by Dani Cooke
Attendees of the prior semester’s FAIR (Festival of the Arts & Intellectual Reflection) may have noticed that, while the majority of the student art was displayed prominently on countertops and lining the hallways, certain pieces—presenting depictions of the female body, some nude and others not—were sequestered to the art room behind a carefully-worded disclaimer. Among the works kept to the art room were Grace Kelly’s plaster-cast sculpture of a female torso and bust decorated with vines and flowers; Eloise Howell’s boldly-colored oil pastel drawing of a nude woman in a kitchen; and the high school drawing class’s figure drawings done of a live model (most subtle and bikini-clad, with a few depicting full nudity alongside yet another carefully-worded disclaimer and with the permission of the model).
These pieces, like all of the art created by members of the Watershed community, were beautiful and honest. They were products of self-love and society and aesthetic and the desire to create—and, of course, teacher instruction. And, by being placed in a room of their own, they were censored.
The reasoning behind this decision appears simple enough: it’s about keeping FAIR non-controversial and family-friendly while balancing the expectations of a school environment against the need for artistic expression. However, its implications are far more complicated.
CENSORSHIP IN ART: THE RUNDOWN
The discussion of censorship in art is multifaceted. It includes political expression, often associated with authoritarian governments and oppressive states, exemplified by the art of Banksy and Ai Wei; it pushes against art that frustrates, art that infuriates, art that brings up tension or makes people uncomfortable. (See the fascinating New York Times editorial by Roberta Smith, “Should Art That Infuriates Be Removed?”, discussing specifically an art exhibit which commented on racism and brought a great deal of protest to the Whitney Museum of American Art). And, of course, it extends to concerns about nudity.
Just over a century ago, an exhibition of painting the well-known Amedeo Modigliani at the Berthe Weill gallery in Paris was shut down “within hours of its opening” due to depictions of nudity (Nude Art and Censorship Laid Bare, 30 November 2017, Jessica Lack for CNN). According to the author of the article, “The police commissioner at the time had been offended by the depiction of pubic hair.” Further, according to many, controversy surrounding nudity in art is rarely just about nudity. In the case of the censored Modigliani exhibit:
Still, for the most part, the art world of the current day recognizes a difference between nudity deserving of censorship and artistic portrayals of the human form. At least in the United States, Canada, and Europe, the suppression of artwork depicting nudity rarely occurs in museums and fine art establishments, occurring only occasionally in galleries and small exhibits.
Censorship of this kind is not in the past, however. It exists strongly in the policies of social media giants like Facebook, which was protested just last year after blocking paintings by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. According to an analysis for ArtNet News, written by Tim Schneider, “art censorship is built into Facebook’s DNA,” especially when it comes to nudity, despite what Facebook’s community standards may say. These standards allow for “photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures,” prohibiting only graphic depictions of sexual behavior. However, due to errors made by both the artificial intelligences and humans responsible for keeping the media platform clean, nudity in art is recurrently flagged as inappropriate.
The erroneous mixing-up of art and pornography when it comes to social media is reflective of a larger issue: the boundaries are vague. The judgments of both humans and AI are fallible, and—especially in the age of digital photography and hyperrealism—art has no clear definition. More crucially, however, the distinction between art and obscenity is ever-changing, ever-debated, and ever-ambiguous. This obscurity is at the root of decisions like that to place certain artwork from the high school’s visual art class in the art room rather than displaying them in the hallways with the rest of the student works.
CELEBRATING FORM: THE STUDENT PERSPECTIVE
The administration’s decision not to display certain student art in the hallways was met with equal parts understanding and frustration. Grace Kelly, a 12th-grade student whose plaster sculpture was placed among the works deemed inappropriate, said, “A lot of the reasoning that I saw was that it might be inappropriate for the younger students, like the middle schoolers and their families, which I understand. But it’s also frustrating.”
Eloise Howell, another senior in Chris’s drawing class, expressed frustration arising from both feelings of being censored, especially when it comes to restrictions put on the female form that may not have been applied to depictions of the male body, as well as a lack of clarity around why her pieces weren’t being displayed. “I was a little upset and confused as to why I wasn’t allowed to show [my piece],” she says.
For both Grace and Eloise, the intentions behind their artworks were far from pornographic. Grace built her piece around appreciation for the natural female form, depicting “a celebration of the female body as well as different forms of expressing femininity” through the symbolism of Mother Nature. Similarly, Eloise had the intention of celebrating form and challenging male control over the depiction of female form. “I think that female artists depicting women’s bodies gives a very different message than how males have depicted women’s bodies in the past. Historically, [men have] been in control—they’ve been in charge of curating art and of industries in general. I think it would have been a good decision and an empowering decision to allow a female artist to display their interpretation of a woman’s body.”
On the other side, however, are a multitude of considerations which led to the ultimate decision—one of which addresses the very issue of female form and celebration versus objectification which lay at the heart of both Eloise and Grace’s works. I met with Chris Carithers, Watershed’s art teacher, who explained the challenging responsibility of managing the different expectations of artistic expression in museums as opposed to in a school environment.
“There are implicit expectations. If you go to a gallery or a museum, and you’re the parent of a child (or just an individual), you have certain expectations of what you might see, versus coming to a school,” he explains. “Ultimately, that was the decision here. [With] certain art kept in a certain room, people choose to come in, and there’s a sign that helps to manage those expectations.”
At odds with these organizational expectations, however, is the artist. Chris acknowledges this, asking: “What considerations do we give to the artist? You made this, you’re proud of it—what does it do to you as an artist to then say, ‘That’ll never see the light of day?’ It’s kind of intense.”
Further, he describes the tensions that exist solely within figure drawing as an art form, which address the very issues of objectification and female empowerment expressed within Grace and Eloise’s pieces. While figure drawing is a classical technique, incomparable in terms of practice with form, shape, and value, it can also be very gender-normative. “When you look at the images, they’re very much in line with the female figure that has been promoted in our world. Even though it’s a good study for all of this, it falls into this tradition of de-clothing the female form more than the male form.”
Head of school Tim Breen highlights his admiration for the student work and dedicated hours of conversation to the decision. “I still can’t say the decision was the ‘right’ one,” he says. But it was the thoughtful result of careful consideration with the best possible intentions.
The issue of displaying nudity in art—especially in the context of a school environment—is not a simple one. While the need for free, artistic expression is undeniable, so too is the responsibility of a school to hold the expectations of family environments.
“There’s a pretty vast landscape,” Chris emphasizes. “This is the tip of the iceberg. And there's a tension that exists in a lot of different directions. I would say that it’s not an easy decision for Tim, for me, for the artist. When you try to take it all into account, it gets kind of complex.”