Art, Context, and Politics

Word has leaked out:

Six historical paintings at Houston’s federal courthouse have raised some hackles with two federal judges, who believe the paintings dredge up offensive imagery of slavery.

The paintings, depicting the Houston Ship Channel in the late 1870s, were completed between 1938 and 1941, and were displayed in the courthouse entryway from the 1970s until they were removed for restoration in 2006. In 2010, they were once again displayed, this time in the jury assembly room.

But U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore took umbrage at the art, especially a 1941 painting by Alexandre Hogue called “The Diana Docking,” showing laborers and spectators along Buffalo Bayou. In an e-mail to her fellow judges, she pointed out the presence of a white fellow with a gun, a black fellow with a bundle of logs and no shirt, and a Native American fellow who is made out of wood.

Gilmore wrote that she received comments from employees who felt “this picture as well as others in the series are offensive to persons who would rather not be reminded about that period in history or their part as either overseers or ‘workers.'”

. . .

Her fellow judge, Keith Ellison, replied in an e-mail that “I share all of Vanessa’s concerns. I have received many complaints about the murals which are, in addition to what Vanessa said, bad art.”

But Ellison was also curious about “how such tasteless images came to be where they are. Were they the subject of a memorandum that I missed? Did the court vote on it? Did the Port of Houston put them there?” [Houston Press]

First, I do not want federal judges deciding whether art is, from an aesthetic perspective, good or bad. After all, we know how these types of judgments go:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
—Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.

Jurisprudence at its finest?

Second, I believe art belongs everywhere and enriches our experience of the world around us.

Third, I feel that civic spaces deserve to be decorated with art which, at a minimum, adds to the dignity of the business conducted therein, and at best, illuminates our shared ideals and inspires us to be better citizens. (I will concede that we might all have different opinions about what such art might look like.)

Fourth, I think it is absolutely appropriate to talk about what art might and might not be appropriate for any public space where government business is conducted, and reasonable to conclude that some art is better displayed elsewhere.

It is all about context. A story, if you’ll indulge me.

My alma mater used to have a student dining room decorated with murals illustrating one of the old college songs. It’s a very up-tempo, rollicking number, actually written as a drinking song. My step-grandfather used to sing it for me:

“Oh, Eleazar Wheelock was a very Pious Man / He went into the Wilderness to teach the Indian / With a Gradus ad Parnassum, a Bible and a Drum/ And 500 gallons of New England rum.”

The song also refers to the recipients of the booze and bibles as heathens. As you might imagine, this early take on the white man’s obligation to bring education, salvation, and alcoholism to “the heathens” did not set up the college for the best of relations with Native Americans for a considerable portion of the school’s history.

The murals were painted shortly after the completion of a remarkable mural cycle by the internationally known Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco—murals with a decidedly political subject matter that horrified many of the faithful alumni, not to mention professors, students, and administrators. Consider this panel:

This panel is called Gods of the Modern World. How do you think the professors felt about being depicted this way? Photo courtesy of Dan Olson '11 via Flickr

To the college’s great credit, while alumnus of the college Nelson Rockefeller covered up the Diego Rivera works he commissioned for Rock Center in NYC when he could not dictate the subject matter, the college left Orozco’s work alone.

Today, it is a highlight of the campus, located in the library reading room where it can be studied and discussed. I could never study in that room, as the art overpowered me and demanded to be considered. It is truly fabulous stuff.

To the college’s not-so-great credit, when I was there, the other murals depicting drunk Native Americans were up on the walls of the student pub, which was actually closed most of the time and had boards covering the panels. The school’s website today says:

With the beginning of the Native American Program, Native American Studies, and co-education in the early 1970s, the mural (along with the Dartmouth Indian mascot) came under scrutiny and caused debate on campus. The drinking song itself implied that the Native Americans traded their land to Wheelock for alcohol. The mythologizing and celebration of a faux past belied the tragic history of conquest and domination of Native Americans in New England. This fact, and the pin-up quality of the depiction of the women, gave offense and caused the administration to limit access to the mural in the late 1970s, finally covering it up in 1983. The room in which it is housed has had varied uses since that time, including as a dance club and a storage space for Dartmouth Dining Services. Currently, it is a game room. In 1993 the Native American Council, asked to reconsider the mural and its status, recommended uncovering it for educational purposes. At the time, Colleen Larimore, Dartmouth Class of 1985 and former director of the Native American Program, stated, “I think this is a turning point for Native Americans at Dartmouth. While we still consider the murals to be degrading and offensive, we cannot deny how Native Americans were viewed in the past at Dartmouth and in this country. Rather than fleeing from this past, we must face it and learn from it.” However, this initiative to uncover the mural faded away. It is still on occasion unveiled for educational purposes.

I wish they had room in their small-but-fabulous museum, or better, yet, the library, to keep the murals on display at all times. The point/counter-point of the Hovey/Orozco murals presents an amazing teaching opportunity.

We don’t yet have a great space in Houston, apart from our art museums, to put art like this in a better context, more suitable for education and conversation than forced viewing in a politically charged atmosphere.

I would vote for removing them, but only in order to put them in a better place, not to hide and ignore them. Houston is full of wonderful artists who could be commissioned to create something else in their place, and, after all, that would be small-scale job creation.

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