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Art Crushed by Political Orthodoxy...Again
When some students are offended by a mural, their law school effaces it
On March 5, 2022 artist Sam Kerson filed an appeal against a court ruling that allows the Vermont Law School (VLS) to permanently conceal a pair of murals titled The Underground Railroad: Vermont and the Fugitive Slave behind a wall of acoustic tiles. Kerson painted the two 8’x 24’ panels in 1993 to highlight Vermont’s long history of opposition to slavery and to recognize the efforts of black and white Americans across the country in the service of freedom. At a moment when the call to reckon with our grim history of slavery is urgent and particularly loud on college campuses, why is this mural being covered?
Back in 2020, soon after the murder of George Floyd, two students, Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski, complained that a “group of BIPOC students…felt the mural to be inaccurate and dispiriting — so much so that a few decided not to study or interact with that part of campus.” In response, then-Dean of VLS, Thomas McHenry announced that the law school no longer wanted the murals: “the depictions of the African Americans on the mural are offensive to many in our community and, upon reflection and consideration, we have determined that the mural is not consistent with our School’s commitment to fairness, inclusion, diversity and social justice.” Because the murals are painted directly onto the walls and cannot be removed, the school first decided to paint over them but finally settled on covering them with acoustic panels that would hide the artwork without destroying it.
Kerson objected. In December 2020 he filed a suit against VLS in the District Court on the grounds that permanently covering the mural constituted a violation of the Visual Artists Rights Act, a federal law passed in 1990 that protects a piece of artwork “from intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification which would be prejudicial to [the artist’s] honor or reputation” during the lifetime of the artist. But in October 2021 US District Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled in favor of VLS, allowing the school to entomb the murals permanently. Kerson is now appealing this ruling. Explaining the rationale behind the ruling, Crawford distinguished between publicly defacing a work of art and removing it from view. He said that covering the murals without damaging them was akin to a museum removing a painting and putting it into storage.
Legal scholars’ opinions on Crawford’s judgment differ (see here), and on these I am not qualified to comment. But as an historian and an educator, I take issue with Crawford equating the covering of the murals permanently with museum storage. This comparison reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of public art. True, the murals are in the custodial care of and displayed at a private institution and therefore are not strictly public art. Nevertheless, a modern mural, by virtue of its large-scale form and placement in common space, is intended to be viewed by a broad audience. The artist made the mural with the explicit aim of engaging the public, even if the public in this case is limited to those on the VLS campus.
Inspired by the sociopolitical commentary of Mexican muralists, Kerson has used his art to contend with historical violence by revealing the power of resistance and human resilience. In fact, he and his wife Katah, have dedicated themselves to using their art as a means to drawing attention to various injustices including the massacre of indigenous populations, the barbarity of the death penalty, ravages of modern wars, human rights violations in different parts of the world and the trials and tribulations of refugees displaced and forced out of their homelands. As they note in their book Exodus which features their work on human migration to Europe, they see their role as artists to bear witness; to document and record the suffering and injustices. When Kerson painted The Underground Railroad specifically he meant to force viewers to reckon with America’s atrocities and honor its achievements, particularly the achievements of those who defended justice and human rights – appropriate aims for art in the setting of a law school, one would think.
At a moment when college and university campuses vociferously demand recognition of current injustices, it is ironic that art that attests to the inequities of the past is under attack. Adding further irony, Davis and Urbanowski, the students who objected to Kerson’s murals, acknowledged that Kerson’s intention was to celebrate both black and white Americans who struggled to end slavery. They essentially argued that intention did not matter when they stated that “not all intentions align with interpretation.”
Davis and Urbanowski objected to both the style and the content of Kerson’s art. The “depictions of Black people are completely inaccurate,” they maintained. “Regardless of what story is being told overexaggerating Black features is not OK and should not be tolerated. White colonizers who are responsible for the horrors of slavery should not also be depicted as saviors in the same light.” But art is not about accuracy – after all, a number of the white people in the mural are painted with green skin. Furthermore, art by definition resists a single interpretation. These students would do well to heed the words of Oscar Wilde: the moment that a spectator of art tries to "exercise authority” over an artwork “he becomes the avowed enemy of Art and of himself."
By insisting on an offensive interpretation of the murals, by refusing to see both the context in which the artwork was made and for what purpose, the students are dictating that a creative work can and must be read only in one way. And by effectively effacing the murals, the students are denying to others the opportunity to engage with the art and thereby to respond to it themselves.
Even more disappointing, the school has capitulated to student demands rather than emphasizing the value of the murals as a means to engage seriously and meaningfully with social justice issues. The VLS board of directors and senior administrators have reneged on the school’s responsibility as an institution of higher education to cultivate historical literacy and equip students with the necessary skills to analyze and discuss difficult material. In an email in support of retaining the artwork, Robin Lloyd, a Vermont filmmaker and activist, hit the nail on the head: “An educational institution, especially a law school, should understand the danger of such a decision — removing public art that has been endorsed and created through a community process, merely because it may offend a certain group.”
I hope that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals will not only overturn the decision by Judge Crawford but remind VLS that it’s faltering in its primary mission of teaching critical thinking skills to budding lawyers. If the next generation of lawyers are not able to appreciate the importance of context and are incapable of resisting the tyranny of a single interpretation, struggles for social justice will inevitably be diminished.
Amna Khalid is an associate professor of history at Carleton College and a member of the CEO’s advisory council of the United States Free Speech Union.