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.
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.