Paul L. Caron

Monday, September 6, 2021

Debate Continues Over Vermont Law School's Underground Railroad Murals That Black Students Call Racist

Vermont Mural

Following up on my previous posts (links below):  Jenna Sutherland, Vermont Law School Is Right to Cover Over a Controversial Mural:

When Vermont Law School (VLS) released a plan to cover a 1993 campus mural with acoustic tiles, the last thing the administration expected was to be taken to court by the artist. VLS’s decision responded to student criticism of the mural’s caricature-like depictions of African Americans and its emphasis on White saviorism. The mural, “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave,” which consists of two eight-feet-by-24-feet panels painted by Sam Kerson in 1993, was designed to address Vermont’s role in the liberation of enslaved people. The first panel, with vignettes of punishment, auction, and forced labor, also shows a crowd of African Americans holding drums, masks, and spears. The second panel depicts famous abolitionists and features, in a particularly prominent role, a White woman blocking a man tracking down escaped enslaved people. In December 2020, Kerson decided to sue the school, claiming its plan violates the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA) which protects art from “intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification.” ...

In defense of his mural, Kerson contends that VLS is “using the smoke screen of student complaints” to, “be the arbiter of what the public is allowed to see,” a line of thinking which misleadingly focuses the conversation on the issue of censorship. Kerson is free to produce as much art expressing his views as he wants. In fact, he’s already created a new series of paintings called “The Muralist Imagines the Destruction of His Works,” referencing the mural at VLS. The plan to cover the mural doesn’t censor Kerson by prohibiting him from producing work nor does it permanently destroy the mural. VARA legal protections are meant to preserve the ideas embodied in art and protect the artist’s integrity, not ensure that the artwork can be viewed forever. As the lawyers representing VLS cleverly pointed out, nowhere in VARA does it mention that an artwork must remain viewable.

The more crucial issue this controversy brings to light is the means employed by academic institutions to foster more inclusive campus cultures, especially through the visual arts. ... As societal views on race, colonization, and American history shift, more debates over controversial artwork will no doubt emerge. Setting the precedent that VARA permits institutions to cover murals is legally sound (as expected from a law school) and provides schools with a way to resolve similar dilemmas in the future. Free speech is a fundamental right that should be protected. VLS’s decision, though, is not about the censoring of speech. It’s a case of a school taking a necessary action to create a more conscientiously inclusive campus than the one they had previously.

Marc James Léger, Asleep at the Woke Switch: Save the Sam Kerson Murals at the Vermont Law School:

The website Hyperallergic strikes again with another misguided defence of regressive woke politics. In this instance an opinion piece written by Jenna Sutherland defends the students at the Vermont Law School in Royalton, Vermont, who have succeeded in bending the rubber arm of the administration to cover over and replace with tiles a set of murals by the artist Sam Kerson titled The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave. Since the murals cannot be removed without being destroyed, the school has decided to destroy them. According to a July 6, 2020, statement made by the Dean of the college, Thomas McHenry, “the depictions of the African Americans on the mural are offensive to many in our community and, upon reflection and consideration, we have determined that the mural is not consistent with our School’s commitment to fairness, inclusion, diversity and social justice.” According to an article posted in Valley News, the 1993 murals have been criticized by students and alumni. The murals show Africans being forced into slavery and sold at auction. Their resistance is depicted, as is the courageous leadership of Harriet Tubman, John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as abolitionists who protected escaped fugitives.

While the purpose of the murals is clearly made to honour the African Americans and abolitionists involved in the Underground Railroad, including Vermont abolitionists, so-called critics like students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski have suggested that Kerson’s intentions are irrelevant to their personal opinions and interpretation of the works. Oblivious to the language of art, from Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism to American and Mexican muralism, they argue that the representations of blacks are “completely inaccurate” and the works exaggerate Sambo-like black features, as though the green skin colour of the whites in the murals is not also exaggerated, etc. They say: “Regardless of what story is being told, overexaggerating Black features is not OK and should not be tolerated. White colonizers who are responsible for the horrors of slavery should not be depicted as saviors in the same light.”3 The fact that this is not simply a story but is well-documented history is irrelevant to racialists who cannot distinguish the politics of slavers and abolitionists and who make a patently racist rejection of whites. In addition, when centuries of history are compressed into two murals, artistic strategies must be used to attract attention while also informing the viewer. The fact that these works perform this task with skill and intelligence is a credit to the artist and a discredit to its ostensible judges.

As with the SFUSD School Board and its decision to destroy or cover over the Victor Arnautoff murals in the George Washington High School, the administration at the VLS has sought to satisfy the whims of a few careerist racialists. ...

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

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