Dear IU Bloomington Community,
I write to discuss the Benton Murals. In 1933, Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned by the State of Indiana to create the Indiana Murals for the Chicago World's Fair. This work, which has become Benton's most enduring artistic accomplishment, contains a self-portrait embedded in the panel entitled "Indiana Puts Her Trust in Thought." Some eight decades after their creation, the murals serve as a vivid reminder of the strength and resiliency of a community that puts its trust in thoughtful reflection and dialogue about its past, present, and future.
I apologize in advance for the length of this communication, but the subject is complicated, the history is long, and the factors to be balanced are many. I therefore put my trust, as always, in your willingness to think carefully with me, and look forward to the discussion and ideas I am sure this letter will spark.
Herman B Wells brought the Benton Murals to the Bloomington campus several years after the World's Fair. At the time, the IU Auditorium and several other buildings around the Fine Arts Plaza were under construction, and Wells saw the murals as ideal centerpieces for a burgeoning campus arts district. As a result, Indiana University is now steward to this astonishing and celebrated work of art, a 22-panel mural sequence displayed in three separate venues on the campus. Two of those spaces, the IU Auditorium and the IU Cinema, are performance and artistic venues. One, Woodburn Hall 100, is currently used as a large classroom.
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.
Every few years, since at least the 1980s, the campus has grappled with the presence of the Benton Murals in Woodburn. We are entrusted with the preservation of this important work of art, yet we must also do everything possible to promote a civil and inclusive campus that provides equal opportunity for all to learn. What to do?
This question becomes especially urgent whenever events such as the march of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville and the current national debate over Confederate monuments occur. These broader conversations become deeply local, and we must come to a decision as a community on how to handle public art and memory as it pertains to the Benton Murals on our campus. On at least eight occasions since the 1980s, diverse committees of faculty, students, and staff have considered the issues raised by the controversial panel. Our campus has held town halls, symposia, and conferences to discuss the panel and its impact, including just this week a faculty-led discussion organized by PACE on "Art, Public Memory & Racial Justice." Such efforts have consistently led to the conclusion that we need to do what Indiana University does best: educate. We have called on our community to educate through discussions of history, art history, African American and African Diaspora Studies, American Studies, and every discipline that touches on how a controversial and anti-racist piece of art should be contextualized and understood.
I agree that the proper response to the Benton Murals is education, and I have been the beneficiary of a review of the work of all of these previous efforts. However, most committees have concluded that this education needs to be done in every class taught in Woodburn 100. As a result, well-intentioned efforts to require ameliorating discussion of the murals there have foundered, and ultimately been abandoned, multiple times. Instructors without appropriate academic backgrounds feel unprepared for the discussion that should surround such a sensitive set of issues, and unhappy to be taking class time for discussions that have nothing to do with the subject of the class and everything to do with the room it is in. Students are captive audiences in Woodburn 100, and those with repeated classes there resent the repeated discussions related to the classroom art, as opposed to the subject-matter of their classes.
The murals cannot be moved. Benton painted them using egg tempera paint, which has become extremely fragile over time. Moreover, the space in Woodburn 100 was designed specifically to house the two panels that now hang there, and they were installed in such a way that moving them would almost certainly cause irreparable damage. Nor does the notion of covering them with a curtain accord with our responsibility as stewards of this precious art. Covering the murals feels like censorship and runs counter to the expressed intent of the artist to make visible moments in history that some would rather forget. Furthermore, covering the murals during class periods would leave them hidden for the vast majority of time and create a situation in which the decision to uncover them could be used by some as a symbolic act in support of the very ideology the murals are intended to criticize.
However, there is nothing sacrosanct about using Woodburn 100 as a classroom. While I believe that we can and should educate the public and our community about the murals, that intellectual work can and should take place in a context that does not involve the captive audience of classes devoted to other subjects. Therefore, Woodburn 100 will convert to other uses beginning in the spring semester 2018.
We have determined that we can accommodate almost all (and perhaps all) the classes typically taught there as early as this spring in other locations without a loss of classroom capacity, and we will certainly be able to accommodate them all elsewhere by summer. Like the other two venues in which the murals are displayed, Woodburn 100 can usefully serve other purposes, such as a gallery space and public lecture space, that are more conducive to teaching about the mural. Indeed, many departments and faculty members have expressed a need for more such spaces on campus, and Woodburn 100 offers a ready-made solution. Its adjacency to the arts corridor makes it particularly conducive to these purposes and will also allow us to install interactive media that can educate those who come for the gallery space or for other events. We could also put this art in conversation with other pieces of art the campus owns or could borrow, which would allow us to much better use the murals' potential for education and engagement than the current configuration allows. I believe that repurposing the room is the best accommodation of the multiple factors that the murals raise: our obligation to be a welcoming community to all of our students and facilitate their learning; our stewardship of this priceless art; and our obligation to stand firm in defense of artistic expression. I invite community members to think creatively about how best to use this repurposed space to engage with the issues the murals present.
The Benton Murals are a national treasure. They depict the social progression of Indiana history—including, explicitly, the promise and hope of racial integration and a free press arising out of the fight against the political influence of the Klan—through the visceral and powerful vision of one of the most significant artists of the period. Indiana University is the steward of this incredible public art, we are bound to protect it and educate the world about it, and we will do so in ways that are pedagogically appropriate. Our primary mission is to teach students to think critically and deeply about the world, and great art is an important route to that end. We will continue to strive for this ideal, and challenge each other to think intensively and critically about art, history, diversity, and inclusion, and what it means to be a citizen of this university, state, and the world. Benton's work deserves no less.
Executive Vice President and Provost
Val Nolan Professor of Law