The President of the University of Kentucky, Eli Capilouto, asked for input about whether or not to remove the Memorial Hall fresco depicting antebellum Lexington, Kentucky.

Fresco Painted by Anne Rice O’Hanlon

Fresco Painted by Anne Rice O’Hanlon

The fresco is the work of Anne Rice O’Hanlon who graduated with a degree in art from the University of Kentucky in 1930, and is a splendid example of the public art of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) begun in 1934. It has to do with the historical events of a particular area around Lexington, an area very rich in material for such a project. The work reflects that abundance in a work rich in historical connections, energy and emotion. Listen to a 1964 interview with the artist, Ann Rice O’Hanlon where she talks in-depth about the fresco, her process and the meaning of her work here.

The PWAP was a precursor of the Work Progress Administration (WPA) and was begun as President Roosevelt instituted programs to repair and restore a country devastated by the Great Depression. An article in Smithsonian Magazine about the project and the artists who participated in it says, “the premise of the PWAP was that artists should be held to the same standards of production and public value as workers wielding shovels in the national parks. Artists were recruited through newspaper advertisements placed around the country; the whole program was up and running in a couple of weeks. At a time when most of the people in the country didn’t know that America even had artists in it, they had to apply to the project prove they were artists and accept government sponsorship. The only guidance the government offered about subject matter was that the “American scene” would be a suitable topic. The artists embraced that idea, turning out landscapes and cityscapes and industrial scenes by the yard: harbors and wharves, lumber mills and paper mills, gold mines, coal mines and open-pit iron mines, red against the gray Minnesota sky.” Read more here.

With the advent of the New Deal and its famous WPA, projects were created to give men jobs to save “both body and spirit,” according to its administrator, Harry Hopkins. When federal support of artists was questioned, Hopkins answered, “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.” According to the article the WPA supported thousands of artists by funding the creation of thousands of murals and pieces of sculpture, which appear in public institutions nationwide. The result of the programs funding art, literature, theater, music, and writing was to bring art to Americans in all regions of the country, urban as well as rural, for critical assessment; it bound us together in understanding and appreciation of our cultural heritage and treasure. Read more here.

WPA programs in the arts led to the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, programs still in existence today. In response to many during the McCarthy era who criticized art, artists and any subject matter they deemed to contain dangerous socialist references, a supporter of the WPA’s mission said this: “They’d look at two blades of grass and see a hammer and sickle.”

The current day critics of the Memorial Hall fresco do not quarrel with its place in national and state history, its purpose or the unique nature of the medium. They do not dispute the requirements of the subject matter or offer a critical analysis of the painting itself. They don’t take into account the expertise or intentions of the artist.

According to comments on the Lexington newspaper’s website objections to the fresco spring from a desire to rid the campus of negativity. The claim is that this depiction of African American slaves working in a field saddens, embarrasses and angers students, as it reminds them that their ancestors once were slaves who were denied their humanity not to mention citizenship.

Wendell Berry responded to the controversy in a November 30 opinion piece, which can be found online in the Lexington Herald-Leader. Below read the full text of the opinion piece.

Though I willingly would do so if it were possible, I cannot understand the University of Kentucky’s decision to hide Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s fresco in Memorial Hall. The reason given is only that it shows people doing what they actually did. Black people did work in tobacco fields. Black musicians did play for white dancers. Indians did seriously threaten the settlers at Bryan’s Station.

Ann Rice O’Hanlon was a native of Lexington. She graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1930. She spent most of her life in Marin County, Calif. She taught art for many years at Dominican College in San Rafael, where her students were of several races. She was the sister of Dee Rice Amyx, wife of Clifford Amyx, once a professor in the art department of the University of Kentucky. My wife, Tanya Amyx Berry, is a niece of Ann Rice O’Hanlon, whom I therefore knew well and for many years. Ann was a liberal, if anybody ever was – too liberal, in fact, to approve entirely of me. I never heard her utter one racist word.

Ann painted the Memorial Hall fresco in 1934, when it took some courage to declare so boldly that slaves had worked in Kentucky fields. Nobody would have objected if she had left them out. The uniform clothing and posture of the workers denotes an oppressive regimentation. The railroad, its cars filled with white passengers, seems to be borne upon the slaves’ bent backs – exactly as the railroad near Walden Pond, according to Henry David Thoreau, was built upon the backs of Irish laborers.

I don’t believe Ann Rice O’Hanlon would willingly have painted “a painful and degrading personification of a false, romanticized rendering of our shared history.” I don’t think she did. I don’t think, to quote President Eli Capilouto again, that “the mural provides a sanitized image of that history” or that her “artistic talent actually painted over the stark reality” of slavery.

The president further objects to the fresco on the ground that it reminds “one black student . . . that his ancestors were slaves.” That statement has at least two arresting implications: (1) that black students should not ever be reminded that their ancestors were slaves, and (2) that white students should not ever be reminded that their ancestors were slave owners. Do students, then, study history at our “flagship university” in order to forget it?

Perhaps President Capilouto is not an art critic or a historian, and so his defamations should be excused as the misshapen eloquence of overcooked political correctness. But Anna Brzyski is “a UK art history professor,” and her remarks cannot be so easily dismissed. As an art historian, Professor Brzyski ought to know better than to equate the O’Hanlon fresco with “statues of Lenin and Marx” in the once-communist countries of Eastern Europe. Either she does not know or is afraid to say that the relevant analogue is the official suppression in those countries, under communism, of all art that did not meet official standards.

If forgetting history is now the purpose of higher education, I may be taking some risk by reminding the flagship censors of the persecution of Boris Pasternak by Soviet officials when Dr. Zhivago was published in the West and awarded the Nobel Prize. I will go further into danger and remind them also that Thomas Merton wrote a brilliant appreciation of that novel and its author. Among much else of value Merton said this: “It is characteristic of the singular logic of Stalinist-Marxism that when it incorrectly diagnoses some phenomenon as ‘political,’ it corrects the error by forcing the thing to become political.”

The fresco in Memorial Hall was, in its origin and in itself, not political. Now, by the singular logic of the university’s official righteousness, it has been forced to become political.

Wendell Berry of Port Royal is a poet, essayist, novelist, conservationist and farmer who was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2010.

Read more here.