Art Censorship At Beaver

Photo by Steve Johnson on

By: Hannah Dineen

What Is Censorship?

Censorship of art is so much more than a list of things that are deemed too risqué. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, censorship is defined as “The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.” With such a vague outline and the subjective definitions to adjectives like “obscene”, it is not surprising that censorship of art is such a thoroughly debated subject. Even at Beaver, a school that encourages creativity, innovation, and out of the box thinking, art censorship is still a very prominent conversation.

Is it an issue exclusive to Beaver?

When asked if other schools have to deal with the issue of art censorship, one must first take a trip to the art room. Beaver’s unique art curriculum allows students to set their own project ideas, and at the end of the term have the option of displaying their art on Beaver’s walls. This curriculum often leads to a wide range of artistic content and execution. Head of the visual arts department, Mr. Ingenthron emphasized the laws regulating artistic content at public schools, and remarked that “what is unique to beaver art is  unless a student is really exploring something hurtful they are allowed to incorporate whatever subject matter they please.” Many of the visual art students admit that the curriculum challenges their perceptions of a typical school art class, and encourages them to truly pursue their interests and expressions. Ms. Baker added that the art on Beaver’s walls is a defining part of the community and that “the art is a very positive thing, and a lot of visitors really appreciate it. It says we value students, creativity, and that we value art.” Ms. Roberts elaborated a bit on the role of an art teacher with this specific curriculum describing how “It’s the job of an art teacher to get kids thinking, and this often brings up controversial subjects.” The majority of the time, the specific choice to use something “controversial” is something that in the eyes of the artist, will elevate the meaning of their piece, and make a statement. This artistic and purposeful choice contributes to a further conversation not only about the artwork but the subject matter as well. “The issue of censorship in art has a lot to do with context and delivery. However, if the controversial aspect is used directed towards people in a hostile manner, that’s a different conversation.”

What makes a piece questionable?

Although the art curriculum presented the opportunity for artists to exhibit, Ms. Marsh highlighted the fact that this is not to be expected all of the time. “Anytime there is a piece that is questionable, for a variety of reasons, I have to consider the audience. The audience is such an important part of our living gallery, we never guarantee an artist will exhibit their work.” There is no specified list at Beaver of things that are not allowed to go up on the wall. However, pieces that are chosen not to be displayed often include guns, cursing, rude gestures, and pieces of provocative nature or use sexual innuendos. Mr. Ingenthron added that “the cultural change and development in a community also affects what’s put up and what’s not.”

What is the process?

“Sometimes a piece can be received constructively, some instances it will not. If an artist chooses to take a risk they need to know the parameters ahead of time. This doesn’t mean they should compromise their work, but it just means their work may not be shown,” said Ms. Marsh.  When asked about the process of how a work gets censored, and the timing involved in the process, Mr. Ingenthron gave some insight into how the work is discussed saying, “Sometimes admissions is involved when something crosses a line for school, we don’t have them checking in throughout the term, but when anyone is tiptoeing around taboo things we have check-ins.”

Ms. Roberts recognized how this abrupt process could sometimes upset artists, and stated how the art department attempts to keep an eye on what people are making, why they are making it and if the way they are choosing to portray the theme is constructive. She also noted how it is often difficult for the art teachers who become invested in a piece, and sometimes are no longer able to see it from a true outsider’s perspective. Nick Caruso ‘18 described his feelings about the decision made to cover parts of his work, saying “I was okay when I was told I had to cover my art, I was just glad that I finished my project. To me, it only took away from the display, but not from the work I did or my messages. For me, I was happy that I made the piece and knew what it was meant for. I also kind of liked how it needed to be censored.”  

Why Is Art Censored?

“It’s pretty straightforward why art is censored. Art, visual art, sits in one place over a period of time and people have to walk past it. We have a range of people in this building, and they don’t have the opportunity to selectively choose what pieces they walk past or see,” said Ms. Roberts. Most often, when pieces are considered provocative in any sort of way, museums offer a choice, but in a school atmosphere, that choice doesn’t exist. The term Ms. Roberts used to describe it is an “artificial art world,” where students study art made for the real art world and attempt to make art following similar processes as artists in the real art world, but due to the atmosphere sometimes have to censor their art. Ms. Marsh outlined some of the things she has to consider when looking at pieces that may not be exhibited, “I have to ask myself if the youngest member of the community, without any context, what would it be to experience the specific piece. I think another important thing to note is that parents should have a say in when your kid experiences something. Does exposure to issues brought up in these pieces have to happen now?” She continued on to talk a bit more about why this is the thought process she uses, saying “I often walk through the Beaver hallways thinking that if all I got was the art without any context, what would it say about who were are is an institution, are we communicating a story and an environment that I would be proud to be a part of?” Ms. Baker called the artwork on the walls “the hidden curriculum,” and elaborated that the art was very defining of the messages we want to communicate as the school.

What’s difficult about this process?

“The art department, very similar to other departments, makes the process of critical to their philosophy producing work. Art teachers spend a lot of time with the students, getting insight, and they can often obtain an idea of what a student is trying to show in a piece,” said Ms. Marsh when asked about the role of the art department in the process of creating work. Both Ms. Marsh, Ms. Roberts, and Mr. Ingenthron noted how the process of deciding when a piece will not be hung often comes abruptly at the end of a term and could be modified in the future. However, Ms. Marsh also emphasized the role of adults when a piece does have to be taken down, expressing that “If a member of the community is upset by having their piece taken down, their response is justified. We should never have to take a piece down. Maybe there will be times we don’t put one up, but if we have to take a piece down it means an adult has missed an opportunity to intervene.” Ms. Baker clarified the role of the admissions department in the process, saying “We don’t actually play a big role as the art is part of the art department. However, there are times where we are approached by the art department for some consultation. The process is very case by case, usually, it involves a designated group of division directors and department heads.” Mr. Ingenthron describes the end of term decision as a wall that students hit and how “the moment that’s really most real and important gets lost in our rush to look closely at the content of the piece.”

-How could this process be improved in the future?

Everyone interviewed agreed that a list of things students could follow in terms of what not to include in their piece if they chose to exhibit, was a bad idea. Ms. Marsh even stressed how this list would “absolutely compromise the art experience.” On the other hand, Mr. Ingenthron emphasized the use of more critiques in visual arts classes to allow artists to think about how their work is perceived by others, not just themselves. Ms. Baker remarked that the artist statements assisted the viewer in understanding the piece slightly better, and noted how when exhibit time falls around “reminding students to consider their audience” was important. Additionally, Ms. Roberts suggested the idea of designating the gallery space to artwork that could be in any way considered provocative, so students have more of a choice to view the work, and artists can still have the ability to exhibit. Students Rebecca Lipsitch’ 21 and Nick Caruso’ 18 used black duct tape to mark out the profanities in their artwork exhibited this term. “I love the idea of the same black duct tape for censoring,” says Nick, “It almost feels cool to get it censored and have them be a symbol for that. Students should feel proud that they get to use the black duct tape.” Of course, the conversation on artistic censorship and the process of how it occurs is something Beaver art students and faculty will continue to explore. When I asked Ms. Roberts if artists should consider tailoring their work and changing their messages she gave me this piece of advice: “it’s a designers job to tailor their work, a job of an artist is to provoke, make things that make people think and ask questions, and those reactions and takeaways are often the most important for both the viewer and the artist.”

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