Typically, when we hear about art censorship in the news, the story follows a familiar course. There’s the provocative artwork, which until that moment had been known only to a few people. There’s a person or group of people who take offense. And, whether out of their own distaste or a sense of obligation to community standards, the offended parties try to remove, exclude or conceal the artwork from public view. As spectators, our collective gaze turns to the work just long enough to ask questions like “Is this art or pornography?” or “Does this offend me?” More often than not, freedom of expression prevails.

This week we learned of a case that didn’t seem to fit any of these criteria. The artwork in question, by middle-school teacher Lynnette Sproch, included simple depictions of nudity around the themes of mothering and its relationship to the cycle of life. The work, though it showed women’s breasts, was not sexual in nature, nor could it reasonably be said that Sproch had made the work in order to shock or offend.

There were also disagreements about who was doing the censoring. The work was supposed to appear in a group exhibition of work by RSU 20 teachers currently on view at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center. Sproch withdrew her work after learning that the school planned to exhibit the work in the building’s art classroom rather than in the corridor with other works in the same show.

Hutchinson Center Director Sue McCullough said there were no complaints about the work, which was withdrawn before the show opened in March. McCullough herself called the work “beautiful” and “very sensitively done.” The decision to segregate Sproch’s work, she said, was made in order to avoid offending anyone. Sproch made the decision to remove her work from the show rather than have it marginalized, leading McCullough to say that Sproch had censored the work by not allowing it to be displayed at all.

On that last point, we strongly disagree. Marginalization is a form of censorship, and Sproch, by removing her work, was simply responding to having been censored. We have no doubt that McCullough and the staff of the Hutchinson Center were trying to strike a balance between allowing freedom of expression and protecting visitors to the Hutchinson Center who might be offended by depictions of nudity. But as the institution of “free speech zones” on college campuses has shown in recent years, this approach makes a farce of the very thing it purports to stand for.

Art serves a critical role in the public discourse precisely because it exposes us to new ideas, challenges our prejudices, illuminates our shame and causes any number of other reactions, not all of them comfortable. Sproch’s work does not give us any discomfort, but what if it did?

If the community standards in Belfast don’t allow for depictions of nudity in art, we would be very surprised. Furthermore, this discussion can’t happen if the community is discouraged from participating, which is what happens when the artwork that would test the boundaries is hard to find. Singling out artwork and segregating it also unfairly casts a shadow of doubt on the work.

McCullough said the decision to segregate Sproch’s work was a difficult one. It shouldn’t be. In questions of whether or not to display a work of art in public, the answer, every time, must be “yes.”

It will be OK.