What Happens When Your Students’ Work Is Censored?




Our annual art show, which is held at the local cultural arts center, was two days away. The artwork to be displayed represented grades 9-12 and was matted, wired and delivered for hanging. The forms were all signed and the labels were all printed. I was thinking that this show would go off without a hitch. That was, until the phone rang.

Speaking from the other end of the connection was the cultural arts coordinator. 

“Hi, Ian,” she began, in her polite, soft voice, “usually we don’t like to censor art but…”

I knew exactly what she was going to say. She would go on to explain the reasoning for pulling perhaps the most powerful piece out of the show. Here is a description of the work that was about to be censored in the artist’s words.

“To evoke the feeling of remorse and to provoke the viewer I decided to use stereotypes of women as seen in society today. The sayings and stereotypes imprison the girl. By doing this, I give the viewer a thought provoking point of view into society, a view many would rather ignore out of remorse and ignorance.”




Censorship Through History

Censorship is nothing new in the history of art. Pope Adrian VI described Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as “a stew of naked bodies.” A few years later, a student of Michelangelo’s was set in charge of painting loin clothes and leaves to cover the naked figures in The Last Judgement. More recently, in the late 1980s, the U.S. Senate sought action to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts when photographer Andres Serrano created an image by submerging a plastic crucifix in a vat of urine.

The work being censored for our annual show wasn’t funded by the NEA and the establishment isn’t a church. However, the cultural arts center, as it was explained to me, is frequented by parents with small children. The coordinator believed this particular artwork might offend some of these visitors. 


The Problem Areas

When creating art, there are several topics that are almost guaranteed to raise eyeballs. Here is a look at the level of controversy each may provide.


Nudity would certainly be high on the list. However, with the exception of middle school boys, choosing this subject for an art piece is more likely to be attempted by the more mature student and examples would be few and far between. 



The question of whether to censor an image of a gun can be a tough decision. Many circumstances, including the reason or purpose of the weapon in the image, the cultural background of the community, and the school or district’s policy, can all play a factor.



In 1977, George Carlin made clear the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”. Since that time, television standards have lessened and words once considered highly inappropriate are either now said or half-heartedly bleeped out. Unlike TV, art education circles still deem these words unsuitable. Furthermore, there are other words that are habitually spoken on television that may still be censored in a public art setting.


Social/Political Issues

The old saying goes, never talk about religion or politics. If artists followed this expression to the letter, there might not be any art at all. Taking a stand on a position is a perfectly acceptable reason to make art, but it comes with the predictable expectation of censorship. 


So, what is an art teacher to do?

What can the art teacher do when students’ artwork is censored? In most situations, whether it is an administrator, a parent or a fellow teacher making the request, it is best to comply. Even if you know the art should stand, the battle may not be worth the consequences. Make sure you talk to your students and explain the situation so they understand. Then, look for other options such as private shows or contests that accept controversial subject matter for displaying the work.


Have you had a student’s work censored? What were the circumstances surrounding the request?

What did you do as a result of the censorship?


Ian Sands

This article was written by former AOE writer and choice-based art education expert, Ian Sands.


  • Mr. Post

    I agree with the cultural arts coordinator’s decision to censor the art work. It was a show where families will come with their children to see art created by kids who are not yet adults. It is not the job of an art teacher in a public school setting to force a dialogue about a societal issue onto viewers at a show of kid art. There may be a place for this art work outside of a K-12 public school setting but I can understand the coordinator’s position and empathize with her.

    When my son was in elementary school my wife and I told him we would always tell him the truth about any question he had. We had to talk with him starting in third grade about what the swear words and slurs he was hearing on the playground meant. As parents we decided that it was the best policy for our son to hear our take on these things instead of relying on information he picked up from other kids.

    Even though I understand that your student’s piece is an art work, as an art teacher I would not like to have to defend it with school administrators – and I know the responsibility for the explanation would fall squarely on my shoulders.

  • Matthew Martinez

    When I first started teaching student asked if he can complete artworks based on photographs of a family member who is in the military. Some where of him with his rifle. I said it was okay given the context. Once of the artworks was submitted for the art show. The judge asked about it and I told them the story. It not only was accepted but won second place in its category. Its all about context in my opinion.

  • Lorraine Pulvino Poling

    The HS where I worked had a long tradition of student murals on the walls. there was a process in place (student had to be in an advanced painting class, design approved by instructor and administration etc) Two girls collaborated on a powerful piece called “Fear”. The image was of a snarling wolf with flames all around and the word “fear” in bold angular font. It was beautifully designed and executed. Several weeks after it was completed a staff member complained to the art dept and to the administration- in their opinion the work was too “frightening” to be in the halls where anyone could see it and should be removed. Only hopeful, uplifting images should be permitted. The administration told her that they saw no problem with the image or process of approval- and basically told her to walk down another hall if it bothered her.

  • jbeezart

    I was recently in a very similar situation. My drawing I students collaborated with one another to create a large scale sharpie mural relating to themes of “coexistence” earlier this fall, around the time of Ferguson. Students had many discussions related to this social/political event in their homerooms and in their humanities courses. When they wanted to depict the hierarchies of political power as it relates to “coexistence”, I was proud of them for making the connection – but also knew that what they were going to create could stir up some controversy. Needless to say, I let them do it – after all, it was only a small part of the mural. We then had the work on exhibit at the local community center where someone asked to have it taken down due to controversial imagery. My administrators are hugely supportive, and as a solution my class was able to write a detailed description of the meaning behind the visual images to display with the artwork. Having their work censored actually led to some great discussions!

  • Ms. C

    No doubt, as art teachers, we will all have to deal with this at some point. Some of the most controversy producing socio-political work my students have done have ended up being well received and some things that I thought were really no big deal offended someone. Context is everything, but I resist posting page long artist statements on everything just to placate the uninformed. Play to your audience…and beg forgiveness rather than ask permission. It’s usually a matter of ignorance and a little enlightenment and conversation goes a long way. If student work gets censored, there’s your teachable (and sometimes infuriating) moment to discuss censorship and intention in art.

  • Sylvia

    Yep…just had this happen. We had our Arts Fest which is open to the community and one of my Art 4 students was not able to display his very well done nude clay sculpture. The first thing my principal said when I showed him a picture of it was “There’s nipples! Oh no we cant display that! But it is very well done!” He then saw my student in the hallway and told him what an awesome job he did but due to the fact there may be small kids attending he wasn’t going to be able to show it. I was so proud of my kid when he replied he understood and wanted to make it as a way to challenge himself since he has never really worked in clay much and struggled with the human form. I think its important to teach our kids that sometimes we make art just for the process, that not everyone will understand or like our art, sometimes we follow rules and guidelines out of respect, and sometimes we have to be true to ourselves and our art but understand the consequences that may come with our actions.

  • Lisa

    One of my students had her worked pulled from a hall display case one year. It was an pro-life piece and nothing about it was graphic or visually offensive. It was a doll crib painted black with a stencilled ultrasound image of a baby done in white and white statistics written on the parts of the doll crib. Another teacher did not want it displayed because it differed from her beliefs, well it differed from my beliefs too but I felt the student had the right to express her views. The principal actually consulted with the school attorney who said the student had the right to display it since it was not making statements against the other view and it didn’t have offensive imagery.

    This year I have another student doing a piece on the struggles of transgender people. It’s seven photos with text. One photo has a pair of jeans with the seat showing what looks like leaked menstrual blood (it’s not blood but juice made to look like blood). I am wondering if I should censor this student (before my principal does) and ask her not to show that one, she would still have 6 others. I would love some perspective from my fellow art teachers please.

  • Jan Wright Lohstreter

    I have an art content policy in my syllabus that states the HS is a minor campus, everyone is under age 21- no artwork with drugs, sex, alcohol or “gang-like” imagery. I teach my students to respect one another, and to avoid offensive artwork, yet they can express controversy in their artwork. I teach peace and harmony within our HS community.
    Once students are out of HS there are many venues where they can create any art they wish and submit it. These galleries in turn may or may not have guidelines of content as well. This classroom guideline has worked very well in my classroom.