Pull back the curtains on mural discourse at UNM
Time to bring out the fig leaves and start the bonfire. University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes and interim Provost Richard Wood are proposing theater curtains to cover controversial murals in Zimmerman Library that have reportedly been scandalizing faculty, staff and students and contributing to a hostile work environment.
“At UNM we must remain focused on matters of campus climate, equity, and inclusion; the status quo is not acceptable,” they wrote in an Oct. 3 letter obtained by the Journal. “We have heard from several faculty, staff and students that the murals make them feel excluded and attacked.” Really? The offending artwork — dubbed the Three Peoples Murals — is in the West Wing of Zimmerman Library. It was completed in 1939 by Kenneth Adams, member of the famed Taos Society of Artists. The murals were commissioned by UNM President James F. Zimmerman and paid for by a Carnegie Foundation grant. Zimmerman wanted the murals to depict each of the three major cultures in New Mexico and their contributions to civilization. The fourth was to depict the union of the three cultures in the Southwest.
Native Americans are celebrated for their contribution to the arts, Hispanics for architecture and agriculture and Anglos for science. The fourth, The Union of the Three Peoples, prominently features an Anglo man, eyes open and facing forward, shaking hands with faceless Native American and Hispanic figures facing him. The murals appear to have been well received until the ’70s, when criticism surfaced that they were racist. There have been calls for them to be removed ever since, and The Union mural was vandalized twice.
At that time, Thomas M. Pearce, then a professor emeritus of English and an acquaintance of the artist, came to his defense, calling the hostility “a terribly mistaken view of Adams’ attitude. It was one of good will, one of appreciation for the Spanish and Indian traditions.”
Judging the murals by today’s standards, there’s no question they give greater emphasis to Anglo culture, placing Hispanic and Native American cultures as subservient. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Adams — and his artwork — were products of their time. There is no evidence he was denigrating Native Americans or Hispanics, and neither he nor his work should be vilified or erased from UNM’s rich history. On the contrary, this New Deal artwork should be studied and its shortcomings explored so today’s UNM students can learn from it. An expanded plaque next to the artwork could help educate the public about those concerns.
Trying to rid UNM of artwork or things too “controversial” is the antithesis of higher education and unworthy of our state’s flagship institution. It’s no more acceptable than bowing to pressure to change El Centro de la Raza, the controversial name of the Hispanic student services center, because some people deem it offensive. The proposal to cover the murals with curtains to protect the offended conjures up the Renaissance, when scandalized popes ordered fig leaves and modesty cloths to cover nudity in great works by Michelangelo and others. Or folks burning Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because they deemed it racist.
Proposals to cover, remove or relocate the murals are an example of political correctness run amok. Stokes and Wood acknowledge that “many people enjoy the murals, and we remain committed to a solution that ensures that everyone feels welcome at UNM.”
UNM isn’t supposed to be a chamber of commerce ad. The best universities build on history to move society forward. Stokes and Wood need to amend their statement to seeking “a solution that ensures that everyone feels welcome to examine issues and exchange ideas in a civil manner.”
That’s a sentiment the community should embrace.