In 1993, artist Sam Kerson painted a mural depicting the progression of American slavery from the slave trade through to the Underground railroad. “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” celebrates “the efforts of black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice,” as Kerson explains on his website. Here’s the second panel of the artwork…
Funded by a grant from the Puffin Foundation, the mural was mounted at the Chase Community Center at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont. African-American students had periodically taken offense at the artist’s style, and that reaction became a substantial movement after a white cop with a history of equal-opportunity bullying in Minneapolis managed to contribute to the death of a criminal resisting arrest who happened to be black. Naturally, this immediately affected what kind of art could be exhibited in public. I’m not being sarcastic: that’s what happened, as bizarre as it is.
Though Kerson has a long record of creating art in support of progressive causes, including works honoring civil rights heroes like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass, his intentions were deemed irrelevant by the protesting students, who had political and artistic objections. Students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski, echoing the accusations of the mob that decided that Dr. Suess’s art was racist, argued that the representations of blacks are “completely inaccurate”—gee, ya think?— adding, “Regardless of what story is being told, over-exaggerating Black features is not OK and should not be tolerated. White colonizers who are responsible for the horrors of slavery should not be depicted as saviors in the same light.”
I suppose whites should be similarly outraged at the green skin of one of the slave-traders. The students’ statement is racist at its core, claiming that the whites who engaged in the business of slavery were indistinguishable from the whites who worked to abolish it, all whites being, apparently, the same. The objections are also based in art ignorance, reminding me of an uncle who thought Picasso was a hack because his women “looked weird.” Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism, as well as American and Mexican muralism, are based in non-realistic portrayals of humans of all races, with the mural art Kerson practices especially notable for cartoon-like exaggerations.
Following a now familiar script, and galvanized in their submissiveness by that Minnesota episode, the law school leadership capitulated to the squeaky wheels, not being willing to defend an artist or his work once it had been tagged with the R-word. On July 6, 2020, Dean Thomas McHenry said in a statement that “the depictions of the African Americans on the mural are offensive to many in our community and, upon reflection and consideration, we have determined that the mural is not consistent with our School’s commitment to fairness, inclusion, diversity and social justice.”
Since the murals could not be removed without being destroyed, raising more legal and ethical issues than the law school cared to contend with, it planned to conceal them behind a wall of acoustic panels. The artist sued, citing the Visual Artists Rights Act, which gives artists the right to attribution and integrity of their visual works. The right of integrity allows artists to block deforming or mutilating changes to their work when it would prejudice their reputation, or when the art is of “recognized stature.” Kerson argued that concealing his murals would mark his art as offensive and unworthy for viewing, thus damaging his standing as an artist committed to progressive causes. He also raised concerns that the acoustic panels might create an acidic atmosphere and trap moisture, damaging the murals, and argued that covering up the murals is itself a distortion, mutilation or modification of his art that violates the law.
Chief Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford of the Federal District of Vermont ruled against Kerson and for the censors in an Oct. 20 decision. My guess is that he will lose his planned appeal as well.
The law is one thing, ethics is another, and the deteriorating culture is yet another. I don’t care for Kerson’s style or the works of most political muralists in general. However, I recognize that endorsing the act of covering up artwork that activists brand as “offensive” is a slippery slope that should be avoided at all costs.
In fact, I’d suggest erecting acoustic panels around it, just to be on the safe side.