The ongoing prudification of Britain (and the rest of the world – you foreign types suffer too, it’s just that the Brits are so much more hysterical than you) is so persistent that it is hard to keep up with all the stories that we are bombarded with. Whether it’s self-appointed advertising censors banning ‘sexualised’ or ‘offensive’ promotional material, opportunist politicians and the perpetually outraged Twitterati stoking outrage over unsuitable bras, anti Page 3 and Lad’s Mag campaigners, social media and online video sites deciding that nipples are the devil’s control switches or the government attempting to child-proof the internet, it seems that we are in a new fetid age of instant offence and paranoia over any sort of sexual expression, however mild and however contextualised or artistic. The usual cry from these moralists is “won’t someone think of the children?” (or “won’t someone think of the women?”, who are all too often infantilised and robbed of individual agency by the people supposedly combating sexism), but they are fooling no one – it’s their own delicate sensibilities that they are worried about, and like Greg Stillson in The Dead Zone, they use children as human shields to prevent their 1950s value system from being exposed as the backward, body-fearing nonsense that it is.
All of which brings us to the ludicrous, outrageous and utterly disgusting situation where a teacher can be fired for ‘allowing’ a teenage boy to look up the work of H.R. Giger online.
Art head Peter Knowles chose Giger as a subject for a lesson at Coombe Boys’ School in New Malden. This wasn’t some rogue choice – Giger is actually on the national curriculum. But this one student – arguably showing the sort of initiative and curiosity that we should be encouraging – used a school computer to research Giger further. In common with the delicate flowers that we seem to be raising these days, he was “shocked” after finding explicit images by the artist. Let’s think about that for a moment – a teenage boy was shocked by sexual artwork that he found online… because teenage boys never search out sexually explicit material, do they?
Knowles was, in fact, not in charge of his class at the time – he was at a dentist appointment and a colleague was covering the lesson. Yet Knowles was held responsible for what happened in his absence. His colleague – who was actually in charge of supervising the class at the time – has not been fired.
Deputy head Karen Vellisarides stated that Giger was not an appropriate artist to study. Executive head Deborah Walls (who actually said the immortal words “I would never describe myself as a prude”) said “a reasonable teacher would have avoided that artist”. Let’s pause at this point to remember that Giger IS ON THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM. He’s actually mandated by the authorities as a suitable subject for studying, presumably with the knowledge that students who are made aware of his name might look up his other work – if not in the classroom, then at home.
The idea that teenagers should somehow be insulated from any sort of challenging art – more specifically, that they should be insulated from even knowing about the existence of challenging artists, even if the material mandated for study is entirely age-appropriate – is genuinely concerning. We should surely be encouraging the challenging of ideas, while giving students the context and information they might need to deal with unfamiliar and sometimes unsettling works. Otherwise, we are simply going to raise a new generation of people who are scared of anything outside the mainstream – anything from ‘difficult’ art, music and literature to kids who look a bit ‘different’. And that’s something that should concern us all.
Thanks to Jack Sergeant for bringing this story to our attention.