False dichotomies and art education

In Hyrum, Utah, an art teacher at an elementary school has been fired for showing two artworks featuring female nudity to fifth- and sixth-graders. The artworks in question (images somewhat unsafe in some workplaces) are “Odalisque” by François Boucher (a partial nude) and “Female Nude” (a.k.a. Iris Tree) by Amedeo Modigliani (which features full frontal nudity).

I am torn here. On the one hand, I do not consider artistic, tasteful classical nude paintings to be offensive at all and have even written a long blog post about Renoir’s models. On the other hand, know your audience: it would not occur to me to display this type of painting to elementary schoolers in a very religious community, be it LDS or Orthodox Jewish—and the teacher ought to have displayed better judgment. On the third hand, the school’s reaction — firing the teacher where a friendly admonition would have done the job just fine been quite adequate — is a classic example of “shooting mosquitos with a cannon”. Especially since the material came from the school’s own library collection.

derp to full potato

There are those who try to present the treatment of sexual matters as a false dichotomy: either Old Order Amish or Teen Vogue’s “teenage girl’s guide to [back door breaking and entering” (barf). Those of us who seek a sensible middle ground will be called libertines by one side and prudes by the other. Be it as it may: false dichotomies are a beloved cheap trick of propagandists everywhere.

If you believe (as I do) that sex is something beautiful to be shared and enjoyed between people who love each other; that pleasuring your partner is a skill worth acquiring for your partner’s sake as well as your own; but that sexuality is not something to be “hung out in public”  in and out of season; then you will run afoul of jaded hedonist “sophisticates” and neo-Puritans alike. As the Iron Lady put it: being in the middle of the road means you will get hit by the traffic from both sides.

This polarization extends to fiction, by the way. “Contemporary romances” increasingly are either very explicit for the sake of being explicit (if those same books were marketed as erotica, this would at least be “truth in advertising”) or (for certain religious markets) squeaky-clean at a level where even a kiss on the mouth is considered too racy. I personally do not mind even very graphic scenes if they move the story forward or deepen the characters, but in most situations, I do believe that it is best to leave something to the imagination, that usually “less is more”, and that usually off-camera, or at most soft-focus are as effective as technicolor, or indeed more so. As for how “spicy” to paint an amorous relationship in fiction: I would go by what feels authentic for the characters and their environment. A romance in which two students at a Northeastern liberal arts college spend four years hand-holding and kissing each other on the cheek until their wedding day would generally be very implausible unless you came up with a very convincing backstory. At the same time, in some very religious milieus, a couple getting physical on their first meeting would be equally preposterous. “Don’t throw the reader out of the story” applies to these matters as well.


4 thoughts on “False dichotomies and art education

  1. I’d guess the guy has failed to display decent judgement before this– and that he felt the need to tell the 11 year olds that there were likely to be uncomfortable pictures suggests there’s more to the story.

    I know our high school library had a lot of stuff that teachers would’ve been in big trouble for presenting to pre-teens, even if some of it I did search out in my early teens; there’s just a difference between something being available, and it being part of a lesson.
    One which, going off of the reported reaction of a lot of the class of laughing and making jokes, they had NOT been properly prepared for.

      • Population for the area is less than 8k, and the story that’s linked as a source says that it was bought by the school district, not that it was in the elementary library.

        At a guess, it was in a bunch of teaching supplies– which is a kind of a library, but not exactly what you think of; 800 post cards doesn’t sound like a bad investment for a good selection of artwork, even if you’d have to pick through and actually pick the art, rather than throw the whole thing over after skimming for problematic stuff. And leaving in full frontal for 10 year old girls….


      • Hm, I think there’s more being left out– there’s an actual quote from one of the parents in some of the UK articles that mention he “belittled” students that objected.

        On an only vaguely related note, he looks like someone you wouldn’t want to leave your little girls with. *shudder* Guess washing your long hair isn’t artistic.
        (My husband had long hair when he was in high school, and even has a tendency to oily hair; this guy is a step beyond that.)

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