November 1, 2017

Thomas Hart Benton Mural at Indiana University Depcting KKK Sparks Call for Removal

BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA—A former student at Indiana University has created a petition demanding the removal or concealment of a panel of Thomas Hart Benton’s mural A Social History of Indiana because of its depiction of a Ku Klux Klan rally. The petition, issued to Indiana University’s board of trustees, contends that the mural violates the university’s Right to Freedom from Discrimination, which protects students from harassment “that has the effect of interfering with the student’s ability to participate in programs or activities of the university.” In response, the university ceased holding classes in September in Woodburn Hall, its largest lecture hall, Sarah Cascone reports for Artnet.

“It is past time that Indiana University take a stand and denounce hate and intolerance in Indiana and on IU’s campus,” the petition states. “In 2005, a decision was made to allow a KKK mural to remain in Woodburn Hall at Indiana University. The reasons given were so that it would remind students of the history of Indiana and celebrate the downfall of the KKK in Indiana. While it is important to be aware of the history of Indiana, the KKK is still active throughout the state of Indiana. The mural does not mark a time in history of Indiana because it is still extremely relevant today.” The petition, launched in August by former IU student Jacqueline Barrie, has garnered more than 1,500 signatures.

Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned by the Indiana state legislature in 1932 to create the twenty-two panel A Social History of Indiana for the following year’s World’s Fair in Chicago. The murals were donated to the university in 1941. The panel depicting the KKK rally refers to a 1927 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Indianapolis Times that found that more than half of the state General Assembly and the governor had direct ties to the Klan. Benton’s 1936 mural A Social History of Missouri, installed in the State Capitol Building, also connects the KKK to the state’s history; calls have also been made for its removal.

“Like most great art, Benton’s murals require context and history. Many well-meaning people, without having the opportunity to do that work, wrongly condemn the mural as racist simply because it depicts a racist organization and a hateful symbol,” IU executive vice president and provost Lauren Robel wrote in a statement. “Every few years, since at least the 1980s, the campus has grappled with the presence of the Benton Murals in Woodburn. We are entrusted with the preservation of this important work of art, yet we must also do everything possible to promote a civil and inclusive campus that provides equal opportunity for all to learn. What to do?”

For The Conversation, Henry Adams, professor of art history at Case Western Reserve Univeristy, writes that Benton “adamantly denounced racism,” having repudiated the KKK in a 1924 essay and organizing the 1940 exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching with the NAACP.

Indiana Univeristy vice president for diversity, equity, and multicultural affairs James Wimbush told USA Today, “It does not glorify or celebrate this particular dark episode of the KKK in Indiana, but instead shows that the state’s past has shameful moments the likes of which we do not want to see again, ever. It’s important to understand the state’s history—the good and the bad.”

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