The Potential of Public Art

2019-10-28T14:00:57+00:00October 4th, 2019|

It is a history of an unrecoverable past; it is a narrative of what might have been or could have been; it is a history written with and against the archive.” -Saidiya Hartman

By Sean Starowitz

In late 1932, Richard Lieber, then-director of the Indiana Department of Conservation, was appointed to lead the state’s Commission for the Century of Progress Exhibition (in conjunction with the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair). This was a moment for Indiana to move from being a largely rural farm region to a cultural leader in the Midwest. As Erica Doss wrote in the Indiana Magazine of History, Lieber was fixated on challenging the status quo within the Midwest, rather than “the usual state show of pumpkins, ears of corn, and photographs of pigs.” As part of this vision, he suggested commissioning a mural large enough to encapsulate Indiana’s state history.

The exhibition selected the artist Thomas Hart Benton to paint the mural, for which they paid him $10,000. At the time, Benton was mostly unknown in the public realm. He had just recently completed a large mural, titled The Arts of Life in America, for the Whitney Museum of American Art, and immediately moved to Indianapolis to begin hours of research in the Indiana State Library.

Benton was very concerned about his outsider status. His great-great uncle, a famous senator also named Thomas Hart Benton, was the namesake of both Benton Township and Benton County, but that would only carry so much weight. So Benton drove more than three thousand miles around the state, finding “characters” he believed defined its history and narrative. He made somewhere around six hundred pen and ink sketches and a hundred and fifty character studies, which were eventually reflected in the overall choreography of the mural. Within five months, Benton delivered the two-hundred-fifty-foot mural, A Social History of the State of Indiana. 

Benton’s legacy looms over every student who attends the Kansas City Art Institute—my alma mater. When I moved to Bloomington in 2016, to work as the city’s assistant director of the arts, I was thrilled to see A Social History of the State Indiana in person, rather than in print. Like him, my work focuses on the cultural milieu of place, history, and identity. Being an ex-pat of the so-called south (I grew up in Louisville, KY), the Midwest has always fascinated me: its overt politeness, its undisguised whiteness, and the apparent silence of its landscape.

Like all places, Indiana is riddled—and burdened—with cultural memory, loss, and sorrow. We live on land and resources stolen from the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Shawnee. Indiana contained too many sundown towns, played a pivotal role in the second rising of the Klan (the Indiana Klan ruled states and local politics during the 1920s), and is home to one of the most “iconic” images (a photograph) of a spectacle lynching. The legacy of these events continues to reverberate in the state; the KKK remains active today, and over the summer, the farmer’s market in my community was undermined by White Supremacists and “Identitarians.”

Over the years, both in Missouri and Indiana, I’ve explored ways that creative practice can lead to confrontation and, ultimately, toward truth and reconciliation. Benton was problematic in a lot of ways, especially as he faded out of fashion. Drawing attention to himself through his words rather than his painted works.  Notwithstanding, his works demonstrate the artist’s ability to challenge historical myths and ideals. A Social History of the State of Indiana is generally considered one of the first revisionist artworks of the early part of the twentieth century. Benton’s mural juxtaposed American ideals against the more heinous chapters of Indiana’s history. The celebratory depiction of the famous socialist Eugene Debs, and his “Workers, Why Vote the Rich Man’s Ticket? You’ve Got a Choice” slogan; the harassment of Native Americans by fur traders and soldiers; the forced removal of Indians off white-claimed lands; fugitive enslaved people on the run. To this day, the most controversial component is an image of a Ku Klux Klan rally and a burning cross.

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Cultural Panel 10 from A Social History of Indiana, by Thomas Hart Benton. Image courtesy Indiana University Archives.

Benton did not omit the shameful atrocities of the state’s history. He understood that a mural could force a confrontation with the racism (and denial of racism) that had so often characterized white life in Indiana. Benton was known for attempting to agitate his viewers, to inspire them to participate in the dynamics of American history. He wanted to challenge the inherent injustices of democracy, which he believed citizens needed to understand in order to see their agency within it. With this mural, Benton challenged the state of Indiana to reconsider its own cultural memory, and the violence embedded in its landscape.

In 1939, Indiana University acquired the work. Due to its massive scale, the mural had to be chopped up. The IU Auditorium is home to most of the resulting panels. The remaining panels were hung in IU Cinema and Woodburn Hall, with the latter hosting Cultural Panel 10, which depicted, among other things, the Klan rally. Benton oversaw the reinstallation of the mural, but dividing the panels meant that people were not encountering the imagery in context. Over the years, Woodburn Hall has been used as a classroom, and students of color have had to study, attend lectures, and take exams with the iconography of white men in hoods, burning a cross, looming over them.

Over the years, there have been calls to remove, move, or paint over this panel of the mural. It is important that historically-engage projects like this one not be publicly censored, but many people (myself included) take issue with forcing students of color to relive the trauma of racist violence every day. In September 2017, IU decided to no longer offer classes in the room in which the Klan panel appears. The mural remains in Woodburn Hall, as a reminder of our collective shame in one of our premier higher learning institutions.

Artistic projects of memorial and confrontation, like A Social History of Indiana, can offer space to challenge the embedded racism and violence within the Indiana landscape. But they also force us to wrestle with the effects of their legacies in the present. In addition to Benton’s work, other projects, including Fred Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum and a lynching memorial in Marion, Indiana, help to illuminate the cultural history of whiteness in Indiana, and offer insights and frameworks for reconciliation and inclusion in the future.

E Pluribus Unum was commissioned by the Indianapolis Cultural Trail in 2007. Fred Wilson is a Black artist known for his influential conceptual work, which deals with issues of race, history, and nationality. His commission focused on the only African American represented in the 1902 Soldiers and Sailors Monument, on the circle in downtown Indianapolis—a freedman on his knees, with broken shackles, reaching toward a goddess of peace. This is an immensely biased portrayal of freedmen and -women common in monuments of the Soldiers and Sailors era, and reinforces the idea of African Americans as passive participants in their emancipation. Wilson’s concept was to recreate the actual figure with symbolic additions, such as holding a flag that represents the African diaspora and removing the shackles to give new meaning and agency.

In September 2010 an op-ed in the Indianapolis Recorder, written by Leroy Robinson, challenged the project. “This is not the 19th century and the African-American community in Indianapolis does not need another ‘image’ in downtown Indianapolis to remind us of how downtrodden, beat down, hapless, and submissive we once may have been,” Robinson wrote. “We don’t need any more images of lawn jockeys, caricatures…no more buffoonery, no more shuckin’ and jiven’, and no more ape-ish looking monuments…. ‘E Pluribus Unum’ passes on another negative image from one generation to the next.” This letter initiated a much larger dissent regarding the proposed commission and work. Wilson met with community members and organizations to discuss the work as dissent grew, the project was ultimately canceled.

Wilson attempted to challenge a monument’s legacy of being a fixed meaning. He was trying to open up a collective dialogue through the recontextualized sculpture. But the collective meaning of this work was never effectively defined by the artist, and therefore was never accepted by the African American community. The project tested the limits of what ex-appropriation of monuments could do in the public realm, and while this project and its absence have continued much dialogue around race in Indianapolis, the physical void of the unrealized project offers grounding for the complexity of identity politics in public works.

Or consider the case of a lynching memorial in Marion, Indiana. On September 7, 1930, two young Black men, Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith, were were murdered in a spectacle lynching by a mob in Marion. What I am struck by, in the image, is the delight of the white spectators, some of whom are smiling. The photo was the impetus for the poem Strange Fruit by Abel Meeropol; then musically rendered by Billie Holiday, and, most recently reimagined by Claudia Rankine in her 2014 book, Citizen.

The Equal Justice Initiative has begun the process of confronting America’s racial terrorism, including this event, through The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama. EJI is asking representatives of each of the counties to claim their monument and establish a memorial on home ground to lynching victims, and to conduct related public education.

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From the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo by Sean Starowitz.

But, for a variety of complex reasons, some descendants don’t want a memorial. It’s not my story to share, but the issues revolve around the complexity of exasperated or hidden traumas—of “rememory,” as the late Toni Morrison put it, in her novel Beloved. Across the United States, historic civil rights sites and markers are frequent targets of white domestic terrorism. A project intended as an act of challenge, even apology, can end up causing more complex trauma and residual pain. The “we don’t talk about it” trauma exist in every community, like every family. It’s a matter of how will a community be ready, not when.

Monuments have never been more critical to the identity of communities. Too often, municipalities and community groups are intoxicated by a nostalgia of place, and we are in desperate need of difficult conversations around confrontation and, ultimately, reparation. But as artists and communities confront the histories of violence and racism embedded in Indiana, this work should not—and cannot—be at the expense of those whose lives are so intimately affected. The work must embrace the self-reflection needed to confront white supremacy without reiterating the historical traumas of Black people and communities of color.

History is the privilege of those who tell it, and whiteness has been the narrator for far too long. It’s time for our communities to embrace new stories and frameworks. Commissioning agencies must do a better job of training artists and engaging the general public on what new monuments, artworks, and memorials can be. This process must be one that defines and gives space to new aesthetics and frameworks, like Wangechi Mutu’s sculptures at the Met, or Kehinde Wiley “Rumors of War.” And to new ways of engaging our history, such as those pioneered by MacArthur fellow Saidiya Hartman.

The work of confrontation offers the potential to shift power within shared civic and national spaces. This process should not only be about the past, but about the collective vision of the future. It will start, at the community level, when white individuals and organizations get out of the way and communities of color have the (public) space to tell their own stories. The legacy of whiteness in public memory means that our communal works engage guilt through the trauma and pain of others, but never turn the lens inward, to look deeply at whiteness itself. Our resilience, our hope, lies in our capacity to celebrate erased, unrecoverable, and not-yet-written narratives in our landscape.

 

 

Indiana Humanities - INseparable logo (black)This story was produced in partnership with Indiana Humanities’ INseparable project. Read more stories in the series here.

Sean Starowitz is a 2010 graduate of the Interdisciplinary Arts program at the Kansas City Art Institute and a 2012 Rocket Grant recipient with support from the Charlotte St. Foundation, Spencer Museum of Art, and the Andy Warhol Foundation. From 2010-2015, he was the artist-in-residence at the Farm To Market Bread Company in Kansas City. In 2014, he was awarded the Charlotte St. Foundation Visual Art Fellowship. Starowitz currently lives and works in southern Indiana as the Assistant Director of the Arts for the City of Bloomington and teaches at Indiana University.

Cover image: Cultural Panel 9 from A Social History of Indiana, by Thomas Hart Benton. Image courtesy Indiana University Archives.

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