Oh, how Tom Benton would love to wade into this!

Indiana University has decided that its students should no longer be forced to attend classes in a room that contains part of a large mural painted by Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton in 1933, three years before he painted the mural at the Missouri Capitol.

An online petition had demanded removal from a classroom of the offensive section of the mural, which shows, amidst a lot of other things, a Ku Klux Klan rally with a burning cross. The university won’t remove it.  But the chancellor has decided the university won’t “force” students to see it—and, of course, ponder what it’s about.

The mural was created for the Indiana building at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, billed as “The Century of Progress.”  The entire mural is 230 feet long and fourteen feet high. It’s so big, much bigger than our capitol mural, that it is housed in three buildings on the campus at Bloomington, Indiana.

IU’s Provost, Lauren Robel, says in part of a 1,902 word statement, “While I believe that we can and should educate the public and our community about the murals, that intellectual work can and should take place in a context that does not involve the captive audience of classes devoted to other subjects.”  So, starting with the next semester, Room 100 in Woodburn Hall will be put to “other uses.”

The Indiana mural generated a certain amount of controversy from the start. Lawrence County (Indiana) Historical Society President Zora Askew said the mural “should offend the sensibilities of every Hoosier who has resect for the hardy pioneers from the East, West, North, and South that came to form the melting pot now known as Indiana.” State conservation director Richard Lieber, who supervised the mural’s creation, claimed the Klan had no significance in the state.  Benton wrote in his first autobiography, An Artist in America, that he arranged a happy hour with some legislators and invited Lieber, rigging the meeting so someone would ask if he thought the Klan was important to Indiana history. Benton responded that he was doubtful but appealed to the legislators. “They being newly-elected Democratic politicians, while the Klan business occurred under Republican auspices, promptly informed me that it was of immense importance and had nearly ruined the state,” Benton wrote. “When they got through airing the importance of the Klan, I shouldn’t have dared to leave the organization out of the factual history of Indiana.”

This writer would like to see Ms. Robel discuss the shutdown of the room as a classroom with Mr. Benton who has, fortunately for her perhaps, been dead since 1975.  But when he finished his Missouri mural in December, 1936, he faced severe criticism from people who didn’t like some of the things in it–a baby’s naked bottom, a depiction of bank and train robber Jesse James, an illustration of the violence of Missouri’s guerilla warfare (including a lynching) during the Civil War, the portrayal of a slave sale, and particularly a depiction of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast.

His critics felt the unsanitary parts of history had no business being on display in our state capitol that is otherwise decorated with depictions of Missouri’s more noble or victorious moments.

He didn’t give an inch to them.

The House Lounge for many years was a place where captive audiences often met. The House Appropriations Committee, particularly, used to hold its hearings there. State department representatives were forced to sit in a room surrounded by images that might make them “uncomfortable” and justify their budget requests, a process we guarantee you was much more uncomfortable than the images on the walls. The use of the room for hearings was abandoned in 1980 not because anybody was traumatized or might have been traumatized in some way, but because smoking was banned in the room because of the damage and potential damage to the mural.

Discomfort is a big reason for the decision, however, at Indiana University.  The university apparently doesn’t want any of its students in these post-Charlottesville days to be discomfited by a mural showing a part of Indiana’s history.

Indiana University historian James Capshaw is discomfited by those who try to link the panel to Charlottesville. He told the Star, “It’s not like a Confederate monument that was erected in the 19-teens or ‘20s that was specifically to enforce Jim Crow practices and basically put blacks in their place again…It’s very different from what’s going on in Charlottesville and other places.”

Roble seems to sympathize somewhat with Capshaw’s view that the mural should be discussed in the proper context but she says teachers don’t like time to be taken away from their courses to explain the significance of the mural segment. Furthermore, she maintains, such sessions haven’t worked.

The Indianapolis Star has reported a petition campaign was started by a 32-year old former IU student now living in Florida who said the school “has a responsibility to do something to address student and faculty discomfort,” although the newspaper reports she didn’t recall hearing much about the mural when she was a student in Bloomington. But now she has referred to the mural segment as “a symbol of hate” and worried that “something as simple as a picture can sometimes, to some people, be justification for those kind of acts.”  She wanted to have the panel taken down. In fact, she suggested the entire mural be removed from the campus and put in a museum “for educational purposes,” a place where it could become “a learning opportunity” instead of just “sitting in a classroom” (where, we note, educational purposes are practiced and learning opportunities are a constant).

A petition reflecting her concerns was circulated on campus in August. It got more than one-thousand signatures.

—on a campus that had more than 43,000 students for the start of the 2016-17 school year, with record numbers of minorities.

We haven’t seen the 2017-18 final fall enrollment figures. We also haven’t seen any breakouts of those thousand-or-so students showing how many of them have or have had classes in that room and how many of those who did were so distracted by Benton’s reference to the era when the Klan was a powerful political force in Indiana—as it was a force in 1920s Missouri—that it disrupted their school work.

Apparently the school’s VP for Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs carried no weight in the discussion.  James Wimbush, reports the newspaper, said the panel does not violate the university’s diversity statement: “It does not glorify or celebrate this particular dark episode of the KKK in Indiana, but instead shows that the state’s past has shameful moments the likes of which we do not want to see again, ever.”

And Benton, who believed history had to be taken “warts and all,” would probably appreciate his comment that, “It’s important to understand the state’s history—the good and the bad.”   Wimbush said the mural segment offered a teachable moment.

But instead of using it to teach, the university is going to shield its students from the opportunity to learn a lesson available for eighty years from Benton’s painting.

Roble, by the way, ruled out covering the panel with cloth because would amount to censorship.  Apparently making sure students are not exposed to it during their classes is not.

We do not intend to try to get inside Benton’s head and divine today what he would argue specifically with Roble’s decision.  He did, after all, defend the rights of institutions to do with their public art what they wished.  He went in 1954 to Lincoln University in Jefferson City for a meeting of the National Conference of Teachers of Art in Negro Colleges where he was asked, “Does the public have the right to criticize the symbols of a mural or maybe erase it off the wall?”   He responded:

It boils down to whether the public has the right to destroy the work of an artist…It was never, in ancient times or medieval times, believed that an institution which didn’t like a picture didn’t also have the right to get it out of the way…The question of the property value in works of art is a difficult one to decide even today. Current educated sentiment seems to be with the artist—that is, if the artist puts his soul into a thing, it is believed the average buyer hasn’t the right to destroy it…Certainly, if the majority of the people in a community object to a mural, I really don’t see what the artist can legally do to keep them from boarding it up, or tearing it down, or doing whatever they want with it…Has the community the right to get rid of something it doesn’t like?  Well, generally, even in the most liberal society, I’d say the answer would be “Yes.” 

Benton’s 1954 response would seem to support Roble’s 2017 decision. But, based on his defenses of his Missouri mural, he might question whether the rationale behind letting a few petition-signers representing only a small, small part of the student body make the entire university overly sensitive when public dialogue is so badly needed in the face of events in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

“The purpose of a work of art is not so much to tell what the artist’s thoughts were as to stimulate thoughts in those who view it,” Benton wrote in 1940. “A cartoon tells a specific story and lasts a day—a work of art tells as many stories as there are people to see it. It lasts by that power to continually stimulate…”

We are left to wonder how putting Benton’s painting out of sight and out of mind for young people whose lives going forward desperately need the stimulation of history, “warts and all,” serves education’s oft-stated goal of creating a thinking, responsible society.

(The writer of this entry is the author of Only the Rivers are Peaceful: Thomas Hart Benton’s Missouri Mural, published in 1989.  The photograph of the classroom is from the Indiana Daily Student newspaper. Benton is from Angiesdiay.com.)

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We do not intend with this entry to diminish the extensive thought process behind Provost Robel’s decision, but only to question the decision—as Benton questioned the inclinations of those who sought to keep the public from thinking about the issues raised in his Missouri Capitol mural.  In fairness to her, we offer from the September 29, 2017 edition of The Indianapolis Star her entire memo:

Dear IU Bloomington Community,

I write to discuss the Benton Murals. In 1933, Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned by the State of Indiana to create the Indiana Murals for the Chicago World’s Fair. This work, which has become Benton’s most enduring artistic accomplishment, contains a self-portrait embedded in the panel entitled “Indiana Puts Her Trust in Thought.” Some eight decades after their creation, the murals serve as a vivid reminder of the strength and resiliency of a community that puts its trust in thoughtful reflection and dialogue about its past, present, and future.

I apologize in advance for the length of this communication, but the subject is complicated, the history is long, and the factors to be balanced are many. I therefore put my trust, as always, in your willingness to think carefully with me, and look forward to the discussion and ideas I am sure this letter will spark.

Herman B Wells brought the Benton Murals to the Bloomington campus several years after the World’s Fair. At the time, the IU Auditorium and several other buildings around the Fine Arts Plaza were under construction, and Wells saw the murals as ideal centerpieces for a burgeoning campus arts district. As a result, Indiana University is now steward to this astonishing and celebrated work of art, a 22-panel mural sequence displayed in three separate venues on the campus. Two of those spaces, the IU Auditorium and the IU Cinema, are performance and artistic venues. One, Woodburn Hall 100, is currently used as a large classroom.

The classroom contains a panel of the murals that has repeatedly sparked controversy, as it includes a depiction of a Ku Klux Klan rally and a burning cross. The imagery in that panel, entitled “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press,” has been controversial since its creation. Benton’s intent was to show the role that the press had played in battling the Klan through exposing the Klan’s corruption of and infiltration into all levels of Indiana government in the 1920s. At the time of the mural’s creation, many opposed Benton’s decision to include the Klan, because they did not want to portray Indiana in a negative light, and the memories of the Klan’s political influence were still raw. Benton, however, overcame this opposition, and maintained artistic control. He believed that his murals needed to show all aspects of the state’s history, even the ugly and discomfiting parts, so we could confront the mistakes of the past.

Understood in the light of all its imagery and its intent, Benton’s mural is unquestionably an anti-Klan work. Unlike statues at the heart of current controversies, Benton’s depiction was intended to expose the Klan’s history in Indiana as hateful and corrupt; it does not honor or even memorialize individuals or the organization as a whole. Everything about its imagery—the depiction of the Klan between firefighters and a circus; the racially integrated hospital ward depicted in the foreground suggesting a different future ahead—speaks to Benton’s views. Every society that has gone through divisive trauma of any kind has learned the bitter lesson of suppressing memories and discussion of its past; Benton’s murals are intended to provoke thought.

Throughout history, art has served many purposes, often to lift up and honor a subject but also at times to call attention to something that is deserving of our condemnation. It is a mistake, therefore, to assume that a depiction of an historical event is the same as honoring it. Picasso, for example, depicted the horrible bombing and destruction of the village of Guernica in one of his most famous and admired paintings. It shows the consequences of the fascist bombings of a Basque village not to glorify that tragedy but to condemn it. That painting now serves as a powerful anti-war and anti-fascist work of art. It does so by depicting and calling our attention not to what we are honoring but to what we are condemning. I believe the same can be said for the Benton murals.

Nevertheless, the imagery in this panel of the murals is vivid, startling, and disturbing; and to reach the conclusion I just stated about the meaning of the mural requires work and time studying the mural and its interrelated images. Like most great art, Benton’s murals require context and history. Many well-meaning people, without having the opportunity to do that work, wrongly condemn the mural as racist simply because it depicts a racist organization and a hateful symbol.

However, even with the proper information and education, many students still feel strongly that a Klan rally and burning cross looming over their classes seriously impedes their learning. For some of our students, the burning cross is a symbol of terror that has haunted their families for generations. For others, the robed Klansman has figured in personal family or community tragedies and anguish. These reactions are absolutely reasonable on their face, and as Charlottesville shows, they are not ancient history. They have to be reckoned with, but it is far from clear that the reckoning should be an inevitable part of a class in finite mathematics, macroeconomics, organic chemistry, or gross anatomy and physiology—all classes taught regularly in this space—particularly since the burden of that reckoning inevitably falls more heavily on students whose race or religion have made their families the historical targets of the Klan.

Every few years, since at least the 1980s, the campus has grappled with the presence of the Benton Murals in Woodburn. We are entrusted with the preservation of this important work of art, yet we must also do everything possible to promote a civil and inclusive campus that provides equal opportunity for all to learn. What to do?

This question becomes especially urgent whenever events such as the march of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville and the current national debate over Confederate monuments occur. These broader conversations become deeply local, and we must come to a decision as a community on how to handle public art and memory as it pertains to the Benton Murals on our campus. On at least eight occasions since the 1980s, diverse committees of faculty, students, and staff have considered the issues raised by the controversial panel. Our campus has held town halls, symposia, and conferences to discuss the panel and its impact, including just this week a faculty-led discussion organized by PACE on “Art, Public Memory & Racial Justice.” Such efforts have consistently led to the conclusion that we need to do what Indiana University does best: educate. We have called on our community to educate through discussions of history, art history, African American and African Diaspora Studies, American Studies, and every discipline that touches on how a controversial and anti-racist piece of art should be contextualized and understood.

I agree that the proper response to the Benton Murals is education, and I have been the beneficiary of a review of the work of all of these previous efforts. However, most committees have concluded that this education needs to be done in every class taught in Woodburn 100. As a result, well-intentioned efforts to require ameliorating discussion of the murals there have foundered, and ultimately been abandoned, multiple times. Instructors without appropriate academic backgrounds feel unprepared for the discussion that should surround such a sensitive set of issues, and unhappy to be taking class time for discussions that have nothing to do with the subject of the class and everything to do with the room it is in. Students are captive audiences in Woodburn 100, and those with repeated classes there resent the repeated discussions related to the classroom art, as opposed to the subject-matter of their classes.

The murals cannot be moved. Benton painted them using egg tempera paint, which has become extremely fragile over time. Moreover, the space in Woodburn 100 was designed specifically to house the two panels that now hang there, and they were installed in such a way that moving them would almost certainly cause irreparable damage. Nor does the notion of covering them with a curtain accord with our responsibility as stewards of this precious art. Covering the murals feels like censorship and runs counter to the expressed intent of the artist to make visible moments in history that some would rather forget. Furthermore, covering the murals during class periods would leave them hidden for the vast majority of time and create a situation in which the decision to uncover them could be used by some as a symbolic act in support of the very ideology the murals are intended to criticize.

However, there is nothing sacrosanct about using Woodburn 100 as a classroom. While I believe that we can and should educate the public and our community about the murals, that intellectual work can and should take place in a context that does not involve the captive audience of classes devoted to other subjects. Therefore, Woodburn 100 will convert to other uses beginning in the spring semester 2018.

We have determined that we can accommodate almost all (and perhaps all) the classes typically taught there as early as this spring in other locations without a loss of classroom capacity, and we will certainly be able to accommodate them all elsewhere by summer. Like the other two venues in which the murals are displayed, Woodburn 100 can usefully serve other purposes, such as a gallery space and public lecture space, that are more conducive to teaching about the mural. Indeed, many departments and faculty members have expressed a need for more such spaces on campus, and Woodburn 100 offers a ready-made solution. Its adjacency to the arts corridor makes it particularly conducive to these purposes and will also allow us to install interactive media that can educate those who come for the gallery space or for other events. We could also put this art in conversation with other pieces of art the campus owns or could borrow, which would allow us to much better use the murals’ potential for education and engagement than the current configuration allows. I believe that repurposing the room is the best accommodation of the multiple factors that the murals raise: our obligation to be a welcoming community to all of our students and facilitate their learning; our stewardship of this priceless art; and our obligation to stand firm in defense of artistic expression. I invite community members to think creatively about how best to use this repurposed space to engage with the issues the murals present.

The Benton Murals are a national treasure. They depict the social progression of Indiana history—including, explicitly, the promise and hope of racial integration and a free press arising out of the fight against the political influence of the Klan—through the visceral and powerful vision of one of the most significant artists of the period. Indiana University is the steward of this incredible public art, we are bound to protect it and educate the world about it, and we will do so in ways that are pedagogically appropriate. Our primary mission is to teach students to think critically and deeply about the world, and great art is an important route to that end. We will continue to strive for this ideal, and challenge each other to think intensively and critically about art, history, diversity, and inclusion, and what it means to be a citizen of this university, state, and the world. Benton’s work deserves no less.”

— Lauren Robel, executive vice president and provost

 

 

 

One thought on “Oh, how Tom Benton would love to wade into this!

  1. What a crock of academic double-speak! “Our primary mission is to teach students to think critically and deeply about the world, and great art is an important route to that end. We will continue to strive for this ideal, and challenge each other to think intensively and critically about art, history, diversity, and inclusion, and what it means to be a citizen of this university, state, and the world. Benton’s work deserves no less.”

    But we won’t put classes in that room because some snowflake is upset.

    This type of thinking is what propelled Trump to victory.

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