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Stephen L. Carter: What to do with murals accused of racism

By Stephen L. Carter Bloomberg Opinion

So what exactly should we do when people consider extant art racist? In 2020, the Vermont Law School decided that the solution was to use acoustic tiles to cover a pair of murals. The U.S. Court of Appeals recently rejected the claim by artist Samuel Kerson that the decision violated his rights under the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act. But even if the court’s interpretation was correct and federal law doesn’t protect a work from being covered, the ruling shouldn’t be the end of the matter; not, at least, for those who love art.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1993, the school retained Kerson to paint the murals for a community room. Titled “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave,” the work was supposed to decry the horrors of human enslavement and laud those brave and lucky enough to escape. An admiring reviewer at the time described Kerson’s style as “heavily symbolic, with exaggerated human figures that burst with energy.”

The exaggerated figures are now the problem. In recent years, students and faculty alike have argued that the mural depicts Black people as “Sambo-like” and “cartoonish”; the school posted signs to add context, but the objectors were unappeased. Finally, the murals were covered.

If the racist aspects of the work are so obvious, the law school should have rejected it in the first place. It’s true that judgments of what is objectionable change; and, as we have lately seen, they can change fast. Still, the error, if error there was, seems attributable to the buyer, not the seller. Did the administrators not ask for an early peek? Were there not preliminary sketches that would have allowed authorities to say, “This isn’t quite what we had in mind”?

Hindsight, to be sure, is easy. I’m not blaming Vermont Law School. I’m suggesting that the fault does not lie with the artist alone – in which case, perhaps, the solution should also not be left to lie on the artist alone. (One might respond that the artist has already been paid so can have no proper objection to the fate of his work. This is precisely the approach that VARA was adopted to reject.) There are other approaches available, less destructive to the idea of art itself.

Consider how Tate Britain responded to concerns about supposedly racist imagery in the enormous 1927 mural, “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats,” by Rex Whistler. Public dialogue being what it is, there was little audience for experts who argued that Whistler’s images of African children led on leashes (a tiny part of the work) were intended as a criticism of how the British Empire acquired its culinary delicacies. Small wonder that the museum ultimately decided to close the restaurant where the mural decorated the walls. Happily, the mural won’t disappear. The plan is to reopen the room as an exhibit space where visitors can view the mural fully intact, together with a new work by Keith Piper.

Other pro-art routes exist. Faced with claims that images in a Will Rogers mural were racist, the Fort Worth Art Commission, with the consent of the local NAACP branch, announced in July that the mural would remain but that plaques would be added to provide context.

I understand the corner into which the Vermont Law School has backed itself. The solution chosen by Tate Britain – turning the room into an exhibition space – would have been expensive. The Fort Worth solution – leaving the murals in place with explanatory materials – the school has already tried.

But what does the school’s solution say about the nature of art? Consider the response in 2020 when a group of museums that were supposed to host a Philip Guston retrospective announced a postponement until 2024 because some of the paintings depict members of the Ku Klux Klan wearing hoods. That Guston intended the images as critical of white America’s culpability in anti-Black violence was beside the point. An open letter from 100 artists and writers protesting the delay argued that the museum directors “lack faith in the intelligence of their audience.” (A revised, expanded exhibition debuted in 2022.)

I get what the signatories were driving at. In his excellent 2001 book, “Pictures & Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings,” the art historian James Elkins argues that we’re losing the sense that art is supposed to evoke emotional responses. The fact that the emotions are not always happy ones would seem to be the point.

True, Kerson isn’t Picasso. But we should be fighting for art, not for famous art.

Speaking of Picasso, let’s talk about “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” often considered the first genuinely cubist painting, an enormous canvas that hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Most art critics rank the work as among Picasso’s greatest. But some describe the masterpiece as racist or exploitative. The painting portrays five prostitutes, two wearing African-style masks. (Some observers think that those two women, or perhaps all five, are meant to be Black.)

Imagine now an upswing of online outrage by those who find the imagery racially offensive and demand that the first cubist painting should be the next to go. Should MOMA take it down? Cover it with acoustic tiles? Or leave it on display, as now, with guidebooks and explanations? Even if I agreed with the critics, I’d vote for the last; those who’d prefer the first two don’t get what art is for.

Stephen L. Carter is a professor of law at Yale University, he is author, most recently, of “Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”