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Bill Straub: Art and history, statues and reality — removing any offending art does not change the past

A few years ago I had the privilege of visiting the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid to view Picasso’s Guernica, one of the most amazing and unsettling works of art imaginable.

It depicts the April 1937 bombing of the Basque city of Guernica by the Nazis at the request of the Nationalists, led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, during the Spanish Civil War. The painting, in stark black and white and greys, shows, among other things, a dismembered soldier, a woman cradling a dead child and a screaming woman trapped by fire.

It’s impossible to remain unmoved by Guernica. To some degree, after studying it, you’ll never be the same.

Among other things Guernica establishes it is not the duty of art to make the viewer happy, happy, happy. Much of it is supposed to be unsettling. That’s its very essence, and consider the implacable horrors of the world.

Which brings us to the University of Kentucky and Memorial Hall, the chapel-like building on campus fronting South Limestone Street in Lexington. The lobby, as I recollect, is somewhat circular and houses a fresco by Ann Rice O’Hanlon, painted in 1934, depicting, among many other things — it’s a mural, after all — African-Americans, perhaps slaves, perhaps not, planting what appears to be tobacco.

The painting has over the years drawn objections and protests from Black students who have demanded its removal. UK President Eli Capilouto sought to tamp down the controversy a few years ago by covering it up, following the lead of former Attorney General John Ashcroft who in 2002 ordered the half-naked statue of the Spirit of Justice in Foggy Bottom covered because he was embarrassed by being photographed in front of the exposed right metallic breast.

Now Capilouto wants to remove the mural completely, an interesting idea since it’s painted right on to the plaster, insisting that it is getting in the way of discussions on race that the university needs to have – at least I think that’s his rationale since his New Age rhetoric seems muddled at best.

That proposal has drawn objections from the Commonwealth’s foremost thinker and writer, Wendell Berry, a UK grad who I have enjoyed meeting on a couple occasions over the years. Berry’s wife, Tanya, is the artist’s niece, and they have filed suit in Franklin Circuit Court to halt the removal, saying the decision is not Capilouto’s to make.

Also objecting is Karyn Olivier, an artist who in 2018 created a piece, Witness, intended to contextualize the O’Hanlon mural. Olivier, who is African-American, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the mural’s removal would mute the effect of her artwork.

All of this, of course, comes in wake of the rising Black Lives Matter movement and the deaths at the hands of police of two individuals, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis.

It’s been years since I saw the mural, back when I took an American history class in the early ‘70s and attended a handful of events in the hall thereafter. It’s in the primitive style ala Grandma Moses and was certainly never intended to generate the controversy that has erupted.

It’s no Guernica, obvious to an art lover like me who can’t even draw a straight line. But it raises the question regarding whether a work of art should be removed, shunned or censored simply because it makes some people uncomfortable.

That’s an interpretation of artistic expression with which I am unfamiliar.

Destroying art because it may prove unsettling does not go over well in the history books. In 1933, the year before the O’Hanlon work, the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint a fresco, Man at the Crossroads, in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Rivera, a Trotskyite, included an image of Vladimir Lenin in Man at the Crossroads, leading Nelson Rockefeller, who would later serve as governor of New York and vice president but who was then a director at 30 Rock and a member of the family that basically invented capitalism, to seek its removal. When Rivera refused, Rocky had it plastered over.

The incident was long considered a black mark on Rockefeller for meddling with artistic vision. The great E.B. White even wrote a poem about it — I paint what I see: A ballad of artistic integrity.

Now it’s Capilouto’s turn to place his judgment above an artist’s. For the sake of full disclosure, I should note here, as a UK graduate in that the school hierarchy handed me a sheet of paper in 1975 and then understandably told me to get lost, that I am not a Capilouto fan, which is one of the reasons I never pick up the phone when the school’s fundraisers go through their dialing for dollars routine (another, even better reason is I ain’t got none).

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

Capilouto, like other college presidents across the country, is transforming UK from an alleged place of higher learning into a glorified vocational school. In his defense, I could say that’s the national trend. But I was further appalled by his statements regarding the Kentucky Kernel, the student newspaper, when it sought university records in 2016 regarding allegations of sexual harassment and assault by an associate professor. UK went so far as to refuse to turn the documents over to the state attorney general’s office.
At the time Capilauto accused students at the Kernel of “printing salacious details to attract readers…’’
Nice thing to say about kids spending dough to attend your school. But I digress.

Taking down, perhaps destroying, a work of art is no way to foster reasonable discussion. As a country, we have learned we don’t burn books when the author writes something disagreeable. In film class, you might still show Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will despite its pro-Nazi flourishes or Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront even though his loose lips before the House on Unamerican Activities Committee literally ruined lives.

Removing or banning a work of art because some folks might consider it unnerving or unsettling is pretty weak tea. In this instance, it’s not going to remove the taint of slavery from the nation’s past.

Now the time has come for me to acknowledge, sincerely, that I’m an old white guy who has no concept of the true Black experience and what African-American folks go through on an hourly basis. What has occurred throughout American history, both before and after the Civil War, is a sin against humanity and subverting the white patriarchy to grant everyone a full voice is one of the great movements in the nation’s history.

But seeking the removal and/or destruction of a work of art because it depicts a people in a servile manner – an accurate though appalling depiction, it should be noted – is not going to change the past. It’s something to be learned from, not forgotten.

Seek the removal of all the Confederate statues your heart desires. They are all much more hagiography than art and idolize the sworn enemies of the republic to which we all supposedly pledge our allegiance. There’s no reason to place any of them on a pedestal.

But I’ve never heard a word about the survivors of Guernica seeking the removal of Picasso’s masterpiece because the memories of the atrocity placed them ill at ease. The O’Hanlon piece shows where we’ve been and the long way we still have to go.

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