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.’