The classroom contains a panel of the murals that has repeatedly sparked controversy, as it includes a depiction of a Ku Klux Klan rally and a burning cross. The imagery in that panel, entitled "Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press," has been controversial since its creation. Benton's intent was to show the role that the press had played in battling the Klan through exposing the Klan's corruption of and infiltration into all levels of Indiana government in the 1920s. At the time of the mural's creation, many opposed Benton's decision to include the Klan, because they did not want to portray Indiana in a negative light, and the memories of the Klan's political influence were still raw. Benton, however, overcame this opposition, and maintained artistic control. He believed that his murals needed to show all aspects of the state's history, even the ugly and discomfiting parts, so we could confront the mistakes of the past.
Understood in the light of all its imagery and its intent, Benton's mural is unquestionably an anti-Klan work. Unlike statues at the heart of current controversies, Benton's depiction was intended to expose the Klan's history in Indiana as hateful and corrupt; it does not honor or even memorialize individuals or the organization as a whole. Everything about its imagery—the depiction of the Klan between firefighters and a circus; the racially integrated hospital ward depicted in the foreground suggesting a different future ahead—speaks to Benton's views. Every society that has gone through divisive trauma of any kind has learned the bitter lesson of suppressing memories and discussion of its past; Benton's murals are intended to provoke thought.
Throughout history, art has served many purposes, often to lift up and honor a subject but also at times to call attention to something that is deserving of our condemnation. It is a mistake, therefore, to assume that a depiction of an historical event is the same as honoring it. Picasso, for example, depicted the horrible bombing and destruction of the village of Guernica in one of his most famous and admired paintings. It shows the consequences of the fascist bombings of a Basque village not to glorify that tragedy but to condemn it. That painting now serves as a powerful anti-war and anti-fascist work of art. It does so by depicting and calling our attention not to what we are honoring but to what we are condemning. I believe the same can be said for the Benton murals.
Nevertheless, the imagery in this panel of the murals is vivid, startling, and disturbing; and to reach the conclusion I just stated about the meaning of the mural requires work and time studying the mural and its interrelated images. Like most great art, Benton's murals require context and history. Many well-meaning people, without having the opportunity to do that work, wrongly condemn the mural as racist simply because it depicts a racist organization and a hateful symbol.
However, even with the proper information and education, many students still feel strongly that a Klan rally and burning cross looming over their classes seriously impedes their learning. For some of our students, the burning cross is a symbol of terror that has haunted their families for generations. For others, the robed Klansman has figured in personal family or community tragedies and anguish. These reactions are absolutely reasonable on their face, and as Charlottesville shows, they are not ancient history. They have to be reckoned with, but it is far from clear that the reckoning should be an inevitable part of a class in finite mathematics, macroeconomics, organic chemistry, or gross anatomy and physiology-all classes taught regularly in this space-particularly since the burden of that reckoning inevitably falls more heavily on students whose race or religion have made their families the historical targets of the Klan.