What should Indiana University do about a panel on a historic mural by Thomas Hart Benton that hangs in a classroom building and depicts a Ku Klux Klan rally?
What should be done with the Benton murals? My best answer is to paraphrase Indiana’s most famous namesake, Indiana Jones:
They belong in a museum.
I’ll start by addressing some common arguments in favor of keeping the murals where they are. These aren’t straw men; I’ve heard each of them articulated by otherwise reasonable people.
The murals represent free speech. Absolutely. But just as with the invitation of a controversial speaker to campus, a university has the right and responsibility to determine the appropriate time and place for such speech. A public museum is more appropriate than a classroom for this type of expression, and moving the murals in no way involves “censorship.”
Students should be challenged, not coddled. True. But unlike other issues, the ideas espoused by the Klan are not a rational set of precepts that can provoke and challenge the critical-thinking skills of our students. They are based only on blind, dumb hatred. And to tell a student, “I will not make you sit through class staring at images of people who want to murder you” is hardly coddling.
Removing the murals will attract the attention of the alt-right. Good. I should hope so. That would give the university an opportunity to draw a line in the sand, broadcasting a message of solidarity with its students: All are welcome to learn here, but none are welcome to hate. We must not, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “prefer a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Leaving the murals in place solely to avoid incurring the anger of a fringe group is an act of cowardice.
It’s a slippery slope. No, it isn’t. Only the feeblest, most paranoid mind would imagine that moving a painting will inevitably lead to a dystopian future where a monolithic university suppresses all forms of expression. We can easily draw a line here: If it depicts racial terrorism, put it in a space where individuals can choose whether to engage with it.
But what is the positive argument for moving the murals to a museum?
To put it simply: That is the entire point of museums. Benton’s work is dynamic, expressive and thought-provoking. We have designated spaces in this country that exist for the contemplation and discussion of works like these. We call them art museums. True, such discussions can be appropriate in certain classrooms. But only a fraction of the classes offered in Woodburn Hall are relevant to topics of race and racial history. Students don’t need to take valuable time out of their class on finite mathematics to watch and discuss a video about Benton and the KKK.
Indiana, like America, must not erase part of its own past, however odious. But those who feel the scenes depicted in the murals are a crucial part of Indiana history ought to rejoice about the murals moving to a more public space. And those who do not will not have to look at them. Let us not continue to preach diversity while celebrating its antithesis. By moving the murals, IU can both renew its commitment to standing as a bastion of core American values and support the exercise of free expression in the most powerful spaces.•
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Adams is an associate professor at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and chairman of the Department of Music Theory. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.