Jury’s out on dated artwork
The politically and historically correct don’t always mix
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.
“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.