Thursday, February 27, 2014

I Am A Reckless Teacher

I am a "reckless" teacher.
Or so I could be called if a new bill passes in the Kansas Senate.

As a visual arts teacher, I have many art and art history books in my "Inspiration Station". The books range in time period from the Renaissance to the 20th century. They range in media covered from painting to sculpture, fibers to architecture. They range in artists from Leonardo da Vinci and Winslow Homer to Pablo Picasso and Hundertwasser. I have tried to make available a wide range of books to draw upon, aiding in the students' understanding of the rich history of art.

This week, I've been talking to my 4th and 5th grade students about how artists can get ideas and inspiration for new work by looking at work from art history. During this discussion of how to use the books to inspire (without just copying), I mentioned that there may be artwork in some of the books that may include- gasp!- nudity. This is how my little speech went:
"Sometimes in art, there is nudity. It's just a part of art history. It's not dirty, it's not a big deal unless you make it a big deal. You don't need to come running to me yelling that you found something inappropriate. You just turn the page and move on. If something bad pops up on your screen in the computer lab, you don't get in trouble unless you show your friends. You won't get in trouble in here unless you make a big deal out of trying to sneak around and show your friends. I'm not going to censor my art history books. If you think it's inappropriate, you just turn the page and move on."

And that was that.

Nobody made a big deal or was corrupted by coming across a painting with naked people. I even walked past a couple of students looking at a painting of Adam and Eve. The fact that they were nude wasn't even mentioned. The students were discussing how the artist told the story with different elements in the painting.

I don't choose artwork with nudity in it for discussion with my students since I teach K-6th grade and there are plenty of other "safer" artworks for discussion. But I'm not about to check every page of every book and deface the art in them by adding fig leaves or black bars. I think that at the secondary level, it could be very appropriate to use artwork that happens to depict nude figures. Now, I'm not talkin' Robert Mapplethorpe, here. (Though surely some of his photos would be fine, there are lots I would never dream of showing children.) I'm talking REALLY IMPORTANT WORK from art history like Michelangelo's David, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (this started Cubism, people!)

Most "reasonable" people wouldn't have a problem with including those works in a study of art history in schools. However, there is a proposed bill, Kansas Senate Bill 401, that would remove from schools the ability to argue artistic merit of showing work that some might find offensive. Worse, it changes the language from "knowingly" (like leading a full class discussion), to "recklessly". So lets say a student is looking through one of my art history books, or even a book in our school's library, sees something with nudity, tells mom and dad, parents get upset, school gets in trouble and doesn't have a defense.  

Will this end field trips to art museums? I hear those places sometimes have nudity. Every year my 6th grade students take a field trip to the wonderful Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. If a student sees a nude sculpture or painting on the way to their program, the teachers and the museum have "recklessly" exposed a minor to nudity.From KNEA's Under the Dome,

"If you think this only has to do with "obscenity," you are wrong. While the bill does address obscene materials, its provisions also apply if 'a reasonable person would find that the material or performance lacks serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value for minors.' This language is so broad as to include almost anything."
When we take away from educators the ability to assess the merit or "educational, artistic, or political value...", how long before we can only use approved artwork in class or have only approved books in the library? Will we be back to the days of book burning? It reminds me of the Nazis taking modern art out of all the museums in Germany back in the 1930's and shoving them into a poorly hung show of "Degenerate Art", which mocked the art and the artists that they found unacceptable. (Also see this link for more info about the Degenerate Art show 

If you live in Kansas, PLEASE call or email your Senator TODAY and ask that they reject this ridiculous bill, SB401.

It's now 2 years later and the bill has been resurrected as SB56 . Once again, please contact your senator.


  1. wow. I am speechless. This is crazy. The wording is so broad that ANYTHING could be determined as reckless if one kid complains and that parent decides to pursue it. Will it get to the point that we won't be able to teach anything uncomfortable for kids? There is a lot in history both art, and humanistic history that is really intense. Wouldn't it be better if we had discussions about it instead? Let us talk about the uncomfortable things - talk about why certain artworks are 'reckless' instead of sensoring or banning them?! This is nuts! Good luck!

    I have the same conversation with my students about nudity when we bust out the National Geographic magazines for projects. I explain that people in different cultures dress differently and sometimes their outfits have less to perhaps no clothing. This isn't yucky, not gross, not wrong - just different. Just like you - if they are uncomfortable they are asked to turn the page - if they start elbowing each other and giggling about it - then they do a different project all together. I have had ONE student in 7 years not be able to handle it.

  2. wow... I am having some serious reservations about the sanity of some of our political leaders... hopefully sane minds will prevail, good luck :)

  3. Wow I am impressed that Kansas has solved all of its other problems that this is the biggest problem that they have. Are you kidding me?? So what do they want you or anyone else to teach? Maybe they need to learn that it is okay to get kids outside of their comfort zone.

  4. I am speechless. It is an impossible task to ask educators to be held accountable to every image our students may see while they are being exposed to every sort of image by modern society. What about the school bus that drives past the inappropriate billboard image? What about the student who is researching homework at home at is directed to an inappropriate image? My personal opinion is that teaching students how to handle the images THEY ARE GOING TO SEE is way more educational than trying to prevent the inevitable.

  5. Good grief. Sigh... I mean, you can't go to an art museum without seeing nudity, and ... good grief again... look at all the violent, offensive, vulgar crap that kids see in the movies and on TV these days! I'd rather have my kid see a beautiful work of art than to watch Miley Cyrus twerking suggestively on TV! And who hasn't seen that? And every kid these days has a zillion ways on their phones and other digital devices to see whatever the heck they want.

    By the way, last summer I did a post about nudity as it related to teaching art, that generated a LOT of discussion in the comments. If you or any other readers are interested, you can find the post here:

  6. WHAT?!?!!?!? That is crazy! Though I really do not address it..and do not use any works with nudity in the K-4 setting...I did when I taught K-6. The kids were very enlightened...even suggesting some works at the museum could have been slaves...and they were nude because the slave owner did not want them running away(I know..right..I would have not thought that in the 5th grade?!?!?! ha ha) I'm just dumbfounded by that proposed bill?!?!?!?

  7. Sad,
    I "had" a tradition of taking my 3rd graders to the state museum, until a parent went along that didn't like the Rodin Collection of sculptures. Now mind you, we were not there to look at the Rodin's. Anyway, he went to the BOE with a 3" three ring binder of pictures and explanations about how bad this was and how offended he was about this. He had photos of student aged people looking at the sculptures, they were not my students. We walked by them, but did not stop nor slowdown. Anyway, thus ended the tradition. Personally, while things like this are annoying, it is not worth getting worked up over, really. Just isn't worth the time effort or angst. If you are at a public school, you have to play by the rules of the state, they are authoritarian, expecting conformity and that is what public education is about. Everyone conforming to the state and being good minions that pay your taxes and do what they say. Not saying that you should not contact your legislator about this, just saying once the rule is there, what can you do?-My rant. Hope big brother isn't reading this!

  8. Thank you all for commenting to share your stories and indignation! Nothing has happened with the bill yet, but we're still not safe!