The Corner

Culture

The Art of Cowardice

Inside Higher Education sets the stage:

In 1934, Ann Rice O’Hanlon painted a fresco — then the largest one ever painted by a woman — in the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall. Ever since, thousands of students have walked past it on their way to and from various events each semester. Some have been oblivious to the work, which depicts Kentucky’s history, while others have admired it and considered it an outstanding example of the Depression-era Public Works of Art program, which paid for the fresco.

You can guess where this is going:

Many black students over the years have noticed the mural, which offers a version of history that includes black people working in tobacco fields, black musicians performing for a group of white people and a Native American holding a tomahawk. As campus protests over issues of race have spread in recent weeks, black students at Kentucky held a meeting with President Eli Capilouto and talked about how the fresco hurt them by relegating black people to roles as slaves or servants, without portraying the cruelty of slavery and Jim Crow. On Monday, Capilouto announced his agreement that the mural’s location is inappropriate.

While moving the fresco to a more appropriate location will take time, Capilouto said in an online essay released by the university, Kentucky will cover up the 45-by-8-foot fresco for now and add a sign explaining why the mural is obscured.

What’s this Klan propaganda look like? Here’s the mural, in its entirety (it’s big; click to expand):

And here is one of the triggering sections:

There’s an all-too-predictable irony to an act of memory-holing at “Memorial” Hall. And, as usual, no one involved has given a moment’s thought to a limiting principle. Should Colonial Williamsburg curtain The Old Plantation, which shows slaves dancing merrily on a South Carolina plantation circa 1800? Should the National Gallery of Art board up The Last Buffalo, since the butcher is a (horrors!) Plains Indian? Much of Paul Gaugin’s career is an exercise in cultural appropriation, isn’t it? By the logic (“logic”) of Kentucky’s aggrieved, it’s only art if it reflects the sensibility of 21st-century leftwing college students. Ta-ta, Titian, etc. That Kentucky administrators apparently offered not a whiff of a defense is simply shameful.

One of the best running gags in the hit NBC show Parks & Recreation was the series of murals in Pioneer Hall depicting important moments in the history of Pawnee, Ind. — for example, this one, recreating the “Trial of Chief Wamapo”:

Pawnee officials defended the murals, on the grounds that their city’s history was, like many cities’, messy. When Leslie Knope demonstrates more common sense than real-life leaders, it’s a grim day, indeed.

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