This is a long post. If you want to comment or respond please do so
offline. Thanks, Jane Beckwith
Earlier this month after I responded to Diane Beilby's questions to us
about how we see the progress of content in art lessons, I thought I
should share my own research with the list - olders and newers. I am
so grateful for the help I have had over the years from the Getty
listserv as I looked at free expression and censorship in the art
room, and now in higher education. I have been teaching 40 years, and
at all levels - preK to University, including grad school. I'd be glad
to hear from anyone who reads this long post and can share an idea or
response. I hope this is helpful.
I joined the list in the mid-90s, as did a lot of the old timers who
have left messages this summer. I had just started a doctorate in art
education at Teachers College, which is still underway thanks to job
changes and health issues. in spite of delays, I have not lost
interest or belief in my research topic: freedom of expression in art
I based my first major research project (1996-97) at TC finding out if
ever had problems with content. This was based on my earliest years
teaching in high school (1972-74) and some experiences that still
concerned me nearly 20 years later.
Twice my curriculum decisions were questioned back then: once when a
student was killed in an auto accident and I permitted students (juniors
and seniors) to use the art room to make a pall for her casket. In
this case colleagues told me that the project was "morbid" and
encouraged the students to "dwell on (the death)."
In the second situation a senior in high school wanted to develop a
performance art piece that included a dance and music he composed
that featured students moving under white cloths and colored lights
playing over them. The performance was checked out in dress
rehearsal by a team of administrators. It was not canceled but it
was clear that it created a question for them. I later found out
from a fellow teacher that the student was "suspected of being
gay." It was also an area of the country where the KKK was active,
so perhaps the white cloth was seen as coded in another way.
in 1996-97 I developed a series of questions and polled 10 teachers
from around the country about freedom of expression in art education.
Each was considered a master teacher with at least 15-years'
experience teaching high school art. I appreciated their sharing
wisdom from experiences that had convinced all of them that - while
outright censorship was abhorrent to all - all of them limited student
self expression in various ways and that they self-censored, sometimes
including the content of their own art practices.
Their suggestions for avoiding problems of controversial content for
themselves and students were similar. One was to be aware of the
context in which they were teaching (an understanding of "community
standards") and another was keeping all
constituencies informed about their programs (building support over time).
It became clear to me that as an MFA (Pratt 1970 painting and art
history) with only one semester of art education, and that in
undergraduate school, my preparation for working in schools was
lacking. I didn't understand the the complexities and subtleties of
school cultures that affected what was permissible and "school
appropriate." Idealistic and altruistic, and student-centered, I was
most concerned with my students' authentic self-expression and my
"meeting them where they were."
After completing a paper at TC about the 10 teachers I had surveyed
and my research on content in 1999 titled "Freedom of expression and
censorship in the school art room," and having it accepted as the
basis for further research, I asked for help from the Getty listserv
in 2000-2001 as I looked at the subject of free expression, and the
dilemma teachers can face in art when subject matter in student art
works create conditions for censorship.
The generous list responded to a survey of 20 questions, 40 strong. I
chose 20 respondents at random and interpreted their answers. I found
freedom of expression was a concern. Again, most respondents were
against outright censorship, but most agreed that it was necessary to
freedom of expression in certain instances.
DBAE was very popular with many on the listserv then and E's and P's
(elements and principles) a major focus. As time went on, some on
the listserv started to look beyond the analysis and theory that
DBAE encouraged and to focus on "big ideas." TAB Choice is one outcome
of newer approaches to teaching art in schools.
As I attended NAEA conventions I learned of all kinds of groups
emerging that wanted more emphasis on issues, and these continue to
When I presented my research over the years at NAEA Round Table
sessions, I found many participants who had stories to tell of
experiences with freedom of expression.
Among the research projects I've conducted has been a quantitative analysis of
the NAEA journal to see how many articles have dealt with the subject of
free expression in content. Of the 10 years' back issues I studied in
early 2000, there were only a handful of articles that examined
controversial content or censorship.
It is clear that the tide has turned since then. Many of the last
five years' issues of the Journal are about content and encouraging
art teachers' exploration of important and meaningful subject
matter in popular and visual culture, especially for adolescents.
In some of these articles the authors present a caveat, advising
that teachers be certain of support from their administrators and
of the school community when issues are being explored that might
be seen as problematic. Some might go so far to advise teachers having
tenure before taking on subject matter that could be seen as
For the last five years I have devoted my research to instances of
censorship of student art in higher education and tracking examples
of censorship in colleges and universities. In a survey of college art
education instructors, also in the 90s, I learned that few dealt
directly in their art education curriculums with issues around
controversy or censorship, though many addressed it if if came up in
It isn't that teachers of young children don't have their particular
concerns that arise in responsibilities for controlling for content,
but these are more to be expected than in higher education because of the
expectation of our being "in loco parentis" with very young
children, and from tighter administrator oversight at elementary
levels than at university. These controls continue into middle school
and high school, though there are numerous examples of high school art
students that prove challenging to art teachers and schools,
especially in art exhibits. Some schools have rules about what
subjects can't be addressed in the high school art program.
One of the findings of my research is that many elementary and
secondary art teachers do not keep up with the current trends in the
art world and don't know the works of contemporary artists that have
proved so controversial in the so-called culture wars that continue to
the present day.
Some teachers run into problems when students develop an interest in
an artist and find out more in their research. They then can express
interest about the artist's work that supports exploring gender
identity, for example, or is critical of politics and the government.
Older students might want to try out responses to such topics in their
own art work.
By looking at actual examples of censorship at late secondary and
college art programs, sometimes a good reputation and support of an
art teacher can erode in the glare of publicity that puts a school or
college in a bad light in the media when controversial student art
becomes a focus outside the school.
Occasionally, famous contemporary artists, hired to teach in universities to
build the department's art world reputation can be reprimanded or
even dismissed for not managing a controversial artwork by a
student. Freely expressed as practicing and exhibited artists, in
their visiting or adjunct status they might be unaware or unconcerned
with outcomes of controversial student work. This is especially true
of performance art where students have tried out dangerous practices.
As for teaching children in schools, in spite of my finding that teachers
have a strong belief that freedom of expression is protected by the
First Amendment, a study of school law indicates that these
protections have been eroded by Supreme Court decisions and there is
sufficient vagueness in language about freedom of expression in
schools that interpretations in a crisis are varied.
I looked at the work of English literature teachers and librarians
with censoring (or "choosing") books, and at social studies teaching.
These subject areas are more often challenged than are art programs.
Teachers of ELA and social studies constantly deal with the problems
of controversial content and issues that arise from studies focused on
current events. They have valuable information and ideas to share
about freedom of expression.
I will be happy to correspond off line with old timers and newcomers
to the list on my research subject. Our profession requires great
sensitivity as we encourage students' ideas and self-expression with a
concern for content.
Hope this was useful.
Please respond offline to my TC E-mail. Thank you.