The theme for the school’s annual fund-raising banquet was “The Art of the Possible.” Whoever chose it, I thought to myself, either didn’t know or didn’t care that the phrase was used by Otto von Bismarck to capture the concept of realpolitik: “Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen”—politics is the art of confining oneself to what is within reach, of compromising in the pursuit of the attainable rather than pursuing the ideal.
I only knew that myself because my college roommate Susan Gosdick had played the original cast album of Evita pretty much non-stop throughout our sophomore year, and I’d been curious about the origin of the phrase featured in one of Tim Rice’s caustically witty lyrics:
Perón & military leaders
One has no rules
Is not precise.
One rarely acts
The same way twice
One spurns no device
Practicing the art of the possible
One always picks
The easy fight
One praises fools
One smothers light
One shifts left to right
It’s part of the art of the possible.
The phrase was thus not exactly the sort of thing I’d have chosen to inspire the parents and alumni of a spunky, financially strapped, but idealistic and often remarkable little Catholic school system in a small city of the Inland Northwest. But what the heck? The intent was clear; the fundraiser webpage was beautiful: a lovely watercolor featuring a quotation from Picasso: “Every child is an artist . . .” So the goal was no doubt to remind us that art is not only ideal, but real, that it is possible to foster creativity in every child, and that the school is committed to doing so.
Given the much-discussed and well-justified concerns that many Americans feel today about the decline of education in the arts and humanities—which are too often placed into an over-simplified competition with STEM-oriented education initiatives—this English professor Mom was actually pretty stoked up about the event and its theme. My son Dominic is a tech-savvy seventh-grader, a future engineer who is also a trumpet player, a budding fiction writer, and an actor with a flair for improv (he’d played the role of St. Patrick for the Kindergarten retreat on March 17th and wowed everyone with his quick responses to questions like, “Were you a leprechaun before or after you were a shepherd?”). My husband and I gladly signed on to be “Silver Sponsors” (donating an amount above and beyond the price of the banquet tickets), to attend the event, and to volunteer our time assisting with guest check-in on the big evening.
I was even more enthusiastic when I learned that Dominic’s artwork, and that of every other child in the two small schools involved—the K–8 school my son attends and the high school—would be on display in the banquet hall. I learned that the art teacher (there’s only one between the two campuses) had heroically taken on the enormous task of guiding every child in the two schools—many of whom are not enrolled in art classes—through the creation of the pieces to be shown at the banquet. Each grade would be assigned a theme or topic, and each child would create a painting, acrylic on canvas. This was exciting. I’m used to seeing paper art projects, but canvas! Excellent! The seventh-graders had pretty substantial canvases (about 18” x 15”), and the teacher assigned them to work with bright colors, letters (forming words if they wished), or numbers. For inspiration, she passed around copies of the most recent issue of an art magazine for grade- and middle-school students: it’s called Scholastic Art, and the issue featured images of Jasper Johns’ targets, flags, alphabets, and numbers. But what caught my son’s eye, and inspired him to start sketching, was another feature in the same issue: a photograph of Banksy’s “The Street is in Play” and a story about the artist’s controversial work.
The article, “Banksy: Visionary or Vandal?” by Tara Welty, invited students to think critically about the politics, economics, and aesthetics of Banksy’s often-illegal and often stunningly beautiful and provocative stencils, paintings, and installations. “You decide,” the article’s subtitle prompted, “if his infamous public creations are illegal graffiti or fine art.” But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here; I didn’t find out about the content of Welty’s fine contribution to the March 2015 issue of Scholastic Art until much later. On the day that my son started his painting, all I knew was what he told me about his experience in class that day; and thirteen-year-old boys—even those with a decent prose style—are not generally known for detailed and articulate oral communication.
“You decide,” the article’s subtitle prompted, “if his infamous public creations are illegal graffiti or fine art.”
This truism notwithstanding, Dominic was unusually vocal when he got in the car to ride home from school that day. I didn’t even have to ask my standard, “So what did you do today?” when he launched into the story of his painting-in-progress and the disapproving critique it had received from his teacher. “It says stuff like ‘No Painting’ and ‘Do not look at this,’” he said, “And in the middle there’s one of those circles with a line through it, like on a no-smoking sign. But instead of a cigarette inside the circle, it’s a paintbrush. But Mrs. ____ doesn’t like it. When she saw it, she said ‘Ohhhh! That’s so negative! Remember that this is for the decorations at the banquet!’ So I said, ‘C’mon Mrs. _______, it’s just a joke, see? A painting about not painting!’”
I sorted through his account as best I could, asking him more about the assignment (“she said to use words and bright colors”; “she gave us a magazine to look at”). I told him that his using the words “Don’t look at this” reminded me of a famous painting, so I did some searching on my phone and found an image of Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images.” It’s the surrealist painter’s photo-realistic image of a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” inscribed elegantly beneath it. Dominic thought it was cool.
I wondered, though, if I could find the image that he’d actually seen in the art magazine; so I asked him to describe what had inspired him.“It’s a picture of a wall with a sign that says ‘No Graffiti,’” he said, “and the sign has a picture of a spray-paint can inside a circle with a line through it. But the artist has painted a boy standing on top of another boy’s back to reach up and grab the can.” Hmmm, I said. Interesting! That sounds like a lot more than “just a joke”! I googled the words “Painting Graffiti Boys Back Reaching” and checked the results for images. I pulled up the most likely of the hits and turned my phone in Dominic’s direction, “Is this it?” He was impressed: “YES! That’s it!”
I saw that the work was a Banksy and thought, ohboy. The title of the work is “The Street Is In Play.”
I talked some more with my son about what it meant to question the act of representation and to explore the limits of art. Then I told Dominic that, when he went into the art classroom to finish his painting the next day, he needed to engage his teacher and do more to explain what he was up to.
Not surprisingly, he didn’t do any such thing. When he got into the car after his second day of work on the painting and told me it was finished, I asked if he’d discussed it further with the teacher. “Nah. She seemed less unhappy with it today, didn’t say anything more about it, just nodded and moved on to the next kid’s work.”
Everything was not O.K.
On the night of the banquet, my husband and I got our assignments for where to sit in order to check people in; we then had some time before people would start arriving, so I did a little tour of the art show.
I am sure I don’t need to tell you at this point what I discovered. Or rather, what I did not discover. As it turns out, “every child is an artist” except the child whose work the art teacher doesn’t like. I did two tours of the room, double checking every image, making sure I hadn’t missed the one labeled with my son’s name and year in school. It wasn’t there.
I was absolutely furious. Aquiver with rage. My husband was a little bit cooler; he wanted to think, or at least allow for the possibility, that it might have been a mistake. But he’s a librarian, and librarians have a uniquely honed aversion to censorship. They’re used to being on the front lines in opposing it. So he wanted the situation rectified as ardently as I did. We decided to ask our friend, who was the chair of the event, to make some inquiries. The principal of the high school, who was already at the event, phoned the principal of the K–8 school, who was on his way in. He stopped at the school, picked up the painting, and brought it over. It was put on the wall along with the others (though it lacked the tag all the others had, showing the artists’ names and year in school). The high school principal informed me that she “could see why” it was excluded. Suffice it to say that I could not. When I thanked the K–8 principal for bringing the painting in, he said, “Sorry for the misunderstanding.”
In the next several hours and days, we sent civil but clearly distress-filled voice messages and emails to the teacher who’d made the decision. We expressed our shock at the fact that she hadn’t discussed our son’s work with us before deciding to keep it out of the show, and we asked her to explain her rationale for doing so. We also educated ourselves and our son, watching Banksy’s 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (which features his work and that of other great and not-so-great street artists including Space Invader, Shepard Fairey, and Mr. Brainwash), as well as the 2014 HBO documentary Banksy Does New York, from which we learned all about the artist’s October 2013 “residency” in New York, a month-long show called Better Out Than In, in which he created a different work each day of the month. “The Street Is In Play,” the clever and provocative image that had inspired my son, was the first work of the show, created on October 1st and painted over by city officials—or perhaps, some suspected, by the artist himself?—within hours. It’s quite good; witty on so many levels. I especially love that the boys are picturesque turn-of-the-century white street ruttffians with jaunty little caps.
The clever and provocative image that had inspired my son was … painted over by city officials—or perhaps, some suspected, by the artist himself?—within hours.
I asked my son if he had intended his painting as an objection to the assignment. I told him I wouldn’t get mad if he said he had. “Well,” he said thoughtfully, “I’m not really crazy about painting. . . . But, no. I just thought it was a cool idea.”
Meanwhile, the art teacher sent an email, apologizing both “for choosing not to hang Dominic’s painting” and for not “contacting you earlier regarding the painting.” It became clear to us that her decision was motivated largely by fear: “I personally struggled with making the choice,” she wrote, but did so “for fear that the verbiage on Dominic’s painting could come across inappropriately to others at the event.” She went on to describe the assignment in terms that confirmed what my son had told me from the start. We decided to follow up with one more step. It’s a teachable moment, we thought. Maybe we can help this teacher to understand, not only that she was wrong not to consult us, but that the decision she made was ironic in the extreme, since art is by definition thought-provoking, controversial, dangerous, not to be reduced to the level of décor. We requested a meeting with her and the principal.
At the meeting, we could tell that the principal had not been consulted about the art teacher’s decision and that he had already read her the riot act. We did not wish to add to her anguish and humiliation, only to ensure that something like this would never happen again and—if possible—to provoke something of a pedagogical epiphany in a woman who is—after all—an artist herself. How can she possibly fail to see how wrong she was, we thought, when we point out to her that the painting was inspired by the materials she’d provided? Wouldn’t she be genuinely thrilled when she realized that the painted words “No Painting,” “Don’t look at this!” and “This is a Bad Idea” would have been interesting and aesthetically worthy of inclusion even if they had been the colorful embodiments of one boy’s adolescent objections to the assignment, but that they were all the more remarkable given their actual meaning as understood in light of Dominic’s inspiration?
“Don’t look at this,” the critics of street art say; “it is a bad idea to paint illegally on private property.”
“Don’t look at this as though it were real,” says Magritte.
“No painting,” say the anti-graffiti signs.
“No painting for ordinary art fans if it’s locked up indoors,” says Banksy.
“This is a bad idea,” say the profiteering art dealers who can’t peel a Banksy off a wall in order to bring it to auction.
“This is a bad idea,” says Dominic the seventh-grader, commenting on the “NO PAINTING” icon he’s just painted. Don’t ban art; it’s a bad idea.
The ending of the story is neither here nor there, which I think may be the reason that I felt the need to write this essay. My son’s painting was displayed in a second showing of the students’ work just this past week, duly labeled with Dominic’s name and his year in school. But his father and I came away from the conference with the teacher and the principal feeling that the only thing we’d achieved during our meeting was to ensure that there’d be more communication with the principal and the parents in any future situations of this sort. That’s somewhat satisfying, I guess. But the larger issues in play seemed lost on the teacher. Ah, well. One must approach such things in the spirit of realpolitik: we did what was möglichen.
The decision she made was ironic in the extreme, since art is by definition thought-provoking, controversial, dangerous, not to be reduced to the level of décor.
If we had been consulted, might there have been a situation in which we’d have agreed with the teacher’s decision to keep our son’s painting off the wall at the banquet? It’s hypothetically possible. Given that it was a fundraiser for a Catholic school, my husband said during the conference, if our child were to have created a blasphemous picture, we’d have agreed that the fundraiser banquet was not the best venue for it. Though, come to think of it, we might have found such an image compelling! Perhaps a cartoon of Jesus mooning a rule-bound Pharisee? And what if the painting had been obscene in some way? Well, to be frank, I’d have been less concerned then with making sure that it was on display than with pursuing the possibility that my child had been a victim of abuse.
In short, while there may be hypothetical exceptions to the principle that art shouldn’t be censored, that principle is now clearer than ever for me. Censorship: This is a bad idea.