A while ago I posted a blog entitled ‘Nude vs Prudes’.

I was a little exasperated that our life drawing workshops appeared to make a colleague so uncomfortable.

But of course, nudity is just one of a number of sensitive topics and we need to be sensitive to the culture we are in,

This issue becomes more complex when submitting work.

For example, what are the implications if, as a teacher, I submit a student’s semi-naked self-portrait photo and it goes to an examiner living in a very conservative country?


On one hand we want the students to be risk takers and to explore ideas, but on the other we need to guide them if their work is likely to become offensive.

And what is offensive if one culture may simply be exciting and provocative in another (of course this is also an issue that can be productively explored in Theory of Knowledge classes).

There is, of course, the official and general “Ethical Practice in the Diploma Programme” poster, which says such things as “no artwork, performance or film will be undertaken that damages the environment. No artwork, performance or film will include excessive or gratuitous violence or explicit sexual activity. All presentations will respect the personal, political and spiritual values of others and will contain no intention to offend in remarks about race, gender or religious beliefs”.


But having seen hundreds of exhibition submissions I can say that there is a very fine line between a student’s often valid intention to provoke and even shock – and causing offence. 

A student may have passionate feelings about an issue and may see the visual arts programme and particularly the exhibition as a perfect vehicle to explore and demonstrate that passion. For many visual arts teachers and examiners this is a constant, interesting and  sometimes unresolvable issue.

The spectrum of offence

In the last examination session, I saw a number of student artworks that depicted nudity. 

In context, this area of imagery should not be particularly upsetting (e.g. “L’Origine du Monde” L’Origine du monde by Gustave Courbet at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris) and is at the milder end of the ‘spectrum of offence’ but still poses questions, particularly because of the age of the students we work with.

**Orlan presented “The Origin of War” photomontage  and in 2014 the performance artist Deborah de Roberts made her own contribution to the debate.

At the other end of the spectrum we have more obvious examples…


A compromise might be for Art Departments, school administration, parents and students to acknowledge and discuss this issue (or dilemma).

Schools in more conservative cultures may adopt a more restrictive approach.

It may be that restrictions are placed either on the kind of artworks that are created, or on who is allowed to see the art – or both.

Although art can shock, that of course should not be its primary purpose.

Art can certainly challenge!



10 works of art that shocked the world

The 10 Most Controversial Art Projects of the Last Century