
issue of same sex marriages.
It is an increasingly complex world. Whose morality? Whose
standards? Whose closely held beliefs? Who decides all that?
And the Knight Foundation has just issued its report on student
attitudes toward the First Amendment. Most didn't know what it
said. Many thought the press had too much freedom. That the
government should have the right to censor.
Our job teaching the topic of nudity in art history has never been
easy, as my research shows - heck, Thomas Eakins was fired from his
teaching post in Philadelphia because of it - but as this list
constantly demonstrates, there are thoughtful teachers out there
who manage to teach potentially difficult topics. Some even can
teach art programs that include nude images from art history.
But now to the point (you'd never know I was a journalist as I bury
On Sunday I taught my adult art history class. I was showing the
students how artists throughout time treated the Last Supper. And
then I got to Renee Cox, whose nude female Christ in a contemporary
photograph of the Last Supper was another Brooklyn Museum crisis
--even after the Sensation exhibit.
I didn't show them the image. I said to these adults, between the
ages of 30 - 50 that they could look at the images on their own.
That there was nudity. This gave them a choice. I also was
concerned about there being a mixed group, male and female. I also
thought of policies on sexual harassment. Could a student,
uncomfortable with the image, claim that I had violated some
I did show them Piss Christ, however. It is also described in their
textbooks. I told them what Sister Wendy had commented - along the
lines of the way we treat Our Lord in contemporary times. And while
the subject is difficult, it can be handled. We also talked in that
class about censorship and iconoclasm. I have people of all faiths
in the class, including Muslims. The discussion showed that
students understood these concepts.
These days, anything a museum shows that might be controversial or
disturbing to some people will come with a sign or other way of
treating controversial content. This was true at an exhibit at the
International Center of Photography here in NYC this summer which
showed the original snapshots of prisoner torture in Iraq. You
could choose to look at those or not. They were in a special
gallery set aside from the main galleries devoted to LIFE magazine
I don't have a definitive answer on this subject of how we treat
nudity in teaching art, or "difficult" images in general, but I
know it is a concern to many of you. I hope some of you reading
this will respond to what I did in my class. Let me know off line,
if you will.
And, if you can when you are at the NAEA, stop by my Roundtable on
Teachers Who Can...deal with such matters! It's on Saturday night,
three different sessions, about 45 minutes each, 7:00-9:50. I hope
we can continue the discussion there and find creative and
sensitive ways to deal with our old friend, nudity in art.