Teacher Fired Over Art History Flap Involving Nude Paintings

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 03, 2018 3 min read
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Here’s a fascinating story out of Utah, well reported by Charles McCollum at The Herald Journal: An art history teacher in the school, Mateo Rueda, assigned his 6th grade students to choose a work of art and to analyze the artist’s use of color. Students chose from a box of images produced by a commercial publisher that had long been in his classroom.

The problem? Apparently, the set contained images of nudes or partial nudes, like Francois Boucher’s Odalisque or Amadeo Modigliani’s Iris Tree, above.

I’m sure you can guess what came next. A parent complained, another defended the teacher, and somehow in the middle of this the cops were called on a pornography complaint. (No charges were filed.)

Rueda and his principal disposed of the images, but for reasons that are still not entirely clear, the teacher was then fired. He and the district dispute how he handled the matter once students said they were upset by the images. Rueda plans to appeal to the school board.

In an interview with the newspaper, Rueda said he had not known that the box of artworks contained a few nudes and did not think they were appropriate for 6th graders. But in a Facebook response to one parent, also published in the newspaper, he also attempted to explain why art history often requires engagement with images that challenge or discomfort people.

“Some students expressed discomfort about some of the images, so I immediately took back from students the postcards I felt could make students feel uncomfortable. Then I explained to the whole class that art can sometimes show images that are not always comfortable to all, that art is better understood when placed in its proper context, that the human body is often portrayed in art, and that the images in the school collection are icons of art history and a patrimony of humanity,” Rueda wrote.

This incident does raise an interesting, broader question: From the Lascaux cave paintings to the Venus of Willendorf to Da Vinci’s Vetruvian Man through to Cindy Sherman’s or Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, it is impossible to engage with the history of art and to avoid images of the body. And as art history scholars will volubly tell you, part of the important critical analyses in the field concern such images—including why the artist has chosen that representation, for what purpose or audience, and how it was informed by or pushed back against contemporary discourse.

I posed a question about guidelines for teachers about handling the teaching of the nude in art history to the National Art Education Association, which pointed me to one of its position statements, on freedom of speech. You should read the whole thing, but the gist of it is that teachers need to balance diversity in the images students study with age-appropriate teaching. Two key sections:

“It is the role of the art educator to expose students to a diversity of art experiences and to help support students in developing the ability to interpret, to tolerate, and to think critically. The art educator need not like or endorse all images, ideologies, and artists made available to students, but should both allow and help equip the individual student to choose from among widely conflicting images, opinions, and ideologies. ... In practice, art educators must consider age-appropriate content, and be sensitive to the distinct nature of their community and education system, as they support their students in freedom of expression.”

I imagine, too, that this issue must come up a fair amount in field trips to museums, especially anything specializing in Renaissance or 19th century art. (In one of those embarrassing stories that parents love to tell, my mother reports that, when we visited the Musée d’Orsay when I was 10, my big question for her was why the Impressionists were always painting women taking baths.)

So on that note I’d be interested in hearing from art history teachers: Is there an age or grade level at which it’s appropriate to introduce images of the nude? Should these images be avoided? Are there other factors that inform your decision?

Comments section is open.

Image: Amadeo Modigliani’s Iris Tree (Female Nude), one of the images that caused controversy in a Utah classroom. Credit: Wikimedia commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.