School support for culture; nudes in museums

One lament I have heard my entire life is that schools “no longer support our culture.”  It’s an interesting complaint, upon analysis.

Most often, in my experience, the complaint comes from rather conservative quarters, often right-wing, and the lament is specific to some part of history that the complainer wants taught differently, or specific to some toleration of music, art, or fashion that the complainer wishes would end.  Around Dallas we have two controversies at the moment.  In one, the Dallas City Council is considering a law banning sagging pants.  In another, a parent has complained that the parent’s child saw a nude at the Dallas Museum of Art.

The two issues may appear unconnected, but they are not, really.  They both revolve around the issue of what culture is, and what culture is valuable enough to pursue, study, and teach in elementary and secondary schools.

The Dallas Morning News sized up the art museum flap, correctly in my view, with an editorial this morning, saying that one should expect to see art when one attends an art museum, and that’s okay. 

It should not surprise anyone that the DMA displays paintings and sculptures that depict the naked human figure. This has been done in Western art since antiquity. This is our cultural heritage. What we have here in this parental complaint is a failure to discriminate between art and pornography.

The distinction is, of course, famously difficult to pin down, but part of a young person’s cultural education is learning to distinguish precisely that difference. For example, the only thing that Michelangelo’s David has in common with a sleazy shot from a porn magazine is that they both depict a naked man. One exalts; the other degrades. Context matters. Artistic intent and execution matter. Using one’s brain and not jerking one’s knee matter.

It is to be expected that some people will not appreciate the distinction. It is also to be expected that educators will firmly and unambiguously defend field trips to art museums, of all places.

It’s not clear where Frisco school officials stand. They should speak up. Over 20,000 Frisco ISD students and their teachers shouldn’t have their artistic and cultural education chilled or constrained by parents who don’t understand the difference between Rodin and raunch – and by a principal too mousy to resist them.

It’s still legal to display the flag of Colorado in a Texas classroom. 

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