Jury’s out on dated art­work

The po­lit­i­cally and his­tor­i­cally cor­rect don’t al­ways mix

USA TODAY US Edition - - Nation - By Chris Joyner USA TO­DAY

JACK­SON, Miss. — A bit of his­tory is usu­ally hid­den be­hind a cur­tain in U.S. District Judge Henry Win­gate’s court­room here.

It’s a large, three-panel mu­ral ti­tled Pur­suits of Life in Mis­sis­sippi that was painted in 1938 by Rus­sian-born Simka Simkhovitch. Part of a fed­eral pro­gram dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion de­signed to put artists to work, it de­picts a white fam­ily at a plan­ta­tion­style home.

It also shows face­less black peo­ple pick­ing cot­ton and a black fig­ure in the fore­ground smil­ing and play­ing a banjo.

The judges of the 5th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals or­dered the mu­ral cov­ered sev­eral years be­fore Win­gate be­came the state’s first African-Amer­i­can fed­eral judge in 1985.

“It’s a pic­ture of yes­ter­day,” Win­gate says of the mu­ral. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be a ju­ror and have to sit all day and stare at it.”

A new fed­eral court­house is sched­uled to open in Jack­son in 2010, and the old build­ing is sched­uled to be sold, so a de­ci­sion­will have to be made about what to do with the mu­ral. Win­gate sug­gests it be moved to the new court­house and dis­played some­where as a his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­fact, just not in a court­room.

“It does not be­long in a court­room where every­one should feel equal,” he says. “On the other hand, it should not be de­stroyed, be­cause it is our his­tory.”

Com­mu­ni­ties around the na­tion strug­gle with how to dis­play works of art, both old and new, that have un­com­fort­able po­lit­i­cal or so­cial over­tones. Mis­sis­sippi leg­is­la­tors this year turned away an of­fer by the Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans to do­nate a newly cast statue of Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis for the State­house grounds.

‘Not a glo­ri­fied time’

State Rep. Robert John­son, D-Natchez, was among those who re­jected the idea. John­son, who is black, said ac­cept­ing the statue of a slave owner and rebel would send a ter­ri­ble mes­sage for a state with an ugly civil rights his­tory.

“This was not a glo­ri­fied time in our his­tory,” he said.

The Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Vet­er­ans com­mis­sioned the work by sculp­tor Gary Casteel to be dis­played in the Amer­i­can CivilWar Cen­ter at His­toric Tre­de­gar in Rich­mond, Va., but the group and the cen­ter could not come to terms on it, Casteel says.

Casteel’s nu­mer­ous Civil War-themed pieces are dis­played at parks and his­tor­i­cal sites around the na­tion, in­clud­ing the memo­rial to Con­fed­er­ate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet in Get­tys­burg Na­tional Mil­i­tary Park that, Casteel says, drew protests from peo­ple who felt it in­ap­pro­pri­ate to en­shrine a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral in the bat­tle­field.

“Art is al­ways in a po­lit­i­cal con­text,” he says.

Be­fore the start of the 2009 Idaho leg­isla­tive ses­sion in Jan­uary, in­ter­pre­tive plaques were in­stalled to ad­dress an- other trou­ble­some De­pres­sion-era mu­ral in the old Ada County Court­house in Boise, a por­tion of which de­picts two armed white men about to lynch a shirt­less Na­tive Amer­i­can man.

The build­ing has served as a tem­po­rary state­house for two years while the Capi­tol is ren­o­vated. State his­to­rian Keith Petersen says some law­mak­ers fa­vored re­mov­ing the paint­ing un­til rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the area’s five Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes came up with the idea of the plaques, which de­scribe the vi­o­lent clash of na­tive and white cul­tures in the pi­o­neer set­tle­ment of the Boise Val­ley.

“You don’t want to white­wash his­tory or erase it,” Petersen said.

That lit­er­ally is what hap­pened in 2004 in Chat­tanoo- ga, Tenn., when work­ers ren­o­vat­ing an old build­ing down­town dis­cov­ered four over­size wall paint­ings of Ku Klux Klans­men on horse­back. The mu­rals were de­stroyed, but Rose Martin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Chat­tanooga African Amer­i­can Mu­seum, said there would have been value in pre­serv­ing them.

“For some peo­ple, it’s very un­com­fort­able,” and not only for African Amer­i­cans, she says. “But it’s part of his­tory.”

Ef­fort to set record straight

Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity art his­to­rian Michael Mar­ri­nan said works of art of­ten have suf­fered from chang­ing at­ti­tudes. “Any­time a work is po­lit­i­cal, it is go­ing to have a shelf life,” he says. “We may not agree with it any­more, but it is part of our her­itage.”

What’s left out of a work of art also can be con­tro­ver­sial. In April, a 12-year fight to add for­mer slave, abo­li­tion­ist and women’s rights ad­vo­cate So­journer Truth to a dis­play of leaders in the women’s suf­frage move­ment in the U.S. Capi­tol ended when first lady Michelle Obama un­veiled a bust of Truth.

E. Faye Wil­liams, chair­woman of the Na­tional Congress of Black Women, which led the fight for the statue, says plac­ing it along­side a sculp­ture of white ac­tivists Lu­cre­tia Mott, Su­san B. An­thony and El­iz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton cor­rected the record for vis­i­tors to the Capi­tol.

“She worked as hard as they did. She, per­haps, had a more chal­leng­ing time,” Wil­liams says. “She not only had to work on the right of women to vote, but also the right of black peo­ple to vote.” Joyner re­ports for The Clar­ion-Ledger in Jack­son, Miss.

By Vickie D. King, The (Jack­son, Miss.) Clar­ion-Ledger

“Every­one should feel equal”: U.S. District Judge Hen­ryWin­gate stands be­fore a mu­ral in his Jack­son, Miss., court­room. He’s in fa­vor of pre­serv­ing the art but says it’s out of place in court.

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