Indiana University’s Ku Klux Klan mural: intent vs impact


Thomas Hart Benton, A Social History of Indiana, “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press” (1933), detail, at the University of Indiana. Courtesy of Bart Everson, via Creative Commons.

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis …

Your starter for ten: the above Latin aphorism is (a) the title of the second album by the late Keith Emerson’s pre-ELP prog band The Nice; (b) a saying by Hippocrates (better known for his medical activities) which literally translates as ‘Art is long, life is short’, or (c) both of the above.

Excellent! Now, let us proceed.

First of all, what the sage sayeth is that while the human lifespan is by definition limited (and I speak as someone closing in on three-score-and-ten), works of art can long outlive those who created them, whether we’re talking millennia-old cave paintings, the music of David Bowie or the writings of Hippocrates himself. Which is why our species has culture, history and collective memory. What the sage doesn’t say is that a work of art stays the same (well, it did before remixes, remasters, ‘director’s cuts’ and ‘ultimate editions’ became the new norm) while the world around it changes. By the same token, the intent of the artist may not have changed, but the impact which it has on its environment is forever in flux.

Case in point: a recent news story concerning the above mural panel, painted in 1933 by Thomas Hart Benton, in a classroom in Indiana University. It depicts a Ku Klux Klan rally juxtaposed with an injured black child being cared for by a white medical nurse while a sympathetic white journalist takes notes. Students, angered and upset by the image, have demanded its removal. A full account of the controversy can be found here; briefly, the clash is between the artwork’s status as a historical artifact and the pain which its imagery causes many of the students.

Clearly, the purpose of the artist was not to endorse, in any way, shape or form, the KKK: quite the reverse. Birth Of A Nation it most definitely ain’t. Benton’s intent was obviously to create a denunciation of their bigotry, racism and violence and to express solidarity with their victims. However, its impact – almost 85 years later, in the here and now of 2017 – is quite different. What it depicts, to the contemporary eye, is black people as essentially helpless: at the mercy of white people. Vicious nasty white people who bully, oppress and sometimes quasi-legally murder them or kind benign white people who protect, defend and care for them … either way, black people are here shown as objects, not subjects: denied agency, or any power over their own destiny. They are indeed mere victims, to be struggled over by competing groups of whites, rather than active fighters in their own struggle. Not protagonists in their own story, but supporting players in somebody else’s.

I must say that I can see the students’ point: considering what happened to many members of both sides of my family during World War II, I wouldn’t have wanted to attend daily classes in a lecture hall displaying a mural depicting a Nazi death camp, even if it also showed heroic Allied troops liberating it and rescuing the surviving inmates. I can also understand the arguments in favour of Benton’s work, and its importance as social and cultural history. It’s a shame that the work in question is a mural – by definition bonded to its surroundings – and not a painting on canvas which could simply be taken down and re-hung in a museum as an object of study.

Frinstance, I remember, decades ago, hearing the late great Steve Marriott, during his Humble Pie years, squalling from the stage, ‘I may be white but my soul is black!’ At the time, his intent, clearly understood by his listeners, was to express his admiration for, and identification with, African-American music and culture. Its impact now, were any modern performer to be sufficiently injudicious to deliver the same line, would seem an at best naively pretentious and at worst actively offensive manifestation of cultural appropriation.

Vita brevis and ars thorny and complicated. We can only work within the culture we’ve got, whilst always attempting to nudge and steer it into a direction more positive than its worst aspects might imply and hoping that the impact of what we create will never contradict or negate the intent with which we created it.

Maybe we’re back to Hippocrates and his best-known catch-phrase: ‘First … do no harm.’

CSM meets R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton live at the British Library’s Comics Unmasked!

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Charles Shaar Murray presents Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Fat Freddy’s Cat, the Oz Trial, Felix Dennis, Geoffrey Robertson and Deyan Sujic in July.

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it. Since I must have done something good in a previous life (or maybe even this one), I was invited by the curators of the British Library’s Comics Unmasked! season to host a pair of back-to-back panels on the evening of July 14. The second will be cool enough — a retrochatty thing on the OZ Obscenity Trial featuring Felix Dennis (among many other CV items, one of the three editors of the Schoolkids Issue which kicked off the whole hilarious mess), Geoffrey Robertson (distinguished civil rights lawyer who worked on the defence case as a junior to the late John Mortimer) and Deyan Sujic (now a frontline architecture guru but, back in 1970, the sole skinhead member of the OZ Schoolkids posse).I may also be contributing one or two of my own recollections.

The first, however, will be a rare joint public appearance (arf, etc) by the two most distinguished cartoonists to emerge from the San Francisco underground of the late ’60s: Gilbert Shelton (creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak brothers, Fat Freddy’s Cat and Wonder Warthog) and R. Crumb (creator of Mr Natural, Fritz The Cat and — ummmm — R. Crumb). The latter will, we hope, also be sticking around for the OZ panel since it was a culture-jam mash-up of one of his strips with the Daily Express’s Rupert Bear which caused so much of the agg and trubb.

My answer? You’ve got two guesses, and one of them doesn’t count. The words ‘pleasure’ and ‘privilege’ spring irresistibly to mind.

(Almost) everything you need to know about this fabulous cultural event can be found here. It’s sold out — quite rightly, too — but it may be worth checking with the organisers to see if there are any available returns you can snaffle.

In the meantime, I’ve been catching up with the latest collections of both Crumb and Shelton’s work from Knockabout Comics – needless to say, I salute their indefatigabilty – and urge y’all to do likewise.

Hope to see you there …

Plus I’m immensely flattered that, out of all the work by megadistinguished comix creators which could have been chosen to represent the 1988 Alan Moore-edited anti-Clause 28 comic AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), the one that the curators chose to display and to excerpt in the catalogue was the one I wrote (illustrated by Floyd Hughes), entitled Friday Night At The Boozer. All I can say is: my output as a comix writer is tiny … but cute.

Hup.

PS As an added tasty treat, I’ve commenced the reconstruction oof this site’s Comics section with a piece I wrote about Crumb some years back — find it here.

Chalkie Davies Goes Click At Snap, bringing crackle to pop …

Best rock photograoher Charles Shaar Murray with best music journalist Charles Shaar Murray

Chalkie Davies Snap Gallery

To Piccadilly Arcade’s Snap Gallery (Jaysus, what a gallery queen I’m becoming in my old age) with the ever-delightful Anna Chen to enjoy an emotional and long-overdue reunion with dear friend and former NME colleague, ace photog Chalkie Davies, now long since resident in New York. We were there to check out his mini-exhibition Chalkie Davies Goes Click, a tantalising teaser/prequel for a way more grand and elaborate show to held next year at the National Museum of Wales and featuring 33 classic shots from his days (months, years …) at the NME, including unforgettable images of Blondie, The Clash, Bowie/Ronson, The ‘Oo (well, Pete Townshend’s smashed Rickenbacker), John Lydon, Elvis Costello, Phil Lynott, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Sid’n Nancy, David Byrne and many, many more.

We ended up not in a Soho doorway but in one of our favourite West End eateries, The Canton, for major catch-ups and anecdotage, much of which cannot enter the public domain as long as all three of us remain alive.

Chalkie’s exhibition runs until April 26, so ankle along … hey! Ya never know … Jah Chalk might even be there in person …

Chalkie Davies Anna Chen photograph Pete Townshend's smashed guitar

Having a Brainstorm! with Bryan Talbot

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Pic above by Tim Pilcher: (l–r) Bryan Talbot, Lee Harris et moi.

To  The Muse Gallery on Portobello Road at the behest of my old friend Igor Goldkind for a long-overdue reunion with another old friend, master comic-book artist Bryan Talbot (creator of One Bad Rat, Luther Arkwright, Alice In Sunderland and much much more), who was the centrepiece of a career-spanning exhibition of original art, including original 2000AD and Batman pages and loads of his later and more personal work. The event was introduced and curated by Lee Harris, a man with a dizzying CV which includes (amongst many other things) having been Our Bry’s first-ever publisher.

This culminated in a rather magnificent Thai feast, incorporating much reminiscing, laughter and imbibement. Culture, friendship and food: three of life’s better things. If you’re anywhere near Ladbroke Grove before Bryan’s Brainstorm! exhibition closes on April 13, stumble into The Muse and do the check-it-outy thang. Tell ’em CSM sent ya.