Canceling 'Culture' and the Statue of David: How Far is Too Far?

One parent's complaint over their 6th grader being shown the Michaelangelo statue of David—calling it 'pornography'—takes cancel culture to a whole new level.

Michelangelo's David Sculpture

ThatFrog.David / Shutterstock

In my home, we love showcasing all types of art. In our dining room, the "Sagrada Família" hangs proudly, a special memento from a trip my husband took to Barcelona. In our upstairs hallway is a painting of a girl holding an umbrella that once belonged to my grandparents. And in our living room, we have a collection of framed vinyl record covers—including Nirvana's iconic Nevermind. Yes, that is the 1991 album cover that features a naked baby swimming underwater toward a $20 bill. 

Nevermind has been displayed in our home since my husband and I first moved in together more than 13 years ago. We never considered taking it down when our daughter was born, and we certainly did not think about removing it when our daughter, now 8, burst into a fit of giggles upon realizing yes, there's a penis on our living room wall. Instead, we seized the opportunity to talk about the beauty of the human body and teach her that because of its beauty, nudity is often portrayed artistically. We don't warn parents ahead of play dates or gatherings at our home that there's a penis in plain sight in the same room we watch movies. We consider Nevermind—and all album covers—works of art, no "warning" needed.

Nirvana "Nevermind" album cover on a wall at the opening of 'In Bloom: The Nirvana Exhibition' in London, 2011

Samir Hussein / Contributor / Getty

That's one of a thousand reasons that I felt sick over the news that Hope Carrasquilla, the principal of Florida's Tallahassee Classical School, no longer has a job after parents complained their 6th-grade children were shown Michelangelo's 16th century "David" sculpture. One parent's protest? The sculpture is "pornographic."

Apparently, Carrasquilla also didn't follow the school's "usual protocol" of sending parents a letter before students are shown such classical artwork. Excuse me, "usual protocol"? I had to do a gut check to see if I was the only one feeling this outraged and worried that classic works of art were now orbiting the dangerous world of "cancel culture."

Cancel Culture or Canceling Culture?

One friend assumed the headlines were from the satirical website The Onion. Another friend scoffed that these parents must fall into the category of those who feel they've been to Europe after a trip to EPCOT.

But the grandmother of my daughter's friend shared something that really struck me. As a parent volunteer many years ago, she taught "Learning to Look" at a local elementary school, which was an art appreciation program for 4th and 5th graders. It culminated with a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where students were taught the difference between naked (which was inappropriate in many situations) and nude (which was art). "Between the Greek statues, the baby Jesus paintings, and whatever else—the kids were exposed to more genitalia than you can imagine," she explains. "Parents were not warned. Nobody complained. And no 4th or 5th grader giggled inappropriately."

I did find comfort in learning that the museum in Florence, Italy that houses "David" is outraged, too. They even extended an invitation to the parents and students of the Tallahassee Classical School to visit and see the statue for themselves. Florence Mayor Dario Nardella especially wants Carrasquilla to attend to personally honor her. He said confusing art with pornography was "ridiculous."

The father of one of my daughter's classmates is an architect who provided me with a deeper perspective into the meaning of "David" and what there is to learn from it. "In Michelangelo's depiction of David, we see the moments after Goliath is slain," he explains. "The lesson is not nudity or classical form, it's the persistence of the human will to stand up to evils, large or small, no matter the personal risk. A lesson that is as prescient today as it has ever been. To deprive our children of that connection to such an important and eternally truth is unthinkable."

A friend who has taught for many years in Chicago public schools cannot get past that the Tallahassee Classical School board chair, Barney Bishop, feels this is all part of a "woke indoctrination." 

"WOKE??? David was sculpted in 1501! By the same artist who painted the Sistine Chapel! The bigger issue is how this 'cancellation' not only is destroying our history but also negatively impacting our future," the teacher says. "There's no shame in the human body, especially when it is shared in the form of a sculpture. I certainly do not want my son to grow up thinking that his body is anything to be ashamed of."

Another friend with three children in Los Angeles public schools says starting in the 6th grade, students learn about the male AND female body in health class at her kids' school. "Genital awareness emerges in children between 18 and 24 months," she says. "Kids are acutely aware of what is going on down there. If you don't want your child to learn about art, history, or the human body, go ahead and get them a plastic bubble now. And maybe one for yourself, too."

Restoration work on Michelangelo's masterpiece David is completed May 24, 2004 at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, Italy.

Franco Origlia / Stringer / Getty

The Epicenter of the Political War on Culture?

Sadly, the outrage over David isn't the first eyebrow that Florida has raised due to concerns over art and literature. During a recent press conference, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis played a video containing excerpts from graphic novels based on real experiences, including GenderQueer by Maia Kobabev and sex education books such as Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan. DeSantis' stance? He referred to those books as "pornography" and said they should be "banned for pushing an agenda on children."

A friend with a high school-age son in, you guessed it, Florida is fearful of what this means in the classroom. "DeSantis is creating so many regulations and rules that are strictly on the shoulders of teachers. How are they supposed to teach when they have consequences for showing a classical piece of art?"

Another friend, a teacher in the Florida public school system for over 20 years, doesn't think the principal should be held accountable. "These parents are becoming entitled because what they feel is acted upon instantly—and is not in favor of educators." she lamented to me over text. "We're going to end up building a future with children who are less worldly educated."

But this is not just a Florida-based problem. Many other states are starting to follow in the footsteps of Florida's far Right.

Florida Public School Teacher

We're going to end up building a future with children who are less worldly educated.

— Florida Public School Teacher

Predicting the Future?

The crazy thing is over 30 years ago, The Simpsons—yes, the long-running animated series—predicted this very thing would happen. (How has The Simpsons managed to predict events time and time again? But I digress.)

In a 1990 episode titled "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge," Marge Simpson forms a group that brings a petition to the creators of "Itchy & Scratchy," asking them to remove violence from the show. It backfires when members of the organization later want Marge to lead a petition against the statue of David after it arrives in Springfield. They call it an "abomination" saying David "graphically portrays parts of the human body which, practical as they may be, are evil." Thankfully Marge saves the day by declaring David a work of art and encourages everyone in Springfield to go see it.

Guess what? The Simpsons didn't get canceled or condemned then or now for talking about the David statue, portraying the David statue, or mentioning that David is nude. Yet here we are in 2023, when you can get canceled for misspeaking or misunderstanding. Sure, there are many celebrities and public figures who deserve backlash when they double down with dangerous anti-Semitic or racist rhetoric. But canceling is sometimes too swift, too judgmental, and too treacherous.

"The Simpsons" cut outs at the celebration of the 600th episode on October 14, 2016 in Los Angeles

Rodin Eckenroth / Contributor / Getty

One of my sorority sisters messaged me, unable to wrap her head around the "ridiculousness" that David, of all things, entered the cancel culture conversation. "How is our country going so backward?" she wonders. "Instead of actually working on problems like global warming, poverty, the recession, equal rights, or infrastructure—no, they're upset that a very old spectacular statue from one of the most famous artists of all time is naked."

I couldn't agree more. Where does it end? Do we shut down museums and libraries, just in case there's something offensive inside? It sounds ridiculous, yet there's a pit in my stomach that it's not such a crazy thought anymore. As a society, we've become too quick to swiftly cut ties. We make no room for remorse, self-reflection, or more importantly—teachable moments. We should be learning and growing, rather than canceling and therefore encouraging ignorance. This is why I find it impossible to understand that suddenly literature and the arts—the very things we are supposed to look back on and learn from—are susceptible to being canceled.

So, excuse me while I go home to blast my copy of Nevermind and watch a classic episode of The Simpsons.

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