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Should Teen Art Be Censored?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


After a brief snowstorm this past winter, a neighboring front yard was decorated with two naked snowmen created by the adolescent sons of the homeowner. These were most definitely male snowmen and they were – how shall I say? – excited to be out in the snow in the front yard.  I wondered what sort of conversation my neighbor had had with her boys about their art…

And the snowmen made me remember a sculpture one of my sons made in middle school art class long ago, a sculpture of a gunshot victim screaming in horror. I remembered not quite knowing how to interpret this piece of art (which I still have, by the way).

Why is it that teen creative expression often seems intent on disturbing or embarrassing us adults?  Do teens’ violent, sexual, or depressive themes mean that our kids are violent, sexually unstable or depressed? Is such art a warning sign? Should it be censored?

The impulse to censor art – drawing, painting, music, writing, and so on – is ever-present even for adult expression.  Some might say that it’s the purpose of art to push the boundaries of taste and decency. “Pretty” art and “nice” art do not get critical respect since they don’t say anything new and they don’t challenge comfortable beliefs. Art is supposed to shake us up.

Which explains why teen art bothers us so much. It is very often challenging. It quite frequently says things we wish it wouldn’t say and that we’d really not like to know. We feel threatened by teen art because it’s intended to feel threatening. It reflects the feelings of threat experienced by the teens themselves.

So does this mean that teens who create art that offends adults are threatened and in danger? Is this art a symptom of trouble to come?

For the vast majority of teens, the answer is “no.” Teen art expresses the unsettled feelings kids have about just about everything. They struggle with sexual expression, they are worried about violence, and they are troubled by feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. These are normal feelings for teens. The teen years are not easy.

Naturally the art teens make and the art they consume – the movies, music, and video games they like – reflect the emotional ups and downs of people trying to make the transition from dependent child to independent adult. It’s a jungle out there and teens are frightened. Their art tells us so.

Of course, obsessive thoughts of violence and sadness also can signal trouble.  For a small fraction of teens, disturbing artistic content is a symptom of deeper issues that need professional attention.  If unsettling art is accompanied by symptoms of depression or antisocial tendencies – if your gut tells you something is wrong – then certainly get help. But unsettling art alone is not a cause for concern.

This doesn’t mean, though, that you must put up with obscene snowmen. There’s a time and place for everything and sometimes teens need reminding of this rule. English class might not be the best venue for even a well-crafted story about serial murder. And “pretty” and “nice” are the only sors of art that is wanted in the front yard.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.