I did a fun, weird activity with my Fine & Performing Arts students Thursday. I had read somewhere that author Roald Dahl (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, James & the Giant Peach, The Witches, etc.) used to clip drawings and photos of people and then paste new eyes, mouths, arms, and whatnot onto them — all to spark a vision in his mind (his rather dark mind) of a new character. So that’s what I had the kids do.
It was a little like talkshow host Conan O’Brien’s frequent “If They Had a Baby” feature, in which his graphics staff uses a “morphing” program to digitally borrow facial features from two very different famous people, showing us what their baby might look like. The results are always weird-looking, played for comic potential.
For my kids, though, I abstracted it even further, by letting them use flowers, animals, grass, food, doorways, airplanes and other non-bodily items to build their mash-up faces. For the youngest kids, I had them use a basketball and a big glass of milk as the foundational surfaces to put a face onto. The results are kind of cool-looking. One could imagine a story growing out of how these characters look.
The junior high kids did interesting work, too. On the other hand, a few items they chose to use brought up the difficult subject of censorship for me. For one face, a few kids (boys… predictably), clipped a small handgun from a magazine and put it next to their character’s head.
It’s the easy choice, of course. The lazy person’s way of introducing tension and conflict is to bring a gun into it. Unfortunately, in a school very much focused on issues of peace, I now cannot display this interesting character on the bulletin board in my room. Why? Because I can only do so much to help a passing kindergartener understand the gun as a generally poor choice, both philosophically and creatively. Looking at this face and the gun, they’ll just think it’s funny. Or they’ll think it’s scary. Either way, they don’t have the capacity yet to understand the social context that led to this choice by the junior high kids.
Plus the junior highers don’t understand how much our culture has desensitized them to the real consequences of violence. So for them, displaying the work would imply that I approve of violence, both as art and as a way of resolving conflict — which I don’t… especially for kids. The hyper-violent paintings of someone like Francisco Goya, centuries ago, or painter Leon Golub in the 1980s (see photo above), were meant as social commentary, not entertainment. And they are not meant for kids (at least not without extreme caution and supervision).
Now, I’m no head-in-the-sand protectionist. I’m not a “kill your television” style liberal or conservative. Plus, I rather like a good cops and robbers movie, sci-fi romp or political thriller now and then. But I’m a grownup. Plus I’m informed about the subtle psychological and spiritual consequences of a steady diet of violence. With kids it’s different. They don’t have these screening mechanisms. We say so all the time, mostly through methods like the MPAA rating system, methods that are only moderately effective when put in the hands of uninformed or irresponsible parents.
Also, what we say and what we do as a society doesn’t always match. So the work of teaching and modeling non-violent conflict resolution is already hard enough, a real exercise in swimming against the tide these days. Therefore with young minds, including that of my son, it’s just smarter to set strict limits on what they will see and hear. You are what you eat, as they say. At our school, we’ve even gone so far as to have a boy with a Yosemite Sam “guns-a-blazin’ ” t-shirt turn it inside out for the day.
Yes, unless they’re Amish, kids will probably be exposed to second-hand violence anyway, through an energetic or humorous commercial for the Halo 3 video game, or a flare-up and physical altercation in their own household (or on the playground).
Even so, I just have to do what I can to keep saying there’s another way to do things. I refuse to muddy the water even further, and thus become part of the problem.