On November 23, 2015 University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto announced his decision to shroud a thirty-eight by eleven foot fresco from 1934 by UK alumna Ann Rice O’Hanlon (1908-1998) in Memorial Hall (fig. 1).
Two days later facilities management personnel draped a long white cover across the Depression-era mural and attached a placard to explain the arrangement was only temporary. The action came after Dr. Capilouto met with African-American students on November 12th to discuss ways the Commonwealth’s flagship university could be more inclusive, and listen to the specific struggles students of race encounter, particularly issues relating to financial aid, achievement gaps, and graduation rates.
The fresco was one other small concern students raised, alleging the work of art inaccurately represents Kentucky’s history, presents a sanitized description of the working conditions of slaves, and overall conjures up painful reminders of actual race relations in the Bluegrass state in the early twentieth century. Since then, the decision and ensuing debate has received enormous media coverage, with The Washington Post, Hyperallergic, The National Review, and The Huffington Post all publishing stories about the events leading up to the covering of the mural and the subsequent reactions. Needless to say, a spotlight has been placed on Kentucky’s primary institution of higher education, and many anxiously wait for the long-term solution to be unveiled by President Capilouto.I have been disappointed by the lack of public proposals from community members and a defense of the fresco in general.
In this op-ed, I will maintain that a contemporary viewer need not limit his or her understanding of Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s 1934 fresco by rooting their interpretation in the intentions of the artist, and that the mural should remain within Memorial Hall. I will also offer a long-term solution that I hope can satisfy all concerned parties. I understand my essay to be part of the call from President Capilouto for a proposed long-term solution for the fate of O’Hanlon’s fresco, and I hope it will encourage other thoughtful productive opinion pieces that will contribute to the rich discussion of public art, representation,and community relations.
Perhaps it would be helpful to begin with a brief, formal description of the mural in question. The compositional structure of O’Hanlon’s fresco is ordered into three horizontal bands, each containing scenes from Kentucky history that make reference to the development of Lexington or the surrounding region. The work is bracketed by two sets of doors that lead into a lecture hall and two life-size white farmers that form the extreme periphery of the work.
The artist makes use of an organizational principle called the golden section, a Greek geometric device developed by a student of Plato named Eudoxus.(1) The vignettes of the expansive mural are meant to be read from left to right and guide viewers through the most significant historical and cultural achievements in the state’s history. These accomplishments include the construction of fort settlements, Kentucky’s first printing press, and the development of the railroad, to name a few. The crowning achievement of progress is the erection of the University of Kentucky, as seen in the upper middle register with a depiction of the iconic Administration Building, now known as the Main Building. The innumerable figures throughout the mural have a formal simplicity in terms of depth and lack differentiation, a convention common to fresco painting. This emphasizes the narrative of the work and increases the legibility of the composite image. Both in technique and composition the artist is drawing upon well-established Western traditions to illustrate a history of the Commonwealth for a wide audience. The only innovation she adopts is the patchwork-like design that links the vignettes together, which calls to mind the traditional Southern craft of quilt-making. Together these patches of local history constitute a narrative, one of harmony, technological advancement, and optimism for the future, despite the reality of the time.
Like the other forty-two public murals that were executed for the Civil Works Administration Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), O’Hanlon’s mural was meant to encourage a sense of unity through economically trying times.(2) The PWAP used federal money to employ artists to paint regional themes or histories within public forums such as schools, post offices, and libraries. The government administrators who commissioned these murals insisted on figurative art that could easily deliver a message of hope and could be read by a broad base of individuals. Therefore, the O’Hanlon fresco was not only political, but ideological in nature. The mural presents a false sense of tranquility and a selective documentation of Kentucky’s history, one that portrays African Americans as peacefully co-existing with white citizens. In the second and third registers of the mural, African Americans are depicted as mostly passive, not fully engaged with their surroundings. One group plays music for white dancers (fig. 2) while another group strain their backs to pick tobacco (fig. 3).
Another contingent is huddled together, separated from white onlookers, watching the embarkment of the central locomotive, and in several instances young boys observe from a distance activities of leisure.
Collectively, these scenes frame African Americans as second class citizens, not permitted to fully participate in communal rituals and events. These images present the problem of representation of African Americans in Kentucky history and are the source of controversy surrounding the mural. As many may recall, this is not the first time the fresco has been mired in controversy. In 2006, Senators of the UK Student Government Association passed a resolution calling for its removal by President Lee Todd. Ultimately, Dr. Todd disagreed with the students who had crafted the legislation, explaining the fresco was an exceptionally rare and important artistic and historical artifact. Since then, the political climate on American universities has shifted markedly and conversations about race, equality, representation, inclusion, and community are ubiquitous.
In 2015, Americans witnessed the massacre of nine African Americans, including state senator Clementa Pinckney, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the subsequent debates surrounding the symbolism of the Confederate flag; riots in Baltimore, Maryland spurred by the death of Freddie Gray; the anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and numerous investigations into police force tactics in Chicago, Cleveland, and other metropolises. To say the least, as we begin 2016 Americans are deeply embroiled in conversations about race, police brutality, criminal justice reform, and how vestiges of Jim Crow laws are manifest in public and private institutional structures.
Overall, I would say these conversations are a positive development, and frankly long overdue. The recent debate at the University of Kentucky–along with those occurring at Georgetown University, Harvard, and Princeton– forms one small facet of this larger crucible. Students, professors, and administrative officials are engaged in a smaller, though just as significant, battle over how institutions of higher education continue to honor questionable historical figures and how colleges fall short of fully incorporating students from minority backgrounds.
So the decision to cover the mural should come as no surprise, as university officials are increasingly placed under heightened scrutiny to swiftly satisfy the demands of diverse parties in order to correct past injustices or suffer the consequences (as seen in the lack of action taken by University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin). The short-term solution to shroud the mural satisfies the demands placed upon Dr. Capilouto while simultaneously giving the administration time to carefully consider what course of action is most prudent. Other members of the UK community are trying to find solutions to the situation as well. As UK assistant professor of art history Miriam Kienle has noted, the School of Art and Visual Studies is designing a symposium for the spring that will be themed around historical case studies of fresco painting, community relations, and issues of representation and inclusion. (3) It appears the aim of the conference will be to examine how past communities navigated comparable problems and whether any past compromises or solutions can be used as a model for the University of Kentucky. I hope President Capilouto along with all other invested parties will attend the planned symposium as it offers an ideal and professional venue to discuss the future of the O’Hanlon mural.
Until then, members of the university and Lexington communities are left to debate the meaning of the fresco and its future through open channels in the media. In the immediate aftermath of President Capilouto’s November 23rd announcement, Wendell Berry, a UK alumnus and noted author, wrote a vituperative op-ed in The Lexington Herald-Leader on November 30th. Berry criticized the administration’s action and offered a defense of the fresco through a recollection of personal anecdotes about the artist (given he is her nephew) and her intentions while calling attention to the idea of inclusion and representation, and what that meant in 1934. Yet, I would contend that Berry’s modernist defense, which privileges authorial intention, is antiquated and unnecessary. One need not rely upon the tacit ambitions of O’Hanlon to defend the mural, as the meanings of a work of art are not tied to its creator. Instead, I would like to offer a postmodern defense of the fresco, positing that meaning lies not with the artist, but with the viewer.
In his famous 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” for Aspen magazine, Roland Barthes attempted to deconstruct the Romantic notion of the Author-God, arguing that to give a text an author is to limit the work, to explain it through the biography of the creator. He elucidates that we “know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning…but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres [sic] of culture.”(4) Previous scholars had focused on deriving meaning through the interrogation of the lives of authors and artists. Yet, for the French intellectual, the author/artist is simply someone who assembles various strands of discourse. Barthes was the first to suggest that the meaning of a text or image lies with the reader/viewer, and therefore the task of the reader is to untangle those threads to arrive at their own understanding. His position was slightly revised by post-structuralists to account for some consideration of authorial intention, and later served as an important turning point for scholars, particularly in the fields of linguistics, philosophy, literary theory, and art history.
With this understanding, the O’Hanlon fresco can be read as a complex assemblage of disparate cultural strands interwoven together, with meaning ultimately lying not with its creator but with its receiver, i.e. the contemporary viewer. The mural is a pastiche of incongruous artistic traditions from Graeco-Roman and Italian Renaissance fresco painting techniques to pictorial conventions borrowed from Social-Realist muralists of Mexico and the Soviet Union to Southern patchwork quilt designs to oral folklore tales of Kentucky’s history. Not to mention the fact that the fresco is participating in a long tradition of government-sponsored art to unite downtrodden communities. All of these facets make up O’Hanlon’s mural and all are threads that can be untangled for examination and interpretation. The discourse involving race, inclusion, and representation is only one thread in this dense tapestry, though, I would admit it is one that has been ignored and is deserving of examination today. Ultimately, spectators’ understanding or interpretation of the mural is not limited to the intentions of the artist; rather, meaning is produced when spectators interrogate the image for themselves and begin disentangling the myriad strands of discourse.
However, this is not how officials from UK have framed the mural. In a Lexington Herald-Leader article by Linda Blackford from November 30th, President Capilouto is on record as saying that the challenge is “‘acknowledging our history as expressed by important works of art frozen to another time and place and reconciling it with the understanding, complexity and diversity of audiences and perspectives that comprise our university community…’” (5) This excerpt highlights the administration’s puerile understanding of how images function. The meaning of any given image is not fixed, instead it is dynamic and constantly shifting based on the knowledge and interests the viewer possesses. Obviously a work has a point of inception, but the relationship to its surroundings is protean and viewers construct meaning by interrogating the image.
While some may read O’Hanlon’s mural as presenting a romanticized, sterilized view of history, others may recognize subtle signs of subversion and extrapolate a different interpretation (as Berry has demonstrated). O’Hanlon’s fresco has come to represent many different things over the years for different audiences. After the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which reversed the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, audiences would have read the mural in a certain light. After the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, audiences still would have interpreted the fresco in a certain way. Today, the mural finds itself at the heart of important conversations about race, community, and higher education. It is not a work of art frozen to another time and place, its meaning is not rooted to an individual or context in the past. No, it is a work of art engaged in our contemporary dialogue, and its reception by the viewers of today will determine its meaning and ultimate fate.
Many of those involved in the quagmire have already begun voicing their ideas for the fate of the fresco. Some students have expressed a desire for the removal of the mural altogether, such as Chris Ledford, a PhD candidate in political science at UK. In an article for the Kentucky Kernel, he stated that if “it offends people, it needs to go away.”(6) Peter Hurley, too, a sophomore at UK, voiced similar sentiments. In an article for The Washington Post he is quoted as saying, “I think it’s up there with…the Confederate Flag in the South Carolina statehouse. I think it should be removed.” (7) These positions are some of the most radical voiced so far in the ongoing debate, but I have yet to hear many counterclaims, which is troubling. If museums were to extend the absurd logic of Ledford, then curatorial staffs would be forced to remove nearly every work of art from public display. And to equate a work of art that contains various strains of discourse interwoven together and multiple layers of meaning to a singular symbol that gives visual manifestation to the values and ideas for the cause of slavery is naïve and reckless.
The O’Hanlon mural is far more nuanced than many opponents are willing to recognize. As Wendell Berry effectively pointed out in his op-ed for The Lexington Herald-Leader, to even depict African Americans in a work of public art in 1934 revealed a certain amount of subversion on behalf of the artist and a willingness to call attention to the issues of representation and how history is written.(8) O’Hanlon could have omitted depictions of African Americans altogether and no one would have objected to their exclusion. Under the parameters of the PWAP, artists had limited means to portray the actual conditions of the times; after all, the purpose of the national initiative was to use the visual arts to uplift depressed communities while simultaneously giving work to destitute artists. Any attempt to portray the reality of the treatment of women and men of color in the 1930s (or any other civil rights issue for that matter) meant running the risk of losing the commission altogether or a backlash from community members that could have resulted in the defamation of the work. Only a few months prior to the completion of the Memorial Hall fresco in 1934, that exact scenario unfolded when Diego Rivera began altering elements in a mural for the plaza of Rockefeller Center to include a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. The new additions to the Rockefeller fresco incurred the ire of the sponsoring family and resulted in its demolition. While the O’Hanlon mural is not under any serious threat of destruction today, some would like to see it removed, an action I believe would be a mistake.
To my mind, I believe the mural ought to remain in situ for two main reasons. The first reason being that any relocation effort has a high potential of irreparably damaging the fresco. Second, the mural would lose much of its site-specific potency if it was moved to a museum context. O’Hanlon specifically chose the organizational principle of the golden section for her compositional structure to correspond with the Neoclassical architecture of Memorial Hall. Completed in 1929 to commemorate Kentuckians who lost their lives in the first World War, the structure contains traditional components of the Corinthian order, such as ornate capitals atop long white columns, a plain frieze, and regimented dentils around the pediment (fig. 4). Clearly, O’Hanlon envisioned her fresco as part of the overall aesthetic scheme of the complex, and to remove the mural would undermine its position in a larger architectural conversation.
More importantly, if the mural was moved it would lose its central position in a public space where individuals must confront the work of art and negotiate its multivalency, an exercise, I would think, the University of Kentucky would want its students and visitors to engage in. It would appear that lately the Commonwealth’s flagship institution of higher education is not living up to the role that O’Hanlon ascribed to it in her mural, as the crowning achievement of Kentucky’s progress and an illuminating force for society. Like other buildings that house PWAP murals, Memorial Hall, was chosen because of the high volume of people that pass through it. The structure and its outside amphitheater routinely have been host to public lectures, performances, and a variety of community events. As a point of convergence for the university community and citizens of Lexington, Memorial Hall is an important meeting ground where critical conversations take place, and the mural prominently figures within this framework. This arrangement is common not only to New Deal murals, but to numerous historical examples of fresco painting. Murals, such as O’Hanlon’s have traditionally been used to decorate large public spaces for instruction and enlightenment. Some other examples of government-sponsored murals include Ford Maddox Brown’s Manchester City Hall murals, the Westminster frescoes in London (now lost), and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ fresco cycle for the Hôtel de Ville in Paris (figures 5 & 6).
Many frescoes throughout history have remained in their original location despite containing controversial figures or events. Innumerable communities have had to navigate the thorny problem of reconciling calcified power structures present in past art with the multiplicity of perspectives of the present. The O’Hanlon fresco is no different and its current location provides an ideal site to re-appropriate the composite image for a new contextualization and interpretation that can spark valuable conversations for twenty-first century viewers.
But what exactly do I mean by contextualization and what would that look like? First, I think it is important that I caution my readers about the word context. Too often historians, literary scholars, and art historians talk about context as an objective set of facts that can be used to explain a work; however, context is created through subjective interpretative strategies. As Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson elaborated in their 1991 article “Semiotics and Art History” for The Art Bulletin, context “…is a text itself, and it thus consists of signs that require interpretation. What we take to be positive knowledge is the product of interpretative choices.” (9) In other words, context is not something that is merely given, rather it is constructed. Just as intellectuals have used artistic biography and intention to explain a work of art, so too have many tried to use context to supply meaning.
In the case of the O’Hanlon mural, many have called on the administration of UK to contextualize the mural for a contemporary audience, or offer an expository text that can reconcile the seemingly degrading depiction of African Americans with the inclusive atmosphere and mission of the University of Kentucky today. In an online story for Hyperallergic and in his original, declaratory blog post, President Capilouto put it this way, “…we cannot allow it [the fresco] to stand alone, unanswered by and unaccountable to the evolutionary trajectory of our human understanding and our human spirit…” (10) This statement is unsettling because it makes two assumptions: one, that human history is on an inexorable path toward enlightenment and tolerance and two, that the fresco needs a text to explain it.
With regard to the first assumption, I take great concern as it seems to suggest a Hegelian sense of history, one where humans are on an evolutionary march toward progress. This understanding of history is simply not true and teeters on being a dangerous mindset. History is full of violent ruptures, leaps, and jolts backward, and in the instance of the O’Hanlon mural the work offers viewers of the twenty-first century a particular glimpse at the past. The fresco is worthy of admiration for a host of reasons, but in particular the work provides an opportunity for individuals to question past power structures and critically examine whether we have made meaningful steps forward with regard to equality, opportunity, and acceptance of a plurality of perspectives.
As for the second assumption, I do not believe the work necessitates a discursive walltext. This raises an interesting discussion about word and image. Ultimately, a public institution is suggesting the need to provide a text to explain an image. This is problematic as words tend to be limiting and can lead readers toward a particular conclusion whereas images are more ambiguous and capable of containing multiple points of departure for various interpretations. The University of Kentucky wishes to provide context for the fresco, but context is subjective and using select words to describe a complex image will undoubtedly frame a viewer’s understanding; thus, limiting the meaning to how the authors of the text frame the image. While I do not think a wall text is the ideal solution for the problem at hand, I will concede that there does not appear to be a better remedy, and no action is unacceptable.
Therefore, my proposed long-term solution for the mural is to have an extensive wall label within Memorial Hall that offers an interpretation of the work authored by historically suppressed voices. The current wall text ignores the discourse of race, representation, and community that runs throughout the mural so the recent debate provides an exceptional opportunity to partake in a revisionist history project, and I believe that history should be penned by African Americans. I am hesitant to prescribe explicit steps for that process as I imagine this endeavor will need to be carefully negotiated by invested parties; however, I would like to offer some general (and hopefully helpful) suggestions.
An appropriate starting point seems to be the assembly of a task force, appointed by President Capilouto, who would also serve in an ex-officio capacity. It would be composed of African-American students from all educational levels at UK along with faculty members of color from the departments of history, art history, English, and possibly other fields. The committee would be charged with conducting archival research on the mural, deciding how they want to frame the interpretation of the mural (constructing the context), and drafting and editing the final text that would accompany the fresco.
The task force could reach out to the curatorial staff of the UK Art Museum for suggestions on length, formatting, diction, etc. The project could easily be expanded by including on the physical wall label a QR code linked to a website designed and managed by the task force. The website could offer supplementary information about the mural; a comparative analysis with other PWAP murals that deal with race, unity, and labor; a biography of the artist; stories from UK alumni about their interactions with the fresco during critical moments of the Civil Rights Movement; and scholarly interpretations of the mural from individuals with backgrounds that have traditionally been elided from canonical accounts of history. The primary goal of this task force is to provide the opportunity for women and men of color to write history for future generations, a privilege that has been unjustly afforded, to be blunt, to white males. In other words, this project will attempt to bring those who have had to occupy the margins of history to the center, along with their perspectives, ideas, concerns, and interpretations.
In brief, I have attempted to articulate a postmodern defense of Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s 1934 fresco in Memorial Hall using strains of post-structuralist logic. Further, I have delineated reasons why the mural should remain in its current position and offered one potential long-term solution that I think could satisfy invested parties. Overall, I have been concerned by the lack of meaningful discourse surrounding President Capilouto’s November 23rd decision and the ultimate fate of the mural. While some have defended the mural by citing artistic intention, I see these attempts as weak and outdated. I believe that a twenty-first century viewer need not limit his or her understanding of a work of art by investigating the biography of an artist. In my view, meaning resides with the spectator not the creator, and therefore meaning is constantly shifting, ever deferred. Any given painting, sculpture, or text is the composite of a litany of threads of discourse and the task of the viewer/reader is to untangle those threads for examination, interrogation, and interpretation. The current debate involving race, public art, representation, historiography, and community narrows in on one such discourse that is present in the fresco.
These circumstances provide an opportunity to engage in a revisionist history project, one that has tremendous potential as an act of healing and community-building. If the long-term solution is to be an extensive wall label that offers an interpretation of the fresco from a marginalized perspective, then it follows that the mural should remain in its current location because it will force a greater number of individuals to confront the composite image and consider the new contextualization being offered. I hope my candid reflections on this matter will elicit further suggestions for long-term solutions and facilitate productive conversations about art, race, and history.
1 Gareth John, “Conservatism, Landscape, and the South in Ann Rice OʼHanlonʼs New Deal Mural,”Kentucky Places and Spaces, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2003), 11-22.
3 “University of Kentucky Will Cover Controversial Mural” – The Huffington Post, November 24, 2015.
4 Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath (New York:Hill & Wang), 146.
5 Linda Blackford, “Cover over Controversial Mural is Short-Term Solution, UK President Says” – The Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, November 30, 2015).
6 Alexandria Kerns, “Future Uncertain for Memorial Hallʼs Controversial Mural”- Kernel (Lexington, November 24, 2015).
7 Nick Anderson, “University of Kentucky President Talks about Race, a Mural, and Reconciliation” – Washington Post (Washington D.C., December 3, 2015).
8 Wendell Berry, “Wendell Berry: Censors on the Flagship” – The Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, November 30, 2015).
Anderson, Nick. “University of Kentucky President Talks about Race, a Mural, and Reconciliation.” The Washington Post. Washington D.C. 3 December 2015.
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Campus Guide–Memorial Hall. “University of Kentucky Campus Guide.” Accessed 9 January 2016.
Higdon, James and Nick Anderson. “U. of Kentucky Shrouds a 1934 Mural that Depicts African American Slaves.” The Washington Post. Washington D.C. 1 December 2015. .
Jaschik, Scott.“Covering Up a Painful Mural: Responding to Concerns of Black Students, University of Kentucky will Shroud a Fresco on the State’s History.” Inside Higher Ed. Washington D.C. 24 November 2015.
John, Gareth. “Conservatism, Landscape, and the South in Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s New Deal Mural.” Kentucky Places and Spaces, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring 2003), 11-22.
Kerns, Alexandria. “Future Uncertain for Memorial Hall’s Controversial Mural.”
Mintcheva, Svetlana. “Shrouding History or Protecting Students? University of Kentucky Covers 1930s Mural.” National Coalitions Against Censorship. New York. 3 December 2015.
Stevens, Ashlie. “University of Kentucky Covers Up a Racially Charged Depression-Era Mural Amid Community Debate.” Hyperallergic. Brooklyn. 11 December 2015.
The Ann O’Hanlon Story. O’Hanlon Center for the Arts. Accessed 9 January 2016.
Tuttle, Ian. “The Art of Cowardice.” National Review. Washington D.C. 24 November 2015.“University of Kentucky to Cover Controversial Campus Mural.”
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The Huffington Post. 24 November 2015. “University of Kentucky Will Cover Controversial Mural.”
WKYT News Staff. “University of Kentucky Covers Controversial Mural.” WKYT..