Critical ThinkingEducationReligionSecondary Education

Newsflash: Art Might Make You Uncomfortable

A few years ago, a textbook I used in freshman composition included a chapter on film studies. The final essay for the unit (and for the course, as it worked out) asked students to choose one of two prompts. I don’t recall the exact questions, but one was about Sydney Pollack films–I think specifically Three Days of the Condor and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?–and the other about the function of violence in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Now, even if you aren’t familiar with the films, that second question provides enough information to alert a discerning reader to the possibility that they might include, you know, violence. Moreover, in the assignment handout I distributed AND in my in-class explanation of the essay, I told the students that the movies for the second prompt can be really upsetting, so DON’T PICK THAT ONE if you don’t like violent images. Also worth noting: They had three weeks to complete this assignment.

You know where this is going. The weekend before the essay was due, I received a late-night email from a student informing me that she and another young woman from the class had rented and begun watching Clockwork but could not finish it because “it offended our morals.” They were unable at this very late juncture to find copies of the Pollack films, so they were wondering if I could give them something else to write about. My responses:

  1. No.
  2. Are you effing kidding me? No!
  3. If the content of A Clockwork Orange *didn’t* offend your morals, I would be really goddamn afraid of you. Because, check it out, THAT’S THE POINT.

I’m not unsympathetic, don’t get me wrong: That movie (and book) freaked my shit completely out, and I only read the book once and viewed the movie once and still harbor no desire to revisit either. I’m glad I did read it the once, though, because that text made me think about some things, and it didn’t give me easy answers to any of the questions it raised, so I spent time–really uncomfortable time–gnawing on those questions in my own freaked out head, and the near-traumatizing experience of that book is captured in ghastly artistic brilliance by Kubrick’s film version, so it’s worth watching the one time as well, for the same reasons.

Which brings me to this story out of Georgia: “Parent Upset about ‘God Is Dead’ Art Work at School.” 


A parent in Newton County is concerned about art work hanging on a classroom wall. One picture in the Alcovy High School has words that say, “God is dead.”

The Newton County School System says language arts students made the drawings from a quote in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible”. The pictures were posted as part of student art work for several years without receiving a complaint.

The parent in question, Crystal Mitchell, claims that the posters illustrating The Crucible upset her 10th-grade daughter. One wonders if the daughter, or the mother, for that matter, has read or viewed the play itself? Because is that line really the most upsetting thing about The Crucible for you? (Hint: It shouldn’t be.) Some high schooler understood that play well enough to realize that the “god is dead” line is a critical moment, a poignant expression of human pain and despair. It’s not delivered as some atheist triumph; there’s no “WOOO! God is DEAD! Orgy at my place!” The school is absolutely right to display that student’s insight with pride.

As with almost every complaint about literature ever lodged by an ignorant parent, the real problems are willful misreading and fundamental misunderstanding of what well-crafted literature does with disturbing material, how it derives meaning from discomfort. If that poster makes a 10th-grade girl stop in the hall and go “whoa,” it’s a damn fine poster, not something her mother should be creating childish Facebook pages over. How about you have a conversation with your daughter about why that sentiment is so arresting, and how Miller constructs that scene to produce a certain reaction in the audience? If God’s death is an unsettling idea for a modern student, how much grief would it evoke for the Puritan character of John Proctor? What is Miller doing with this in his drama? In other words, encourage her to think about things that bother her instead of hide from them.


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DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.

1 Comment

  1. August 25, 2013 at 9:34 pm —

    I’m glad that, despite their conservatism, my parents didn’t censor my reading material (aside from perhaps graphic romance novels, although I didn’t actually test them on that as they seemed pretty silly to me). They didn’t let me watch any R-rated movies, so I don’t think their thought process was very consistent, but I often learned the most from the books that made me think about questions of morality, social justice, etc. I remember really having a hard time as a high school student with Clockwork Orange, Black Boy, and House of Sand and Fog in particular. They made me uncomfortable, but they forced me to think in a different way and (in some cases) adjust my understanding of how the world works.

    My English students have an outside reading assignment, and I do give parents the option to limit the list down if they aren’t comfortable with it. I’m always sad to see that happen, though. Occasionally it makes sense–I had one parent tell me privately that her daughter had been the victim of an assault and did not feel up to reading anything with sexual content at that point. Often, though, what parents censor are books that reflect the full spectrum of human actions–racism, violence, injustice, war, etc. They want their kids to read “uplifting” books with clearly defined good guys and bad (but not too bad) guys, where the good guys end up happy and the bad guys end up punished.

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