I don’t know if any of you saw this article in Sunday’s Clarion-Ledger (“When Art Offends,” June 7, 2009) about the awkwardness of the Depression-era mural in Jackson’s Eastland federal courthouse–what to do about the stereotypical and degrading depictions of the black characters in the painting. The mural shows an idealized landscape, with white men in obvious positions of power and responsibility, a few white women looking at their men, and off to the left black men and women bringing in the cotton and one man playing a banjo. At some point, in the 1960s, the judges decided this wasn’t really the best mural to have in their courtroom, so they hung black curtains in front of it.
As the Clarion-Ledger says, “It’s inconvenient art. And how to present works of art that have historical value but are sometimes painfully out of step with modern sensibilities can be an issue for communities.” I actually thought the article did a good job of looking at the issue from a broad perspective, not just this one mural but many different kinds of significant art. For our purposes, as preservationists, many of the issues raised in the article could also deal just as well with different kinds of historic buildings–for instance, what about slave quarters? slave markets? Farish Street (or any other formerly segregrated area of our towns and cities)? Should we preserve the legacy of segregation that those neighborhoods represent?
One thing that sticks in my craw about the federal courthouse mural is that it wasn’t painted by a Mississippian or even a native of this country. The artist was a Russian immigrant living in New York City, and the feds picked him over Walter Anderson, the famously individualistic Ocean Springs artist who was favored by architect Emmett J. Hull (husband of artist Marie Hull) and the rest of the local committee in charge of choosing the artist. It would be interesting to see if we would be dealing with this “inconvenient art” today if the local committee had had its way. Here’s a link to the sketch that Anderson presented to the committee. I admit it’s not my taste, but I don’t see anything overtly racist or stereotypical like I do in the current mural. Who knows whether the local guy would have been able to present a more nuanced and sympathetic mural than the guy from Russia who I’m sure was a good artist but who had no knowledge of Mississippi?