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Elgin mural failed public art test

A mural that has been questioned will move to the Hemmens Cultural Center in downtown Elgin. | Sun-Times Library

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If Elgin had known what it had, “American Nocturne” never would have seen daylight.

But somebody at Elgin’s City Hall dropped the ball 10 years ago when commissioning the now-controversial mural, either failing to see that it was inspired by a famously horrifying photo of an Indiana lynching or failing to see why that would be problematic.

In any event, Elgin officials used good judgment over the weekend in removing the mural from display in a public park and relocating it to a local cultural center. All public art — paid for by the public and displayed on public land — inevitably requires public approval. While that often results in overly safe public art, it also results in defensibly appropriate public art, and shouldn’t be confused with censorship.

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To Elgin’s credit, though, the mural is not being destroyed or shoved down in a basement. Rather, it is being moved to another, less conspicuous, viewing space. Better still, the city is not running away from a grown-up discussion of the underlying controversy. The Elgin Human Relations Commission has scheduled a meeting on the subject of race and public art on June 7, while the city’s Cultural Arts Commission will discuss its public art policies at a meeting on June 13.

We’ll resist the urge to play art critic here, except to say that what “American Nocturne” lacked all those years in the park was context. Most viewers of the mural almost certainly did not spot the similarities to the crowd of faces in the 1930 photo of the lynching of two African-American men; and neither the artist, David Powers, nor the city provided that information. They should have. Without that context, the artist’s supposed intent — that the mural encourage the viewer to reflect on American racism — was pointless.

Coincidentally, the same historic photograph is the basis of another work of art — one far more powerful and clear of purpose — now on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In “Heirlooms and Accessories,” Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall, with scathing dark humor, transforms three gawking faces in the hate-filled crowd into keepsake photos in cameo necklaces.

The entire Marshall exhibit, the largest survey yet of his life’s work, is well worth viewing before it moves to The Met in New York after Sept. 25.

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