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excerpt: “Free Expression and Censorship”

Teaching artists often have to navigate the tension between free creative expression and ensuring that what students make is school-appropriate. Appropriate?  What does that even mean?  Art is supposed to push boundaries and buttons and that is part of why kids are often particularly good at making art.  On the other hand…you don’t want to get fired.

There is nothing wrong with deciding as a teaching artist, that a school or institution’s “culture” or norms are important to you, or that your own standards of content should play a role in your work as long as you bring this to your students openly and honestly. It is fine to say to students, “Violent imagery is uncomfortable for me (or for this school), so I will not be able to work with you on writing that incorporates such imagery.”  This is an acknowledgement that the limitation is yours, or the schools, and it is not the same as denigrating student work because it deals with difficult themes. 

That said, as teaching artists, we should defend freedom of expression for student artists.  This is a particularly important issue in race and class segregated schools where students are often subject to entirely different standards of “appropriateness” than in wealthier, whiter schools.  There is an insidious and racist premise underlying this double standard, once expressed to Nick by a teacher in an all black school as follows:  “You don’t understand:  these kids will go out and do the violent things they rap about.”  How profoundly alienating and dehumanizing to say to an artist:  You are forbidden to make art about ______ because it will lead you to do _________.  How much more alienating and dehumanizing to say:  It might be OK for some artists to make art about __________, but it sure isn’t OK for you. As teaching artists we can hardly win this battle every time on every gig, but we should try.