Topic: Professions & Institutions
When Teachers Paint with Their Butts
Setting ethical rules usually works better in theory than in practice. The problem is that human beings just won’t cooperate; they refuse to keep their choices of conduct within neat boundaries. The infinite possible variations on basic ethical themes require us to make difficult distinctions and draw clear lines where blurry ones seem more appropriate. That’s what makes ethics fascinating, frustrating, and difficult. You never know when a butt-painting art teacher is going to turn up to challenge your previous conclusions.
Actually, let us give Stephen Murmer his due; he’s more versatile than that. He doesn’t just create pretty floral and abstract paintings using his butt; he also uses his genitals to festoon the canvasses that he sells for hundreds of dollars a piece. Yes, the market for groin-and-butt-art is booming! However, school officials in Chesterfield County, Virginia think that even a creative pioneer like Murmer is not an appropriate art instructor for the high school students at Monacan High School. It’s not his art so much as his, uh, tools that the school objects to. Thus it has suspended Murmer for being a bad role model.
Is the school doing the fair and right thing? Was Murmer wrong to pursue parallel careers as an art teacher and butt-painter?
The Scoreboard explored similar ground in June of 2005, when it examined the saga of Austin high school art teacher Tamara Hoover. Hoover’s partner posted hundreds of nude pictures of the teacher on her website. The school dismissed Hoover, and the Scoreboard reluctantly agreed that it was the right move, reasoning that the availability of a high school teacher’s nude photos on the web is
Does this ethical analysis apply with equal force to Murmer? It is difficult to argue that his peculiar painting style makes him into a sexual object for students; it would be more likely to make him into an object of ridicule, or the butt of jokes, perhaps. Murmer took pains to hide his avocation on the web, calling himself “Stan Murmer” (not a very deceptive alias, I grant you) and wearing disguises (or sometimes just a towel over his head) in the various photos and videos of him “at work,” as in “sitting naked on a canvass.” Did his attempts at modesty and anonymity mitigate the damage from his unconventional activities or justify more lenient treatment from school administrators?
To answer the last question first, no not once the cat is out of the bag (or the butt is out of the studio). Indeed, the fact that Murmer attempted to hide the fact of his anatomical painting methods undercuts his current argument that there is nothing objectionable about them. He used disguises and a fake name precisely because he knew school administrators or a student’s parents were certain to find his artistic experiments inappropriate for a high school teacher. Nor do the comments of interviewers and critics that Murmer features on his website do much for his dignity or claims to legitimate role model status. Take these, for example:
There are many more in this vein, but you get the idea. Stan/Stephen is apparently proud of these accolades. He is also unapologetic, and has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia for help. The ACLU, whose lawyers are a good bet to be right at home with butt-painting since they so frequently fly by the seat of their pants, said Murmer has the constitutional right as a private citizen to paint however he chooses.
Kudos for stating the obvious, ACLU; Tamara Hoover also has the right to appear on the web doing jumping-jacks in the buff. That isn’t the issue, however, is it? The issue is whether a man who publicizes the fact that he paints pictures with his naughty bits and appears naked on the web wearing towels over his head while he squats over canvasses has a right to be a high school teacher. Maybe some befuddled court will say that he does, but that will be a legal ruling, not an ethical one.
The ethical verdict is this. Murmer can choose to be a high school teacher or he can choose to be a butt-painter. But the school has a legitimate interest in demanding that its teachers present role models who can reinforce the values of responsibility, dignity, civility, decency and honesty. A butt-painter who promotes his work while hiding his identity behind masks, towels and fake names cannot do this, nor can he demand the necessary respect from students for him to function as a teacher. What will be his response to the student who asks, “Who are you to tell me to take my cap off in class you paint with your butt!,” I wonder? How should he respond to students who avail themselves of the many puns and jokes his art inspires, many of which are available on Murmer’s own website?
Murmer’s disguises and other efforts to hide his identity on the web prove that he understood the incompatibility of his art and his profession, and while his situation is undoubtedly stranger, it is not all that different from the teacher who works as a stripper, a nude dancer, or a porn star. These are all legal pursuits, and, like butt-painting, arguably art. But when high school teachers engage in them, they must know that their activities can undermine their relationships with students and their effectiveness as teachers.
He made his choice, and the Chesterfield County school officials made theirs.
Theirs, at least, was the right one.