Courtney Martin’s book Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists is a compilation of short narratives describing various points when the writer experienced something that caused feminism to resonate or to “click” for them. As someone who, for over five years, looked forward to “click” moments among students who made their way into the women’s center, this book definitely appealed to me. The first time someone defines themselves as a “feminist” could be the result of a series of events or a string of circumstances that, added together, result in a formative identity-shaping experience. Or, it could literally be immediate.
For me, it happened twenty or so years ago during the semester in college when I enrolled in ART 314: Women in Art History, a course offered only every other spring at Colorado State University, and an elective that counted toward my minor in Art History. ART 314 was the fourth or fifth art history class I had taken at CSU, and part way through the first class, it happened. I realized that, until that class, the entire curriculum I had studied in the “art history survey” courses, also known as the ‘canon of art history,’ was overwhelmingly male. Click.
To those who study history, literature, music, art, poetry, theater (and the list goes on) this is not new news. Women have been systematically written out of the history books, their accomplishments minimized or fully excluded, and women artists are just one group who are not considered among the ‘canon.’ As those of you reading this blog likely know, there’s an entire discipline with its roots in understanding and exposing these facts, women’s studies.
Fast forward to today. As a parent volunteer, I have agreed to coordinate an art education program called “Meet the Masters” for my son’s elementary school (I didn’t make up the name, and I recognize the other connotations of the word which are deeply offensive). The program consists of a rotating set of 100+ framed prints of famous art purchased by a grant obtained several years ago by the Okemos Parent Foundation (the school district’s parent organization). The 100+ framed prints rotate among the three elementary schools in the school district. A district coordinator manages the distribution process, oversees repairs to the frames, and replaces artwork as needed. The program’s goal is to promote art literacy and appreciation by introducing K-4 students to famous works of art. Parents volunteer to serve as presenters, and each month, a volunteer visits their child’s classroom, gives a short lecture about the artwork, the artist, and then facilitates an interactive discussion about their assigned print for the month. As someone who has loved art history since my days in college as an Art History Minor, I love this program. Children look upon art with fresh and interested eyes. When the school coordinator role opened this fall, I jumped at the opportunity to help.
And so yesterday I stopped by the house of the district “Meet the Masters” coordinator to pick up the 22 prints that we’ll be rotating among the classrooms this year at my child’s school. Upon arrival at the designated pick up time, I asked for a few “extras” to use as alternates if we needed a backup. The district coordinator was sitting at her dining room table, trying to decide which prints we’d had the previous year and scanning through the list, while her husband held up options for her to check against her list. He held up a framed photo of Judy Chicago’s epic installation The Dinner Party (1979). She looked at it and said to her husband, “No, that piece is ‘too controversial’.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’d actually like that piece for my school this year.”
“Really? You really want it?” she shrugged, “I guess you could use it as an alternate.” And, with that, her husband added it to my stack and I left.
Last night I posted a photo of the print on instagram and facebook along with this comment:
Apparently this famous piece by Judy Chicago is “controversial” according to the Okemos school district’s “Meet the Masters” Art Appreciation program district coordinator (I am the MTM school coordinator for one of the elementary schools in the district). Um, how about the fact that of the 22 paintings my school was assigned, this one, a sculpture about how women have been systematically erased from history, is one of only two pieces by women artists?! #feministrant
My friend Will Barratt wrote,
“I looked up “controversial” in my internal dictionary. It was defined as any opinion or truth other than yours. Something that makes you uncomfortable. Something that you don’t want other people to see because it may affect them in some way that you don’t like.”
I couldn’t have said it better (thanks Will!). We need challenging social commentary through art. We need to get uncomfortable. We need opportunities to discuss these challenges and examine our privilege. And, we need to have these conversations with children. Early. And further, I think we also need to interrogate who decides what knowledge is shared and whose perspectives matter. If this one district coordinator was censoring this one piece of art, scale that up, and there’s your real controversy.