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Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune 15 October 2006

I See Nekkid People

The Frisco, Texas, school board suspended teacher Sydney McGee last month.  She says it was because some parents of her fifth-grade students objected to their children seeing nudity at the Dallas Museum of Art.  The suburban Dallas district contends that the suspension was due in part to other personnel matters.  The case will be sorted out by lawyers, no doubt.

Last month, coincidently, the Museum of Art and Archeology on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus held a workshop for educators called "The Naked Truth" at which was distributed a brochure they prepared titled "Addressing Nudity in Art."

So, is this really a problem?  Do schools really have a hard time dealing with the issue of nudity in art?

Martin Hook, the Director of the Department of Fine Arts for the Columbia Public Schools, provided me with the District's policy in such matters.  It seems like a balanced and rational approach, which allows room for keeping parents involved while not limiting the educational opportunities of others.  Mr. Hook said that "The Columbia Public Schools scrutinizes classroom field trips to ensure that the activities are in keeping with the curricular goals of the district.  Building principals typically give final approval on field trips after the instructor(s) have shown how the activity supports and enhances learning.  Schools seek parental approval for field trips, and our policy is to let parents know what exhibits the students will see and how those exhibits relate to what is being taught in the classroom." Jo Shaw, the Art Department Chair at Hickman, said "I have taken art students to major museums/galleries in St. Louis, Kansas City, The Daum in Sedalia and the Museum of Art and Archaeology.  I would recommend any art educator planning to take a group of students to these sites to prepare the students and their families with appropriate information concerning collections on display.  I feel most parents realize these art locations will have works of art that may contain nudity, partial nudity or other subject matter some may find objectionable.  The choice belongs to the parents."

Reasonable.  But why would a parent object to their child seeing the depiction of the human form in art, particularly in a setting such as a respected museum?

Steve Tuck is a good friend of mine who attended graduate school at MU, though he has his Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan, and is currently Associate Professor of Classics at Miami University in Oxford, OH.  His response:  "What bugs me is the projection of sexuality onto what is otherwise a non-sexual nudity.  Nudity designed to display the ideal human form and by extension its godliness.  The sex is all projected from the viewer in many cases."

Doctor Alex Barker, the Director of the Museum of Art & Archeology, expanded on this.  "Nudity in classical art, for example, isn't simply an aesthetic decision by the artist, but has specific meanings that are fundamental to understanding both the canons of classical art and the way the classical world understood and expressed the numinous."

Joan Stack, Ph.D., who is now the Curator of the Art Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri, but was until recently at the MU Museum of Art and Archeology, agreed.  "Most of the nude figures in the collection were created centuries years ago.  It seems that when nudity is shown and discussed in a historical context, we don't have too many problems.  I think modern and contemporary nudes might create more controversy."

I asked Doctor Barker whether the Museum would ever consider covering works containing nudity if they knew a school group was going to be attending.  His response:  "If the Museum were to do an exhibition featuring intentionally provocative works, we'd certainly be sensitive to the impact it might have on different audiences.  In that instance I can imagine blocking off parts of the galleries when school groups are visiting.  But not for the kinds of pieces we normally display.  Rather than covering the art we try to cover the topic."

Cover the topic, not the art.  Keep parents informed, and if they object to their child seeing works which may contain nudity, allow them to find other activities for their child to participate in that day. And, as the Art Institute of Chicago advises (as listed in the "Addressing Nudity in Art" brochure):  "Take a 'no big deal' attitude.  Kids will respond to the subject with ease if you teach the subject with ease."

In an age where you can hardly do an innocent Google search without stumbling across nekkid people, it seems pointless to imbue nudity in art with such a negative connotation.  But as Missouri's own John Ashcroft aptly demonstrated four years ago with 'The Spirit of Justice,' not everyone is so rational.  I'm sure the $8,000 of taxpayer money he spent for drapes to cover that statue would have gone to much better use at any of our schools or museums.

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