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January 5, 2016

Uncovering the Coverers

In the foyer of University of Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum, the original venue of the men’s basketball team, is a mural by Ann Rice O'Hanlon. Commissioned during the Great Depression by the Public Works of Art Project, it depicts the history of Lexington, Kentucky, in various scenes. At the bottom of the mural are images of slaves bending at work in a field, their backs supporting the main body of images of white society above. As art goes, it is about as good as one would expect from the federal government which, according to a local art historian, still owns the piece.

Recently, some black students met with the president of UK, Dr. Eli Capiluto, and voiced their disapproval of the mural. Various quotes from the students were printed in the local paper, all of which amounted to the students stating the mural made them “feel unsafe” on campus.

President Capiluto immediately covered the mural with a sheet, making the kinds of mealy-mouthed public statements one would expect from a bullied, modern college president. After the mural was covered, one student enthused that he was happy he could now come to class and not be reminded about slavery.

The University of Kentucky should feel lucky; Dartmouth College has two controversial murals. In the early 1930s, the Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco painted “The Epic of the Americas” in the basement study hall of Baker Library.

The enormous mural is a harsh critique of the impact of religious, economic, governmental, and cultural elites on the history of North America. Ironically, its harshest condemnation is for the modern educational establishment, depicted as a phalanx of skeletons in academic regalia “graduating” a stillborn infant wearing a tasseled mortarboard on its skull. Like all great art, the relevance of that scene grows with time.

When it was unveiled, the Orozco mural offended many people, and the artist’s interpretation of history was attacked. They wanted the murals whitewashed. In an era when college presidents actually had spines, Dartmouth’s Earnest Martin Hopkins refused to bow to the mob. In 2013, the compelling mural was designated a National Historic Landmark, deservedly.

In the late 1930s, perhaps as a response to the Orozco murals, the Hovey murals were painted by Walter Beach Humphrey in the basement of Dartmouth’s Thayer dining hall. They lightheartedly depict the 1769 founding of the college when Reverend Wheelock entered the forest with, among other things, five hundred gallons of rum to educate the Indians.

Of course, depictions of the drunken Wheelock and his muscular, drunken student-braves, attended by beautiful, topless Indian maidens, was too much for modern “feelings.” The murals were hidden for several years, then finally covered in 1983. Cynically, the administration would for a while uncover them during alumni weekends to keep the donations rolling. Such are the limits of offensiveness.

The offended UK students want Dr. Capiluto to assuage their feelings and to make the UK campus a “safe space.” They want to eliminate “microaggressions,” of which the O'Hanlon mural is but one example. They demand that others walk on eggshells, itself a microaggression because it robs others of their right to speak and act freely. They want political correctness — an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

The term for people who peddle in fear and demand that others live in their safe space is fascist. They do not accept the liberty and expression of others. Through codes of speech and conduct, they seek to control others. Through indoctrination, they seek to mold their thoughts. These people and their enablers are now most commonly found on college campuses.

Covering something is almost as bad as destroying it. Early fascists burned people at the stake. In the last century, they burned books and then people they wanted to silence. In this century, Islamists are blowing up ancient works of art in an attempt to sever all ties with history. Syria’s leading art historian, Khaled al-Asaad, was publicly beheaded by ISIS, just to complete the severing there. The fascist must eliminate history because he is busy remaking the world in the image of his safe space.

In the public discussion about the mural in the Lexington Herald Leader, one letter writer referred to the veil placed over the O'Hanlon mural as a “Klan sheet.” But Klansmen wear sheets to hide their own faces. They are cowards. A more accurate metaphor is the burka, which is a sheet forced on another to hide her face. Covering someone’s face, or artwork, is a profound attack on her individual freedom and expression. Covering is the project of fascists. Cowards are those who bend to their will.

President Capiluto should take the burka off the mural. If he really wants the mural to be contemporaneously relevant, particularly given its location, he should paint basketball jerseys on the stooped, black figures supporting the white superstructure with their bodies.

Dartmouth’s Hovey murals and UK’s O'Hanlon murals should stay covered only for their protection — with Plexiglas. That some fascist would splatter them with a bucket of paint almost goes without saying. That a similar act of violence would befall Dartmouth’s Orozco murals seems unlikely given the sensibilities of the group that they offend- white elites. So just who are the aggressors here?

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