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Of Murals and Men

Take three on the old Ada County Courthouse mural


Recently, two essays appeared in Boise Weekly in regard to the mural in the old Ada County Courthouse that depicts a couple of white men preparing to lynch a Native American. The first article was written by art professor Larry McNeil, who respects the historicity of art in general, but suggests that this particular piece would be better painted over with something less offensive. Native Americans would be the painters. In response, historian Keith Petersen pointed out that representatives from Idaho's five tribes have already recommended keeping the mural, presumably as is. Even though it's "bad art." Thus we have an artist recommending the destruction of a piece of history, and a historian functioning as an art critic. Excuse me? Should these two gentlemen trade places?

One of the qualities that makes a work of art good, or at least good for something, is its fidelity to the culture that produced it. Petersen notes that the mural in question was produced under the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was one of a number of programs that provided jobs for Americans, including large numbers of white-collar workers who were unemployed during the Great Depression. In the words of historians Charles and Mary Beard, such projects, along with the Social Security Act of 1935, were created to place a "floor of minimum security under millions of people."

But fidelity does not necessarily mean that the artist paints only what he or she knows from experience to be a valid representation of something that actually happened in the past or that is happening in the present. The Depression-era artist would have been extremely unlikely to have witnessed the hanging of an Indian. Neither, it is hoped, would El Greco ever have witnessed a crucifixion, yet most people are touched as his cold, deadly colors resonate through the centuries. When the past is filtered through an artist's personal mythology, a second reality is created, and then a third, as first the artist, and then the viewer, fills in the holes in the original narrative. Thus the artist's moment in time becomes a bridge between the past and the future.

And we're the future. The post-modernists among us may distrust art that can be understood at a glance, but how much do we understand of a Depression-era painting of a Native American about to be lynched? Educational theorist Elliot Eisner suggests that ambiguity should be part of the artist's plan. You want your work discussed in the coffee house after the play or reading or exhibit, right? And there's no better way of accomplishing that than to create questions as to what you're actually trying to say. You can't buy better publicity for your work than to create a puzzle that gets your audience talking. Sounds manipulative, doesn't it?

Maybe not. John Storey, who is a cultural theorist, suggests that one of the functions of art is to contribute to the breakdown of old ideas by raising questions our ideology chooses not, or dares not, ask. He quotes Pierre Macherey:

"The art of knowing is not like listening to discourse already constituted, a mere fiction which we have simply to translate. It is rather the elaboration of a new discourse, the articulation of a silence. Knowledge is not the discovery or reconstruction of a latent meaning, forgotten or concealed. It is something newly raised up, an addition to the reality from which it begins."

Can even "bad art" help with knowing? We can't know from that single mural what mythic narrative was spinning in the artist's head while he (probably he) painted the picture—whether the condemned Indian had committed a horrific crime or had simply violated the curfew in some white men's town. We do know that Native Americans endured unspeakable injustices under the hegemony of hatred that lingered well beyond frontier days. Indian life was cheap in the 1870s.

It wasn't so wonderful in the 1930s. The mural tells us more about the thinking that went down during the socioeconomic neap tide of the 1930s, when Indians in some states couldn't vote, when miscegenation was a sin at best and a crime at worst, while across the sea in Germany, Hitler was flexing his Storm Troopers and the Brits were pretending everything was fine.

Is there something of the soul of the 1930s in the mural? In romanticizing Idaho's Wild West, has the artist inadvertently created a portrait of his own time? By its existence, the mural supplies a glimpse into a seemingly stagnant segment of America's long-tortured emergence from racism. Its critical focus is less about the kind of thing that happened in the 1870s than about the fact that the lynching of an Indian was considered a fitting subject for inclusion in a government-sponsored art project during the 1930s.

Was a mural a form of escapism? Or maybe an exceedingly tame, genteel reminder of how easy it is to rationalize violence? Especially one's own?

While the tactfulness of—or lack of it—depicting a hanging on a courthouse wall can certainly be questioned, the artist's effort to add a fragment of story to his or her work (again, it was probably his), resonates with our present situation. It addresses our feelings of regret if we let that cheesy old mural speak to us. The cruelty and injustice that were a regrettable part of the Old West are less easy to romanticize or to hide, as long as that mural exists.

And since we've got it, we ought to keep it. We mistakenly shelter our children if we let sanitized history cover the stuff we fervently wish had never happened. Whatever their heritage, children in our hard-won, still imperfect multicultural society need to learn why some issues were/are so important. We all need the chance both to own up and to forgive. Painting over "bad art" would be akin to taking an airbrush to the photos of newly liberated Holocaust survivors, or cropping the German shepherd out of the photo of Martin Luther King Jr. in the back seat of a squad car.

It would have been nice if a mural painted in 1930s had suggested a less sophisticated America, a social order en force when doors were seldom locked, when a letter could be mailed anywhere in the United States for three cents and a handshake carried the weight of an affidavit. Or would that be another myth?

Ann Finley is educated in Indian Studies and taught art on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.