PBS art documentary raises eyebrows, concerns in DISD


by By TAWNELL D. HOBBS / The Dallas Morning News thobbs@dallasnews.com


Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:44 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 11:48 AM

A young girl stands naked posing for the camera. An artist ignites gunpowder to create images on a canvas. A silhouette appears to show a man roasting the heads of black children over a campfire.

Kara Walker's art, on view at the Modern Art Museum, is part of the PBS documentary art:21. The museum carries a warning on its Web site.

They are images that some teachers and parents in the Dallas Independent School District want to keep away from students. But they fear the kids will see them - and more - under new art lessons being tried on students in grades six through 12.

At issue are several contemporary artists whose works are included in a PBS documentary given to middle and high school art teachers to use as a supplement to the new lessons. The teachers received the first three seasons of the documentary art:21-Art in the Twenty-First Century , which features short biographies of more than 40 artists and describes their techniques.

Laura Sohm, DISD's secondary visual art coordinator, said the teachers have been told that it's their choice whether to use the documentary, which is not rated, and the work of any artist in it.

"They've been advised to use their own discretion to preview the art before showing it," she said.

But some teachers and parents are concerned that images they consider too disturbing or sexual for the classroom may be acceptable to some art teachers. They also fear that students will take it upon themselves to search the Internet for more information about some artists in the documentary and get an eyeful.

Ms. Sohm said the lessons are being tested and are not final. She said they focus on "problem-based learning" by presenting students with situations that sometimes involve moral issues that can be found in controversial art. Students research artists in groups and use what they learned to create their own artwork.

Most artists in the PBS documentary have drawn no concern among DISD teachers. But of the several causing the discord, Kara Walker and Sally Mann top the list.

Ms. Walker, one of the artists recommended in the new lessons, has artwork that includes silhouette images depicting scenes from slavery. One silhouette appears to be of a slave child carrying a man's limb in one hand and a blade in the other.

Ms. Walker, who is black, currently has an exhibit at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The museum's Web page carries this disclaimer: "Please be advised that the Kara Walker exhibition contains mature subject matter including explicit sexual images. Viewers should use their own discretion."

In Ms. Mann's works, it's nude photos of her children that are causing concern.

Ms. Sohm said the new lessons don't recommend including Ms. Mann. However, her biography is on the PBS documentary that teachers can show in class.

The appropriateness of exposing students to certain artwork has sparked controversy around the country. In North Texas, for example, a Frisco elementary school art teacher resigned under pressure after a parent complained in 2006 that students had seen nude art during a trip to the Dallas Museum of Art.

And in Jacksonville, Fla., schools have required parental permission for students in grades nine and 10 to review the art:21 documentary since a parent complained in 2003, said Bryant Frazier, a school administrator.

The Dallas district's current curriculum is old, Ms. Sohm said, and mainly focuses on basic elements of art, such as lines, colors and shapes. It also doesn't allow students to express their feelings through their artwork and no contemporary art is used, she said.

"What we're trying to do is put forth a curriculum that mirrors the real world of art," Ms. Sohm said.

For high school students, the first six-week semester includes having students observe and examine controversial art, according to a planning guide given to teachers. For sixth-graders, a portion of the lesson focuses on students using artwork to think critically about "crucial and painful issues of past and present societies."

Skyline High School parent Robin Brown said parents and students should be given notice before the documentary is shown in class. She said students should have to acknowledge in writing that certain behaviors in the documentary are illegal - citing the work of one artist that includes tagging private property.

"The notice should also serve as protection to the teacher against legal action for showing what some may view as illicit or pornographic," Ms. Brown said. She added that the documentary is a great tool but is more appropriate for college students.

Noah Simblist, an SMU assistant professor of painting and drawing, said Ms. Mann's and Ms. Walker's works are appropriate for middle and high school students. He discounts concerns that students will research artists and discover artwork deemed unsuitable, saying such reasoning could apply to many public figures.

"There are plenty of things to find out about people if we really want to research them," he said.

Craig Welle, DISD's executive director of enrichment curriculum, said teachers were told some material in the documentary is "not appropriate." DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander said last week that the district isn't aware of any instances in which such material was shown to students.

The district bought 120 sets of the documentary at a cost of $10,848. Teachers must go through training before receiving the documentary, and most have.

Mr. Welle said teachers can still use the current curriculum while trying out the lessons.

Several DISD art teachers concerned about the lessons fear retaliation and did not want to comment for this story. But the new lessons have been discussed on The Dallas Morning News' DISD blog site - and the vast majority of 68 responses noted concerns. Teacher Diane Birdwell, a member of the National Education Association in Dallas, wrote in to say:

"My main concern was that for our kids, we need to introduce them to basic art first. Most of them have never been to a museum, do not understand the different media of art, and have no clue about the politics of art. You can't hang pictures until you put the walls up, folks."