The answer is: They weren’t. And it leaves thousands of people wondering if there is any limit to stupidity. Or ignorance. Or bad manners. Or lack of consideration. Or…….
Sometimes you just can’t find the words.
We’ve been contacted by a number of people during the last few days asking if we’ve seen this picture. Yes, we have, several times now. Your faithful scribe does not do Facebook or Linked In and twitters, twits, tweets—whatever the heck it is—only for limited professional reasons because I have better things to do with my time. I do not disparage those who do spend considerable time each day being involved with a large network of people they do and don’t know. Call me a curmudgeon. I wear the hat proudly.
Anyway, yes, I’ve seen it. Somebody asked for my reaction. It was instant.
This is inexcusable behavior by someone I otherwise would have assumed to have a certain level of intelligence and common sense. These people are displaying behavior that one might expect from an ignorant third-grader and are endangering one of the greatest works of one of America’s foremost 20th century artists and showing disrespect for the greatest work of art in our Capitol. They might also be placing themselves in some legal jeopardy, depending on whether there is any damage to public property. There are tables in the House Lounge where they could have done their writing. Thoughtlessness is not in itself a punishable offense. But these two people should at the very least publicly apologize for their unthinking behavior.
Bob Priddy, author of ONLY THREE RIVERS ARE PEACEFUL:THE MISSOURI MURAL OF THOMAS HART BENTON and THE ART OF THE MISSOURI CAPITOL: HISTORY IN BRONZE, CANVAS, AND STONE.
Dave Marner, the Owensville newspaper publisher who took the picture, called me during the weekend and we talked at some length about this incident. His photograph has gone viral and has generated worldwide scorn. We know who the woman is: Valinda Freed of Randolph County, the vice chairwoman of the Missouri Republican Party, who was in the House Lounge for a rally urging the legislature to overturn Governor Nixon’s Right to Work bill veto. As another friend of mine has written, “I don’t know the jackass joining in alongside her.”
Another friend who has worked in and around the capitol for a long, long time, sent me a note that said, “It also made me think of the definition of a word you don’t hear much anymore, “philistine”
The incident and the photographic record of it have stirred up a fecal hurricane. Ms. Freed, after a couple of days in the eye of the hurricane, issued an apology to the Kansas City Star. “I offer my sincere apologies for my completely unplanned and thoughtless act. The Thomas Hart Benton mural, and all the magnificent artwork in the Capitol are state and national treasures,” she wrote. She didn’t elaborate and as far as we know hasn’t done any interviews.
The “jackass” next to her in the picture hasn’t revealed himself or issued any statement regretting his action. In addition to being a “philistine,” he does not appear to be much of a gentleman because he continues to let Ms. Freed take the fall.
It is also worth noting that this incident is not nearly so sad as the ongoing neglect of the other “state and national treasures” in our capitol. No other state capitol can match the quantity and the quality of art that we find in Missouri’s Capitol. Decades of deterioration of the structure and its art are far more egregious than what Ms. Freed and her friend have done. The state is spending forty-million dollars to fix a major foundation leakage problem under the main stairway on the south front of the building, a project so big that it might have an impact on the staging of the inauguration of new state officials in January, 2017. Those who love the Capitol hope governors-to be and legislatures yet to come will find as much enthusiasm about investing in the capitol as they seem to find in granting favors to interests of economic capital.
It is also fair to note that they were not writing on the painting. They were leaning against it, putting their hands on it, writing on business cards or something. Their “thoughtless act” did have a positive element to it.
It triggered an outrage on behalf of art and culture. We are living in a political time when there appears to be little room for appreciation of the arts and the values they bring to society. The loud insistence from many that their definition of “family values” be the rigid foundation of society seems to leave little room for the liberal freedoms that the arts should communicate.
We do not think, as we view Ms. Freed’s actions, that they are symbolic of that attitude. We do not believe that she intended her thoughtless action to be a commentary on the arts, certainly not Thomas Hart Benton’s use of the arts to celebrate the efforts of independent citizens to build a diverse, serious, sometimes corrupt but always dynamic state.
While her apology strikes some as inadequate, this viewer wonders what more she could say. Clearly the photograph has been a gigantic embarrassment to her and for some time to come she will be known to some folks as “that woman who….” So let’s let her statement stand. She need not immolate herself on the town square to express her remorse. We do, however, wish that her friend showed at least some class and also apologized instead of letting her get the full load from the hurricane.
Those in Missouri as well as outside the state who have generated that hurricane would do well to retain their indignation and use it to evaluate people, parties, and causes to whom art and culture are on the periphery—at best—of their vision