Censorship and art in the classroom

The word censorship is a frightening concept in education. One of our roles as
Art teachers is to try to make the next generation more open minded, tolerant
and respectful of differences, insightful, and creative. The use of overt
censorship defeats our ability to do this. We should be creating an
environment so that the students themselves know the limits between self-
expression and vulgarity, taunting or hurtful acts, or inappropriate behavior.
I certainly don’t want the next generation of parents (or school administrators
for that matter) to be cutting pictures out of art books, or imposing their
aesthetic judgments on everyone else. The only way to break the cycle is to
instruct students to think critically, to understand their motivations and to
Having blanket rules for appropriate art is not an approach I use. My
standards for appropriateness vary according to the situation or individual.
Creating bongs or hash pipes in pottery, or drawing suggestive images for the
purpose of titillation I don’t accept. I don’t tell my students that they are
forbidden to do such things, I simply tell them that I don’t want to see them,
and that the class time that they are with me will be put to more constructive
I have had students in my photography class take beautiful and meaningful
photographs of other recognizable students doing drugs. I have accepted those
images for course work and critiqued the merits of the images with the class.
My decision not to display these photographs was conveyed, discussed, and
agreed upon by the student artists and the class. The images might have caused
embarrassment for the participants, legal problems (drugs are illegal), and
caused a disruption of the enjoyment and appreciation of the overall display.
The sense of respect for others and sense of social responsibility are not
absolute standards, but important values to be incorporated into the
I do try instill some of my standards on my students. In discussing Robert
Mapplethorp’s images, I am careful to use those images that display his talent
and insight as a photographer without utilizing his more graphic images. If
the students on their own, wish to pursue viewing more of Mapplethorp’s images,
they are free to do it on their own time with their own resources. To deny that
he is an accomplished photographer because he often photographed taboo subjects
is wrong. If we put Mapplethorp on the “censored, do not discuss list”, how
then can one justify a discussion of the life and work of Michelangelo?
This diatribe has gone on long enough. I thought in the beginning that I had a
brief response to the issue of censorship in the classroom. Censorship is
wrong in all occasions, but being appropriate to the existing conditions is
not. The gray area is defining what is appropriate, and developing within the
class or school or community a reasoned rational consensus and understanding of