Sam Kerson, the artist who painted the commissioned mural celebrating Vermont's role in the underground railroad and the abolitionist movement, read my coverage (here and here) of Vermont Law School's decision to paint it over unless he removes it because it makes some Black students uncomfortable. He asked that I share this 9-page letter "as a visit to the mural with the artist, in which the reader will see the images of the mural and hear a few ideas about each image from the artist himself." The letter concludes:
Save the The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave, it is our culture, all of our culture, and no one has the right to destroy it.
Subjective views of the art rendered in the form of a mural will change with every viewer. But the mural as an object will stay in its present form for many years.
The people who are objecting to the mural suggest that a black painter might come to VLS and paint a black person’s version of this history. Nothing like that has ever happened at VLS or in Vermont and dollars to donuts it never will. The smart thing to do would be to recognize the value of the bird we have in hand and protect it.
Mike Alewitz, Fear No Art: "Discomfort Does Not Justify Destroying Art":
(I wrote this Letter to the Editor of Seven Days newspaper in Vermont. The destruction of the mural by Sam Kerson is similar to the attack on the San Francisco mural by Victor Arnautoff, a renowned communist and WPA artist. See: https://vimeo.com/356497181)
To the Editor:
It was disturbing to learn about plans to destroy "The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” a mural at the Vermont Law School by Sam Kerson.
Using the smokescreen of student complaints, the school administration has decided to become the arbiter of what the public is allowed to see.
One reason cited: figures were painted in greens. Apparently, these custodians of propriety are unaware that great artists like Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso also painted green figures. Should their work be destroyed as well?
Also cited: the “over-exaggeration” of figures. Again, apparently, the aspiring lawyers and school administrators are unaware that great African-American artists, as stylistically diverse as Robert Colescott, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold, Jacob Lawrence and Jean-Michel Basquiat exaggerated and distorted the human figure.
Authoritarian regimes often demand that art be “realistic,” most famously demonstrated by the 1937 “Degenerate Art Exhibition” organized by the Nazi Party. Why such animosity to modernism or abstraction? Because it encourages people to think critically.
It’s appropriate for students to question art which they may not understand. It’s also fine for people to dislike a work of art.
But "discomfort" does not justify destroying art. Controversy should be cherished — particularly in an institution of higher learning.
Not surprisingly, cutbacks to art and art-appreciation programs have resulted in widespread art-illiteracy, even within the leadership of our educational institutions.
Instead of censorship, let’s defend free artistic expression and critical thinking. There is nothing to fear from art.
Seven Days, Vermont Law School to Remove Mural Considered Offensive:
Vermont Law School announced that it will paint over a campus mural that depicts enslaved people and Vermont’s role in the Underground Railroad, after students objected to its inaccurate portrayal of Black people.
The mural has been in the Chase Community Center on the school's Royalton campus since 1993, and conversations about its perceived racism have taken place since at least 2013, according to a statement from VLS students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski. ...
In their statement, Davis and Urbanowski objected both to the exaggerated features of the Black people depicted in the mural and the framing of white people as “saviors” in the abolition movement. They said that students, both in 2013 and more recently, raised concerns that the mural depicted Black people as savages and caricatures, and that the depiction of white slave owners with green skin “disassociates the white bodies from the actual atrocities that occurred.”
The white people painted in an abolitionist role have white skin; this “perpetuates white supremacy, superiority, and the white savior complex,” they wrote.
Kerson described the mural in detail in a film by longtime Vermont filmmaker and activist Robin Lloyd. She came to the mural’s defense in a July 10 email to local journalists and Burlington city councilors.
“An educational institution, especially a law school, should understand the danger of such a decision — removing public art that has been endorsed and created through a community process, merely because it may offend a certain group,” Lloyd wrote. ...
Davis and Urbanowski said they would like to see a new mural commissioned that allows a Black muralist to tell the stories of Black people, including a more accurate reflection of historical events. They’re also requesting that the school install a reading corner with Black literature.
“We do not dispute that Sam Kerson sincerely attempted to create a piece of art that would ‘celebrate the efforts of Black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice,’” the students wrote, quoting Kerson’s website. “Unfortunately, not all intentions align with interpretation, with this mural serving as a current example.”