In defense of Peter Panse

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In defense of Peter Panse

From Laurie Fendrich

Published before 2005

Dear Mr. Crescenzo:

I am writing to protest the suspension of Peter Panse, an art teacher at Middletown High School. For the record, I do not know and have never met Mr. Panse; nor do I know any of the other people who are involved in the suspension of Mr. Panse from Middletown High School. I learned of the suspension by reading about it in the Times Herald-Record on Saturday, January 14, 2006.

Permit me some words of introduction. As a full professor with tenure at Hofstra University, I head the drawing and painting area of our fine arts department. At Hofstra, I am frequently on our portfolio review committee, which reviews portfolios of applicants for the purpose of distributing grant money to them. Additionally, I am a regular contributor of articles to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the premier newspaper of higher education in the United States. Finally, I lecture frequently on matters pertaining to art education at institutions of higher learning throughout the United States. This past August, for example, I gave the keynote convocation address at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

There is, as you should know, a multi-billion dollar American industry centered in the visual arts. Its abundant employment opportunities range from commercial, industrial and fashion design, through the motion picture and television professions, to positions at thousands of museums and galleries throughout the country. Talented young people can aspire to any one of the jobs associated with the arts—as long as they have the proper training. This training almost always includes a grounding in the fine arts—drawing, painting, sculpture—and, within the fine arts, education and experience in observational drawing, which includes, without exception, drawing the nude human figure. (Artists begin by drawing and then move quickly to figure drawing, including the nude. To succeed in any field—including computer art—students must be able to draw the figure well, and to do this requires drawing from observation of the nude figure.)

At many institutions of higher learning offering fine arts programs, portfolio reviews determine not only admission, but the distribution of scholarship funds. In my department at Hofstra, for example, we offer approximately $20,000 in yearly grants-in-aid, based on portfolio reviews. In my experience, any high school student who presents a portfolio demonstrating an ability to draw the nude human figure receives grant money because such a portfolio states that the student is ambitious, disciplined, committed to the arts, and mature.

High schools around the country embrace the idea that their students who are serious about art should obtain instruction and experience in drawing the nude model. And many art schools and colleges actually offer life drawing classes specifically for high school students. Adelphi University (only a few miles from Hofstra), for example, has been offering a high school nude figure drawing class for many years, and students from all over Long Island flock to it. If Middletown High School prohibits its students from participating in similar programs and unfairly punishes teachers who work to furnish such experience to their students, then Middletown High School students will be at a serious disadvantage in terms of both further education in art and employment in the fields above. Incidentally, my own art career was given a significant head start when, as a high school student back in 1965, I was invited by my high school art teacher to study drawing from the nude model during school hours in a class at Montclair State Teachers College in New Jersey (now Montclair College).

Western art centers on the nude, which a quick stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—where anyone over the age of 12 may visit unaccompanied by an adult—demonstrates. The art of the nude began with the Ancient Greeks and continued right through and beyond the Christian Renaissance. At the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, for example, thousands of visitors, including small children, stare up at a ceiling full of dozens of nude figures every day without the slightest protest from either the Pope, the clergy, or the awestruck visitors themselves. And yet your district has determined that drawing the nude isn’t appropriate for your high school students!

The suspension of Mr. Panse is an action that is an injustice to an exceptional teacher—one who is not only a member of the select National Board of Certified Teachers, but who also works outside of class for the benefit of students. But perhaps even more important and distressing, it is an injustice to the students at Middletown High School. By suspending Mr. Panse, your district displays a philistine repudiation of Western visual culture, a shocking ignorance of the way artists today are trained, and a complete disregard for the ultimate success of your own students.

I urge you to overturn immediately your suspension of Mr. Panse.

Yours truly,
Laurie Fendrich

cc: Dr. Kenneth Eastwood
    Mr. Peter Panse