When I introduced the topic of nudes in art education some weeks ago
(not a new subject for our list, as there are a number of nudity in
art strands in the archives) I received a few responses that
indicated some art teachers think showing students any nudes in art
is just too much trouble.
Maybe the latest issue of the Journial of Art Education published by
the National Art Education Association in Reston Va. (January 1908,
vol. 61, No. 1)will kick off some more discussion.
If you are a member of NAEA you probably have the issue, in which a
long article on nudity in art education (pp. 39-43)is explored in
depth. The authors of "Removing the Fig Leaf," Linda Hoeptner
Poling and Anniina Suominen Guyas express some of the thoughts
Richard does in his post. They surround the subject with many
points of view.
Ideas in Richard's long post are interesting and express that the
subject can inspire a lot of discussion.
In the ten years that I have researched censorship and freedom of
expression in art education during doctoral studies at Teachers
College Columbia University, nudity has been the number one concern
of art education teachers surveyed and polled, and since Columbine
and 9-11 violence is the second. Also on the table is political art
addressing conflicts. With the coming elections and shifting
priorities in Washington affecting the war in Iraq the subject
might soon dominate.
Clearly we art educators are among teachers most likely to work with
students on issues in their lived lives. I teach all ages, but
primarily my job is in a liberal arts college. Even here, and even
teaching older adults in some classes, nudity in art is not an easy
subject. In the "Global Feminisms" exhibit in the new feminist art
galleries at the Brooklyn Museum, the nudes express womens'
conditions in various contexts by artists from numerous countries.
My students, men and women of all ages find some of the images very
disturbing and wonder why they are "art." For example, a nude woman
in a video is playing with a hula hoop...made of barbed wire. Look
closely at the stack of enormous and obese nudes in Jenny Saville's
painting and you can see that they are held together with cords,
When the Sensation exhibit was at the Museum in 1999-2000, some
super-realistic nude sculptures fascinated and repelled visitors.
Ron Mueck's infant-sized "Dead Dad" nude with explicit genitalia
was one of the controversial works in that show. His sculptures
continue to shock and amaze, such as woman after giving birth, and
last year at the Brooklyn museum, another study in scale was a
monsterously large newborn (nude of course) and other
differently-sized nudes in the galleries in Brooklyn. My students
also found these sculptures raised the question about how such
works can be art.
Mine is not an art school, and very often my students have never
been to an art museum, much less seen contemporary art that raises
so many political, social, gender/sexual issues that only reflect
our lives and times - as art does throughout the ages.
We are being encouraged by art education to include popular and
visual culture in our art education curricula. In fact, visual
culture is sometimes the preferred term among some educators,
replacing visual art.
Whatever we decide to do in our own classrooms about including
nudity in art, as the article's authors and Richard suggest of
course we have to be thoughtful. One of his comments about not
informing administration when we bring in nudity or other topics
that they might not approve is debatable, however. Richard
mentioned Sydney McGee's firing two years ago. While reasons for
her dismissal may have been complicated by personnel issues
reported, still the precipitating incident seems to have been the
viewing of a nude by a fifth grade student during a school-approved
field trip to a museum. Even though administration was informed, it
seems that didn't help. But it might have been worse if the
administration had been kept in the dark.
The widely-reported McGee story might be behind the reluctance of
some teachers to include nudity in art education, but we have not
finished the discussion. Along with the topics already treated we
need to follow these thoughts to a logical conclusion about
censorship and our field.
What was not discussed in the article, and what I have researched,
is the chilling effect of censorship on many art subjects, not just
nudity or violence. How to respond to censorship when it does occur?
Few education institutions I have queried in the last decade have in
place a crisis plan if something brings on the media and wide
exposure of an incident that is calling for censorship. One higher
education official opined to me that we all just stand on the
sidelines when censorship occurs and hope it won't happen to us.
Our collegues in the field of English language arts, and librarians
are used to dealing with censorship of materials in literature, and
they have even developed guidelines for dealing with non-print media
such as visual art and videos/dvds. The list of banned books comes
out every year (The Golden Compass, Harry Potter etc.) so these
folks are always responding to calls for censorship, removal of
books, extreme filtering of the Internet etc, As yet, art education
as a field has not systematically addressed the problem of how to
respond to censorship, but raising issues such as those in the "fig
leaf" article might start a serious discussion about the matter.
Meanwhile, if you have not read the NAEA Advisory on censorship
which is mentioned in the article, it can be downloaded from NAEA's
website. As the Journal authors point out, it strongly objects to
censorship in art education. This is where most art teachers at all
levels I have interviewed stand, from elementary schools to the
university. We report we are against censorship. Yet with few
exceptions, we sometimes censor or suggest self-censorship to our
Since the subject of nudity is now raised again by NAEA's
publication of the "fig leaf" article, perhaps we can thoughtfully
discuss this and other challenged topics and come up with some
helpful ideas for our field.