In May 1917, just a few weeks after the United States entered World War I, a motion picture called “The Spirit of ’76” debuted in Chicago. It was advertised as “a historical romance dealing with the American Revolution and its causes,” and its depiction of the British was particularly negative.
Because the U.S. was now fighting alongside Great Britain in the war, authorities confiscated the film. Later that year Robert Goldstein, its writer and producer, was fined $5,000 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act by disparaging an ally and giving aid and comfort to the enemy: in this case, the Germans. Because in 1915 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that movies did not have First Amendment protection, a federal appeals court upheld the decision.
The Espionage Act — along with amendments to it the following year, which together became known as the Sedition Act — allowed a virulent censorship under the guise of patriotism and unity in time of war. Anyone who pays much attention to the art world these days knows that while our entry into WWI is a century in the past there is still strong pressure to censor or remove from public view works of art deemed offensive. Today, however, the rationale isn’t patriotism: It’s sensitivity.
This fall, more than 1,600 students at the University of Indiana demanded the administration remove from view a portion of a 1930s-era mural by famed Midwestern regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton entitled “A Social History of Indiana.”
The controversial panels depict, in part, a Ku Klux Klan rally, acknowledging a time when the group was prominent in the state. Benton originally painted the piece for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and in 1940 the entire 22-panel mural was donated to the university and installed in pieces in three new buildings. The Klan rally portion, along with another section, wound up in one of the largest lecture halls on campus.
At the end of September, IU Provost Lauren Robel issued a statement marked by the kind of level-headed rationality we ought to expect from any university administrator. While acknowledging the difficulty of the situation, she explained that Benton intended his murals “to show all aspects of the state’s history, even the ugly and discomfiting parts, so we could confront the mistakes of the past.”
Unlike the current controversy over Confederate statues, the artist’s intention was never to honor or memorialize individuals (or the Klan itself). She pointed out that in the foreground of the scene, the depiction of a racially integrated hospital eclipses the Klan rally and also shows the heroic newspaper reporters who finally succeeded in turning public opinion against the Klan. So it is a mistake to assume “that a depiction of a historical event is the same as honoring it.” Those who don’t understand the context and history “wrongly condemn the mural as racist simply because it depicts a racist organization and a hateful symbol.”
Removing the murals isn’t an option: The paint has become fragile over the decades and the two spaces in the hall were specifically designed to display these particular panels. On the other hand, says Robel with admirable clarity, “covering the murals feels like censorship and runs counter to the expressed intent of the artist.”
The solution the university has settled on is to move classes out of the hall, keep the murals in place, and use the space for a gallery and public lectures. The goal is to teach about the power of art and the need to understand history more fully. Let’s hope that it works.