Ethics Quiz: Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s Fresco

Fresco

In 1934, under the auspices of the New Deal’s Public Works of Art program, artist Ann Rice O’Hanlon painted a fresco (the largest ever painted by a woman up to that time) in the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall. It has become famous and is much admired by art historians, and thousands of Kentucky students have walked past it through the decades. The large, six section artwork depicts many events, industries, traditions and activities that were significant to the state, invented in Kentucky or by Kentuckians, as well as historical events. Among the scenes shown are black slaves picking tobacco and black musicians serenading whites.

Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s masterpiece became the target of choice at Kentucky as the University ‘s black students were seeking to emulate the power plays by their equivalents at the University of Missouri, Yale, Amherst, Harvard Law, Dartmouth and other institutions. The Kentucky students held a meeting with president Eli Capilouto and argued that the fresco was offensive, as it relegated black people to roles as slaves or servants, and did not portray the cruelty of slavery and the later Jim Crow culture that existed in the state.  Capilouto capitulated, agreeing to move the work to “a more appropriate location.” In the meantime, Kentucky will cover up the 45-by-8-foot fresco while adding a sign explaining why the mural is obscured.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is this:

Should a university remove works of art on campus because particular groups of students or individual members of such groups find the artwork upsetting, offensive, or a negative influence on their experience?

Did I state that neutrally enough? I meant to, because I think it’s a tighter question that my initial instincts suggested.

I like this issue, which goes to the current controversy over “safe spaces” for African American students. I can understand how a giant work of art uncritically depicting their ancestors being subjugated could be legitimately upsetting to some students, and how having this artwork in a central location on campus could be considered oppressive. I also can understand why a school’s administration would reason that the principle of artistic expression isn’t worth fighting for in this context, and that agreeing to move the fresco is the better part of valor, especially when colleges around the country are coming apart at the seams.

The argument for removing the fresco to another locale is consistent with the Second Niggardly Principle, which states:

“When an individual or group can accomplish its legitimate objectives without engaging in speech or conduct that will offend individuals whose basis for the supposed offense is emotional, mistaken or ignorant, but is not malicious and is based on well-established impulses of human nature, it is unethical to intentionally engage in such speech or conduct.”

Is the fresco objectively offensive? It’s an easy call: it isn’t. The fresco is art and it is history. African Americans are not depicted engaged in any activity they didn’t in fact engage in, and history is not “offensive;”  once we go down that road, we will be sending names and events down the memory hole before you can say “Woodrow Wilson.”

Nor can the fresco be fairly criticized for what it does not include. It was not painted as a civil rights statement, not was the artist in any way required to make it political. The fresco does not excuse slavery; it merely shows that the practice is part of Kentucky’s history, and it is. This is one of the essential purposes of art. Eliminate all graphic imagery of civilization’s flaws, and we risk forgetting those flaws, or deceiving ourselves into thinking that they may never corrupt us again, or worse, that they never existed. Art, moreover, is supposed to be disturbing, jarring, and able to stir powerful emotions. When a work does that, it is not “offensive.” It is art.

My analysis of this quiz is that the Second Niggardly Principle doesn’t apply here; the Third Niggardly Principle does. It states..

When, however, suppressing speech and conduct based on an individual’s or a group’s sincere claim that such speech or conduct is offensive, however understandable and reasonable this claim may be, creates or threatens to create a powerful precedent that will undermine freedom of speech, expression or political opinion elsewhere, calls to suppress the speech or conduct must be opposed and rejected.”

If the fresco had just been painted, or if its owner gave it to the school last month, then the Second Niggardly Principle would apply, because nothing would have to be removed, and there would be no appearance of airbrushing history and suppressing art to spare feelings. In that scenario, the school could and should choose to put the fresco where it was accessible to students but not unavoidable. That is not the situation, however. There is no way to remove the fresco, which in artistically representing a racist time does not engage in racism, endorse it or minimize it in any way, and not create a precedent for censoring all art that any individual or group with sufficient influence chooses to call objectionable.

In his thoughtful but ultimately unpersuasive essay about the fresco controversy, the University of Kentucky’s president wrote in part…

But remember this: the mural was created at a time and in a place when there were no African American students or faculty. The educational benefit of diversity was not recognized as a value. Fortunately, our community is very different now — compellingly diverse and more complete.

One African American student recently told me that each time he walks into class at Memorial Hall he looks at the black men and women toiling in tobacco fields and receives the terrible reminder that his ancestors were enslaved, subjugated by his fellow humans. Worse still, the mural provides a sanitized image of that history. The irony is that artistic talent actually  painted over the stark reality of unimaginable brutality, pain, and suffering.

Each time our student passes the images on his way to class or a movie or a speaker, this student — one of us — must confront humiliating images that bear witness to how we still fall short of being citizens together in what Dr. King called the “beloved community.” And countless other current students, faculty, staff, prospective students and their families, and other visitors to our campus, endure the same pain when they walk into one of our University’s signature and busiest venues. Moreover, this is often the first exposure people have to our campus, our culture, and our values.

This cannot continue. In spite of the artist’s admirable, finely honed skill that gave life to the mural, we cannot allow it to stand alone, unanswered by and unaccountable to the evolutionary trajectory of our human understanding and our human spirit.

No. Baloney.

I. The first paragraph quoted is nonsense. Is every work of art, piece of architecture, honored historical speech or memorial going to be held to the standard of “If we wouldn’t do it the same way today, then it has to go”? The University of Kentucky is an institution of education! How people thought, acted, spoke and painted long ago teaches invaluable lessons, including perspective. Courses could be taught in many disciplines about O’Hanlon’s work. So what if there were no black faculty members or students on campus when she painted it? If diversity means that there are just more ways to find art and speech worthy of censorship, we need to rethink the virtues of diversity.

2. “One African American student recently told me that each time he walks into class at Memorial Hall he looks at the black men and women toiling in tobacco fields and receives the terrible reminder that his ancestors were enslaved, subjugated by his fellow humans.”  Wait: he wants to forget this? White Americans live with being reminded of this every day, and being told by black activists that we must never forget it. This is cultural and national history, and colleges aren’t supposed to make it easier to forget history. Aren’t there black students who walk by the mural who are inspired by it, being reminded of the great progress their race has achieved, symbolized by the fact that they are walking by the mural as students, and not tobacco harvesters? Why is the negative experience more important than the positive one?

As for the sensitive student, he needs to be told what Brookings scholar Jonathan Rauch warned in his response to the University of Missouri protests:

“Warning:Although this university values and encourages civil expression and respectful personal behavior, you may at any moment, and without further notice, encounter ideas, expressions and images that are mistaken, upsetting, dangerous, prejudiced, insulting or deeply offensive. We call this education.”

It is tragic that administrators like Eli Capilouto lack the integrity, sense of responsibility, and courage to tell students that.

3. “Each time our student passes the images on his way to class or a movie or a speaker, this student — one of us — must confront humiliating images that bear witness to how we still fall short of being citizens together in what Dr. King called the “beloved community.”

If pictures of people from another era are truly humiliating, the student needs a psychiatric intervention. Does he really not comprehend the concept of art? Get to work, Eli: your school has a job to do. This student is so sensitive to historical images that he will not be able to function in society. As for a work of art bearing witness to ” how we still fall short of being citizens together in what Dr. King called the “beloved community” —is the alternative ponies and rainbows and images that communicate that all is hunky-dory?

As I read it, Capilouto is making the case for the fresco, and doesn’t know it.

4. “This cannot continue.” If it cannot continue, then he is endorsing the censorship of any and all expressive art. The hell it can’t continue. If he does not stand up for the fresco, than literally any artwork will be vulnerable to the same attack, except when the attackers represent a position the school deems, because of its biases, illegitimate.

5. The closing statement is gibberish:

“In spite of the artist’s admirable, finely honed skill that gave life to the mural, we cannot allow it to stand alone, unanswered by and unaccountable to the evolutionary trajectory of our human understanding and our human spirit.”

Allow me to translate, as I have read and heard and experienced the carnage wreaked by artistically ignorant people for a very long time. Because some people are upset by this work of art, the artist must be robbed of her right to have her work experienced by viewers as she painted it and intended it, by having its impact distorted by words and “equal time” arguments by non-artists with political biases and agendas as well as dislocation from the perspective of the artist.  That’s truly offensive. History answers questions posed by art. Culture answers them. Education. Removing the art answers nothing, and enlightens nobody.

It just says, “Shut up. We don’t want to think about it.”

The answer to today’s quiz is NO.

 

48 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s Fresco

  1. So it doesn’t have to stand alone, Do a fresco of Kentucky and the 20th century across the hall and include Dr King, Jackie Robinson, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and luminaries of every race. There! it’s NOT standing alone and reminds the kid that they can achieve too.

      • No, I’d rather they do a stick figure rebuttal than take down noted art that is still teaching. I don’t think the stick figure is going to detract from the history and meaning of the original fresco, it would underline the silliness of the PC version. The offended want to take it down because of what they are seeing as political content over artistic integrity, which is the very bad idea. I want to preserve the original’s existence and prominence.

        I suspect the rebuttal fresco would bog down in partisanship over what to feature and condemn as not offending someone is almost impossible,

  2. Just looking at the fresco, or at least the part shown above, and reading the title of this post, I immediately assumed the fresco had been painted this year. The merry white folks are riding in a train rolling on tracks that are literally supported by the backs of the early prostrate slaves tending to the cute little baby tobacco plants. This woman was a professional painter painting in the 1930s. She knew about perspective and foreshortening. This is not a medieval tapestry for God’s sake. Doesn’t anyone else see what she’s saying about how Kentucky was built? Hello? Aren’t there any art historians at Kentucky to explain the piece? Just basketball fans?

    And anyway, where are all the Bourbon stills? Oh! I guess they’re cleverly hidden and out of sight. Silly me. Maybe there are at least a few revenuers.

  3. This fresco has been at the university for EIGHTY YEARS. But now, in some magical burst of insight, these so-called students find portions of it offensive and demand its removal? Hardly. What this is is a blatant means of acquiring power by blackmail. Give in to our demands (and whatever other later demands that might suit us) or we’ll denounce you as racist and make all sorts of trouble on campus and create negative publicity in the (willing) media. After all, it’s worked at almost every campus on which it’s been tried. Radical professors and cowardly administrators have made it nearly a slam dunk. Nor will the state governments, under which the bulk of American colleges operate, step in to straighten things out. They fear yet another factor, a thoroughly corrupt federal government that’s aligned with the protesting students’ agenda.

  4. The American thing to do, when you see art you don’t like, would be to make better art that you DO like. But it doesn’t feel like we’re in America anymore.

  5. I believe some moronic Supreme Court Justice once said that he couldn’t define pornography, but that he “knew it when he saw it.” So now art — of any kind, in any venue, of any age, of any significance, with any history attached to it — can be deemed “offensive” by one, two, or fifteen people and demand that it be removed from sight. They “know it when they see it,” and it has to go. We are falling into a deep ditch here. Let’s all go the the National Gallery of Art and remove every single piece of art that offends one or more people. Why not? Will the head of the Smithsonian bow to that? Why shouldn’t he/she?

    Personally, I am offended by all the works of Jackson Pollock, believing firmly that he laughed all the way to the bank with his “art” — e.g., simply big splashes of color thrown on a canvas. (But then, I’m a Vermeer fan…) How many others find Jackson Pollock offensive and stupid? I should demand that all his works — wherever they may hang — be removed from sight?

    Our colleges should just give it up. They are dying because their leaders are cowards. It is no wonder that we can’t lead in world politics when we can’t even defend our own rights on our own shores. Our leaders — public, private — are cowards, bending to idiotic demands, moronic analyses, and “personal” offenses of the most trivial kind.

    This was no way to start my Sunday morning. Think I’ll go back to bed and hope I don’t wake up.

    • I really, really like Jackson Pollack. His pieces are worth seeing in person, E. I. You can get right up close to them. The control is amazing. As are the energy and movement. No, he’s not Vermeer. And I doubt Pollack laughed to the bank. He was too busy smoking and drinking himself to death at a sadly early age. Probably self-medicating.

  6. While it is probably the parents in many cases who are paying for the students to attend, ultimately they are presumed to be the ones paying to be there however the money came into their hands.

    With that in mind yes, much like in the case of inviting speakers that the students do not want, the university should be treating its students as customers with the administrates there to provide what the students want (within the requirements to stay accredited) rather than dictating to them.

    If the administration treated students like paying adults to be worked with rather than children to command maybe they wouldn’t have to resort to protesting.

    the artist must be robbed of her right to have her work experienced by viewers as she painted it and intended it, by having its impact distorted by words and “equal time” arguments by non-artists with political biases and agendas as well as dislocation from the perspective of the artist. That’s truly offensive.

    Actually it’s rather offensive that you think an artist is owed an audience though no doubt there are museums that would be happy to display the work and put up signs explaining the context.

    • Well congratulations, you’ve described why the students are ABLE to get away with this nonsense. You’ve said nothing about whether they SHOULD.
      What students are paying for is supposed to be an education. Banning history and ideas that you don’t like from an educational institution is the antithesis of that. So yes, students can legally whine and cry to administrators, and if enough of them make a stink, they can get their way. But in that case, it can no longer honestly be said that what they want is an education. It is, as others have more eloquently said, a very expensive daycare for sensitive, arrested-development man-children. And by making these irrational demands, they are devaluing the worth of a diploma from such an institution, which in the long run only hurts them.

        • Huh? The people in the cafeterias are there to serve the students. The administrators are there to allow the faculty to educate the students.

        • I just have to question why you thought it was important that the derogatory term “man-children” be amended to specifically include women.

          And hey, I’m going to demand that my local hospital get a McDonald’s put in for the patients next time I have to stay there…since they’re there to serve me and all. Also they should not employ any doctors or use any medicines that I personally disagree with. Who pays your bills, doctor man?

          • I just have to question why you portray the default human as male. Are the women unworthy of your notice, unworthy of your insults or just not assumed to have enough agency to be involved at all?

            • Because “man” is also short for “mankind” and because “man and woman-children,” “person-children” “people-children” and “adult-children” all sound stupid. So “man-children” it is. I’ll add a trigger-warning next time.

              • Funny. But I’ve already read that book. Joanna Russ wrote in in 1975.

                “perhaps never. But men of good will”
                Did he hear that?
                “and women, too, of course, you understand that the word ‘men’ includes the word ‘women’; it’s only usage”
                Everyone must have his own abortion.
                “and not really important. You might even say” (he giggles) ” ‘everyone and his husband’ or ‘everyone will be entitled to his own abortion’ ” (he roars)

                • I’d rather be part of mankind, than changing every usage to neuter. (Joanna Russ’s works don’t hold up very well as SF stories, they lecture. Good SF/F, like any art, shows instead of telling and lecturing)

                    • I’ve got two stacks of his books wedged in my shelves among other writers. His comments in Expanded Universe about his beliefs behind ST hint that he would be appalled by the movie, as Trooper was a extended appeal to step up (as citizen soldiers, which had to be earned through public service) against totalitarianism and mushy thinking. The hero’s drill instructor was big on smacking weak thinking and was more important than the shower arrangements. Heinlein’s treatment of female characters was poor, but he came of age around WW1, so you have to keep the good stuff, and forgive him where he was just like the standard of that time.

                    • Good SF/F, like any art, shows instead of telling and lecturing

                      And yet you love Starship Troopers.

                      Cognitive dissonance much?

                  • The fact that that entire conversation about the word “manchildren” even took place, feels like a small victory for the forces of stupid, sadly.

  7. The artist was already carefully directed by the government to only portray “uplifting” scenes. The mural was not a spontaneous outpouring of artistic sensibilities. I think the criticism of the mural thus is valid.

    PWAP policies emphasized the positive, the uplifting, and the progressive as opposed to the negative, the depressing, and the radical.

    When a regional director from New Orleans asked if his artists could portray
    the dying scenes of the Old South, the Negro shanties, the wooden plows, the stills, Bruce carefully replied that the Eighteenth Amendment had been repealed and there was a new deal in art and liquor- Why not get your boys to depict the grand new high power, mass production stills that are turning
    out good liquor for the new administration?

    Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s Kentucky mural clearly manifests the regulatory ethos
    of the PWAP, particularly its privileging of less controversial representations
    of 1930s American social life.

    http://www.academia.edu/17309558/Conservatism_Landscape_and_the_South_in_Ann_Rice_OHanlons_New_Deal_Mural

    • I don’t see the logic. Slavery was hardly approved of by the Roosevelt Administration. She certainly wasn’t airbrushing history. The work was commissioned…when works are commissioned, the artists still have artistic discretion. She deserves praise for including the slavery images. You can’t seriously believe that the New Deal believed that images of slavery were uplifting.

      • A surprising number of people (then and now) think slavery was not at all bad, maybe even a good thing, and have a lot of nostalgia about the “good old days of the plantation”, which necessarily included slaves and slavery. Gone With the Wind did come out around this time and was a huge hit. Depicting slavery is fine, as long as they are all happy and whistling ad whatnot.

        • Again, that has nothing to do with this fresco, and certainly not the New Deal socialist-minded Depression Era programs that made it possible. You have to be crippled by confirmation bias to see the fresco (or Gone With the Wind, by the way) as suggesting that slavery is or was acceptable. Gone With The Wind was a huge hit because it was based on a best-selling novel and was extremely well-done in every respect.

          And you are arguing a straw man anyway. The issue is whether it is reasonable to see the fresco as “oppressive” today, and if it is for a small percentage of vulnerable souls, whether that justifies censoring the art. It isn’t, and it doesn’t.

          • I agree that Gone With the Wind was very well done. Which doesn’t mean that it is not a huge propaganda tool for the “Lost Cause” viewpoint. I think the depiction of slaves as simple-minded folks and “magical Negroes” and lionizing the KKK tips the author’s hand in that direction.

            So the issue is not that you personally feel the depiction of happy smiling slaves toiling in the fields is not oppressive enough, and you don’t understand why anyone else would think that either? Ok. If someone painted happy, smiling Jews skipping around a concentration camp, in a mural about German accomplishments, you don’t think people would have a problem with that? How long do you think that mural would stay up?

            • No, it’s that it doesn’t matter whether they think it’s oppressive or not. The art was not designed to be oppressive, and is of its time. As art, that’s how it is to be judged, along with its technique and skill—artistry. Removing public art from public view is no more nor less than removing Huckleberry Finn from library shelves because “someone” is or might be offended by it.

              • And since the mural is in no way the equivalent of “happy, smiling Jews skipping around a concentration camp,” it’s bogus argument. There is nothing false in the Kentucky mural. The slaves don’t look happy, they just look like slaves. If they were skipping and dancing in the fields, however, the fresco might never have gone up in the first place.

                  • Except…art doesn’t have to be equal. We don’t give Dogs Playing Poker prominent places in museums on par with a Van Gogh, no matter how many people seem to like that painting.

                    • Moving art that has been prominent to some back corner of the campus to appease/censor is the problem. The separate and lesser location is not equal. Separate and moved is not equal, that was a valuable decision a half century ago. It’s not being moved because they just got a lost painting by a big, big name artist from the school that is better. The art world has always been competitive. They are subtracting art because they have no better art that fits their view of fearful oppression (what they say) or the power of extortion(what they’re doing).

                      Any comments about WPA and their opinions are irrelevant, the art and the symbols’ meaning put in by the artist are more important than long dead patrons. After all, who remembers the name of Mona Lisa’s husband? Great art can be made on commission, pay does not diminish the art.

        • The railroad is supported on a veritable trestle of slaves’ backs. Doesn’t look much like a visual representation of “My Old Kentucky Home” to me.

          You mean the WPA artists were the first artists in history to do what they were told?

          • You mean the WPA artists were the first artists in history to do what they were told?

            Not really. But some were trying to use “artistic freedom and expression” as a defense to the mural, when the reality was that there was o such thing involved in the creation. The artist could have not depicted the grim reality of slavery even if she wanted to.

              • From an article about the fresco. Sounds as if she’s a candidate for the Woodrow Wilson treatment:

                O’Hanlon’s fresco also depicts quite a few African Americans. Her relatives had African American servants throughout her childhood; therefore, she had a great deal of respect for them. At this time, it was well before racism had reached Kentucky. Kentucky was more accepting than the bordering southern states. There was segregation, but not in the fashion the more southern areas possessed.

                And there’s this:

                The only audience O’Hanlon had while working was the university’s African American janitors. They would come in every night for their shift and watch her paint and occasionally bring her a snack. According to O’Hanlon, their curiosity was about the fresco’s design and the process in which it was being done. She received endless questions about it from them, which in turn kept her spirit up and gave her motivation and confidence to keep working on it.

                https://kentuckyfresco.wordpress.com/2011/12/11/ann-rice-ohanlons-fresco/

                The article is mostly about how in 2011 the fresco was largely under appreciated and ignored.

                • I have to give the entire article the side eye if this paragraph is representative:
                  Her relatives had African American servants throughout her childhood; therefore, she had a great deal of respect for them.
                  Definitely does not follow. I would assume some of the most virulent racists at the time also had African-American servants as well.

                  At this time, it was well before racism had reached Kentucky. Kentucky was more accepting than the bordering southern states. There was segregation, but not in the fashion the more southern areas possessed.

                  Kentucky was a slave state. I’m very certain that racism had reached its borders well before this mural was painted. The University of Kentucky did not desegregate its undergraduate school until forced to do so by Brown v. Board of Education.

                  • So, I guess all art and history from a slave state must be removed. Maybe Harvard and Yale should be obliterated. Their campuses could be turned into community gardens, or better yet, they could be returned to the tribes they were stolen from and turned into … casinos, which can be run by the mob.

  8. It’s hard enough to convince people that a college degree has value when these snowflakes are proving that they aren’t learning anything that make them more well-rounded and employable. If I were a student now, I’d be angry they’re costing me the wasted tuition and lowering the value of the sheepskin.

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