Pull back the cur­tains on mu­ral dis­course at UNM

Albuquerque Journal - - OPINION -

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.

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