Discussions, and what is ‘acceptable’

I recently had a conversation that reminded me that even in my school, which I considered to be fairly enlightened and progressive, there are corners of old-fashioned, conservative and conformist thought.

The discussion was about our regular figure drawing workshops for DP visual arts students, and it clearly made this person uncomfortable.

Of course, if my school was located in a more conservative culture, this attitude would be predictable and understandable. But my school is located just outside London, and life drawing for older students is normal for many schools around here.

What is normal?

I wasn’t exactly sure what made them uncomfortable. They said ‘…but it’s not normal!’

This puzzled me and I almost said ‘so what?’

And then I thought, what has that got to do with anything?

And then I thought, we’ve been running these workshops twice a year for twelve years.

And then I thought of the long tradition (centuries) of artists working from the nude form.

The concept of ‘normal’ is dependent on context.

Then they asked if the parents knew!

Parents, comfort zones and the Learner Profile

The parents of the students involved see the life drawing sessions as progressive and enlightened (and have said so), and in any case they all have to sign a document that gives permission for their children to attend the workshops.

OK, I admit, spending days drawing a naked (male or female) model might be pushing some students out of their comfort zones – but isn’t that a good thing?


The IB have invested in this idea, as shown in their Learner Profile and in particular the idea of being a risk-taker: ‘we approach uncertainty with forethought and determination; we work independently and cooperatively to explore new ideas and innovative strategies. We are resourceful and resilient in the face of challenges and change.’

Are the students vulnerable? Or the model?


In this scenario, we have a person wearing no clothes standing in the middle of a room of fully clothed strangers – who is in the vulnerable position here?

Disturbing ideas

So…I can’t help thinking that the problem here is not the life drawing workshops, the students, or the parents, but is somewhere in the objector’s mind, some discomfort with the simple but strangely disturbing (for them) idea of people without clothes.

To be clear, life drawing occurs in my school because the school and local culture/context support it.

However of course it would not be possible in many cultures. Its a ‘sensitive topic’.

The IB say:

Engaging with sensitive topics

‘Studying visual arts gives students the opportunity to engage with exciting, stimulating and personally relevant topics and issues. However, it should be noted that often such topics and issues can also be sensitive and personally challenging for some students. Teachers should be aware of this and provide guidance on how to approach and engage with such topics in a responsible manner. Consideration should also be given to the personal, political and spiritual values of others, particularly in relation to race, gender or religious beliefs.

As part of the collective consideration of the school, visual arts students must be supported in maintaining an ethical perspective during their course. Schools must be vigilant in ensuring that work undertaken by the student does not damage the environment, include excessive or gratuitous violence or reference to explicit sexual activity.’

(Page 9 of the IB’s Visual Arts Guide)

Images: my photographs from recent in-school figure drawing workshops (held in the art room).