Teaching with Contemporary Art

Working with Violent Images

Student art: acrylic, pencil and ink on paper

Only a few days ago I was all set to write a post that highlighted the plight of Curtis Acosta, an Arizona teacher who finds himself in the position of teaching a class on Latino literature that has recently been “outlawed” in the state. But in light of the recent shootings in Arizona, while in no way diminishing the importance of the struggle Mr. Acosta and his students face, I decided to put that post on the back burner for a week or so in order to write this week about teaching with, or perhaps I should say negotiating violent imagery.

No one can argue that each day is swamped with a ton of pictures, especially for students. Some go by in a second. Some linger on the computer and tv. These images perhaps shape who we are (or become), and certainly inform how we act (and react) to things.

Students make violent images that often shock viewers just like professional artists. But in a school setting violent or controversial images have to be shared carefully. The audience has to be educated in ways that galleries and museums (sometimes) don’t have to worry about.

In a recent unit of study, many students in my classes created works that led to depicting subjects like natural disasters, the power of weapons, and even abortion. Rather than dissuade them from really exploring these topics, I encouraged them to create high quality paintings and be clear when it came to sharing what the work was about. In the end, students wrote and printed wall labels that hung with their work, explaining the inspiration and thinking behind the art.

Student art: acrylic on paper

As educators we sometimes find ourselves making decisions about whether to encourage or discourage exploration of difficult subjects that may lead to violent or controversial imagery. While most of us go with our gut and make these decisions based on district policy or past practice, it’s important to be on the encouragement side of this fence as often as possible, specifically because it allows students to express what their art work means and allows teachers, classmates, parents and the whole school community to use that conversation or written reflection to gauge how to best respond to the work, appreciate it, and even take specific action if necessary. On the other hand, if we routinely rely on saying, “You really can’t paint that in school,” we never get to have a conversation about why the imagery is important in the first place.

Student art: watercolor on paper

For some interesting related reading on the subject, check out Steven C. Dublin’s Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions.


  1. Thanks for an interesting and timely post. With so much violence in schools, it’s understandable that people may be concerned about students viewing or producing violent imagery. However, as you argued, it’s important for teachers to foster dialogue.
    Years ago one of my literature professors used lynching photography to contextualize one of the works we were reading. At first I was upset that we had to look at those horrific images. And I’m sure many of the other students were uncomfortable as well. However, our professor provided a brief lecture about the material and encouraged us to interrogate the images. If she hadn’t contextualized or fostered dialogue about the photographs, the presentation would have been inappropriate. That experience encouraged me to explore the history of lynching in the U.S. and to pursue a career in visual culture.
    So, it seems that displaying (or making) violent imagery can be an important learning tool. It all depends on how the material is presented.

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    I can remember seeing the film Strange Fruit for the first time at Massachusetts College and having a similar reaction… Here is a quote about the film from pbs.org:

    While many people assume that the song “Strange Fruit” was written by Holiday herself, it actually began as a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher and union activist from the Bronx who later set it to music. Disturbed by a photograph of a lynching, the teacher wrote the stark verse and brooding melody under the pseudonym Lewis Allan in the late 1930s. Meeropol and his wife Anne are also notable because they adopted Robert and Michael Rosenberg, the orphaned children of the executed communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

    “Strange Fruit” was first performed at a New York teachers’ union meeting and was brought to the attention of the manager of Cafe Society, a popular Greenwich Village nightclub, who introduced Billie Holiday to the writer. Holiday’s record label refused to record the song but Holiday persisted and recorded it on a specialty label instead. The song was quickly adopted as the anthem for the anti-lynching movement. The haunting lyrics and melody made it impossible for white Americans and politicians to continue to ignore the Southern campaign of racist terror. (According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, between 1882 and1968, mobs lynched 4,743 persons in the United States, over 70 percent of them African Americans.)

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