Clifton Park

Foss: We should encourage students to express themselves

Anti-Trump art at Shen in spotlight
The artwork included profanities and criticisms of DonaldTrump's presidency.
The artwork included profanities and criticisms of DonaldTrump's presidency.

Teenagers push boundaries and challenge authority. 

So do artists. 

Put the two together, and you’re guaranteed to get artwork that causes headaches for school administrators – a controversy-averse lot if ever there was one. 

That’s what happened last month when the principal at Shenedehowa High School took down an anti-Trump art project from a student-organized art show. 

The artwork featured repeated black-and-white images of a scowling President Donald Trump. A sign above the artwork invited students to “Draw on Me” in marker, and the result was critical, sometimes profane, commentary. 

Unsurprisingly, the anti-Trump artwork has inspired the usual outrage and handwringing about students daring to express political viewpoints and disrespecting the office of the president. 

Judging from the reaction, you’d think high school students being provocative and scornful was some sort of strange new phenomenon, rather than something that’s been happening since basically forever. 

If anything’s changed, it’s the way these stories explode on social media and are held up as symbols of social decline and liberal decadence. 

In the past, controversies over student speech and expression were mainly confined to the school districts in which they occurred. 

For instance, there was a lot of chatter about whether my high school should ban T-shirts with sexual innuendos on them – the Big Johnson brand was quite popular back then – but it never went viral, and thank god for that. 

Schools are well within their rights to enforce a code of conduct, which is Shen’s justification for removing the anti-Trump artwork. 

For the record, I don’t have a problem with the artwork, just as I wouldn’t have a problem with student artwork criticizing any other president or prominent figure of authority. I believe students have the right to express themselves, and that they should be encouraged to do so, whether it be in art, writing or music. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that high school students are young, they’re still figuring out who they are and that they’re going to make mistakes and do things adults might find juvenile and cringeworthy. 

That said, it’s clear the artwork’s profanity puts it in violation of Shen’s student code of conduct, which bars “the use of language or gestures, or actions that are obscene, profane, perverse, overtly sexual, lewd, lascivious, indecent, vulgar or abusive.”

What’s questionable is High School Principal Don Flynt’s statement that “if the graffiti said positive things, it wouldn’t be a violation.” 

This notion that art and writing must be positive is wrongheaded.  

Of course, I would think this – one of my favorite paintings is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” I don’t know exactly what Munch was thinking when he created this famous work, but the haunting, angst-filled image suggests he wasn’t in the most positive of spirits. 

Sometimes art is positive. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes art challenges, provokes and enrages. There are all kinds of art, and all kinds of artists. 

I don’t know exactly what the student behind the anti-Trump artwork was hoping to achieve, but there’s no denying the piece touched a nerve.

And from that standpoint, it’s a big success.  

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: -News-, Opinion, Schenectady County

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