A recent memo by Luis A. Luna, Assistant Administrator, Office of Administration and Resources Management announced a decision to install a temporary screen to cover up several historical murals on the 5th floor of the Ariel Rios building in Washington, DC. These murals were created under a 1934 U.S. Treasury art commissioning program, and have apparently been the subject of complaints over the years, and were once previously covered up during the Clinton Administration, before being apparently exhibited again during the current administration, before being hidden from view once more.
The murals which will be once again covered up, and which have titles such as "French Explorers and Indians," "Torture by Stake," "The Red Man Takes the Mochila," etc. depict a diverse set of panoramas ranging from spectacular scenes of the often violent interaction between the American West's native nations and the new settlers, to artistic recreation of historical meetings between European explorers and native Americans.
While it is perhaps understandable that the imagery on some of these murals may be objectionable to some workers or visitors -- perhaps embarrassing to some due to the nudity in some of the murals, and perhaps offensive to others due to its depiction of native Americans, and maybe even more objectionable due to the violence depicted in many of them -- in my opinion it would be even more objectionable to a majority of us to have these historical murals covered up or destroyed.
A nation that chooses to ignore or whitewash its past, is a nation without a historical memory and without a cultural footprint.
Nearly the entire world was aghast when the Taliban destroyed the gigantic Buddha sculptures that were offensive to that repressive regime, and we all condemned the demolition as a vile and barbaric act of cultural ignorance and artistic destruction. And yet here we are almost somewhat ready to do the same in principle to an integral, if not proud, part of our historical and artistic past.
Art is perhaps the only vehicle that we have left that crosses all cultural barriers and creates bridges and memories for mankind. Visual art, especially representational historical visual art, has created for our nation an important cultural footprint and a significant record of our past. As such it cannot and must not be now censored or destroyed, lest we forget it.
I have had many opportunities to sit on the advisory board of the Washington, DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and in that process I have helped to fund many of the contemporary murals that now adorn our nation's capital. In that experience, I have no doubt in my mind that there is no arts commission or city in our nation that would remotely consider funding these 1930s vintage murals in 2006, much less in a public building. That is just the nature of where we were in 1930 as a people and where we are now.
But it is my hope that decades from now, if someone finds any of the murals that we have funded in the last few years for our nation's capital objectionable, that our future Americans will have more conviction and more common sense and more guts to stand fast rather than to immediately take the politically-correct and knee-jerk reaction to "cover" them up, or consider removing them.
Keep the murals as they are.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006