Any serious discussion of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work is bound to touch upon her provocative use of feminine imagery.
The great American painter is celebrated not only for her renditions of Southwestern landscapes and New York skyscrapers, but also for her iconic, colorful flowers. Despite repeated denials by the artist prior to her death 30 years ago, critics have long held that those flowers were overt allusions to female genitalia.
Allison Wint, a substitute teacher at a middle school in Battle Creek, Mich., told the Detroit Free Press that she was hoping to provoke a thoughtful dialogue about historical interpretations of O’Keeffe’s work on Friday when she used the word “vagina” during a discussion with eighth graders.
Now, Wint claims that the verbal reference to female anatomy — a word she freely admits to having used — has cost her a job at Harper Creek Middle School.
“Yes, I did say that word; however, I was saying it in the context of art history,” she told CBS affiliate WWMT. “I wasn’t being vulgar.”
The Michigan school district denies she was “fired.”
Let’s consider a few things here. The teacher in question was a substitute procured through a third party agency. If you are not invited back, that isn’t really being fired.
Secondly, the sub was dealing with 8th graders. That age level is not where you experiment with new words. That’s probably the last place I would say the word “vagina,” even if I were discussing the work of Georgia O’Keefe, who does happen to be one of my favorite artists.
Lest someone think I am being a bit of a tight-ass about this one, let’s look at the situation from a different perspective. If you were subbing in a Geography class of …oh …8th graders, and you were discussing the Florida coast line, would you say that many people think that Florida looks like a penis? No. No one would be that stupid. (nor would anyone attempt to teach that “penis” and “peninsula” all have the same root.) Just let it go.
Common sense, age group, and yes, tenure, all come in to place here. Leave body parts and genitalia out of lessons about art and geography. It’s really a no-win situation. The kids are too young and immature and schools are too volatile as far as parents go. Rightly or wrongly, some parents don’t want little Susie or Johnny to hear the word “vagina” in class, especially in mixed company. Even if you think their protectiveness is ridiculous, you aren’t going to win that fight, so don’t even engage. The teacher appeared young.
The young sometimes just don’t understand that while it might be stupid and ignorant not to recognize that many of O’Keefe’s paintings seemed to be about feminism, it isn’t always the wisest to discuss it in terms of body parts. There are people who are ill-at-ease with comparing giant flowers to vaginas. When you open your own art studio, have at it. When you are being paid out of public coffers, your academic license might be on a leash. Know when discretion is the better part of valor.
Finally, the work of Georgia O’Keefe is more than just a collection of vaginas.