We can’t learn from art we can’t see

The WPA mural at Raby High School, whitewashed over for decades, is a reminder of the futility of censorship.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe is depicted comforting a slave in the Edward Millman mural at Al Raby High School in East Garfield Park.

Harriet Beecher Stowe is depicted comforting a slave in the Edward Millman mural at Al Raby High School, 3545 W. Fulton Blvd. in East Garfield Park.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

One way to see a slice of Edward Millman’s take on women in American history is to fly to New York, cab to the Whitney Museum and pay $25 admission for “Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art.” Wander around what The New Yorker called “a thumpingly great” exhibit until you see a monochromatic drawing of a woman grappling with men in gas masks. That’s it.

Or, if you are at the Al Raby High School for Community and Environment in East Garfield Park, simply drop by the lounge near the entrance and savor the entire 54-foot-long, full color Federal Art Project mural, originally titled “The Contribution of Women to the Progress of Mankind” — the title’s irony no doubt lost when the fresco was completed in 1940 at what was then Lucy Flowers Technical High School.

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Now restored to its original glory, this Millman mural has been renamed with the more acceptably anodyne, “Outstanding American Woman.”

What makes this mural relevant today is that it was whitewashed over the year after it was completed. 

Not because Harriett Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” is depicted comforting a slave, an image seen by some as an offensive example of White Savior Complex. I am reluctant to point that out, lest the Chicago Public Schools be tempted to whitewash the mural again.

Because CPS officials are once more flirting with the get-yourself-tied-in-a-knot-over-old-murals business, censorship always being the easiest way to hush the complainers. Only now it is the Left being “insulted and triggered” by depictions of the past that, rather than being too grim — in 1941 an all-white school board deemed the Millman mural both “subversive” and “depressing” — are not grim enough to suit their view of American history as a continuous slough of oppression and atrocity. 

An Edward Millman mural, painted between 1938 and 1940, is in a lounge at the Al Raby High School for Community and Environment, 3545 W. Fulton Blvd.

An Edward Millman mural, painted between 1938 and 1940, is in a lounge at what is now the Al Raby High School for Community and Environment, 3545 W. Fulton Blvd., in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Students at Raby use the mural to inspire projects, and teachers are glad it’s there.

”It always makes me happy to have a piece of New Deal history in our foyer,” said history teacher Matthew Geesaman. “I get excited to teach and share it with students, and adults.”

Trying to blot out history seldom works. The past has a way of popping back up, no matter how you bury it. In the mid-1990s, the principal of what was then Lucy Flowers Vocational High School spearheaded an effort to have two layers of paint hiding the mural meticulously removed, “flake by flake.”

I offer the mural by Millman — born in Chicago, he studied mural painting in Mexico under Diego Rivera — as a cautionary tale to those hot to cover up images that don’t mesh with their pieties. Sensibilities have a way of changing. Rather than risk vacillating in an endless cycle of Whitewash, Restore, Repeat, we might instead consider a radical proposal. Given that these places are schools, why not try the admittedly out-there notion of using school wall art — whether discredited or spot-on, flattering or offensive—to teach kids to comprehend history? History as it actually occurred, even if the jumping point is a romanticized, outdated or exaggerated image.

Former Flowers principal Dorothy Williams wrote something that bears repeating about why she bothered uncovering the mural:

”I felt Flower students, staff, and community were being deprived of viewing a great work of art. I also felt the restoration of the mural would enhance our appreciation of art and our American history, even if some of the scenes were controversial.”

Amen. Though I don’t know if I’d agree with “great.” Great art is Michelangelo. It might not even be good art. But it certainly is art, and art almost always beats a blank wall, a truth that flies past those flopping their fingers on keyboards to complain about the wide swath of reality that offends them. It also eludes CPS officials giving those complaints too much weight.

The complainers should be shown a patch of bare wall and told to go at it. Their results won’t be great either. But that is exactly the point. The past isn’t always great. In fact, it seldom is. It’s confusing and jumbled, petty and horrific. But it’s still the past. Yes, a few would-be censors might feel better about themselves, no doubt briefly, if we cover up the less-than-great parts, so they only see mirrors that reflect and flatter their inflamed-yet-fragile sense of self. But that doesn’t teach anybody anything and doesn’t change history one bit. History is still there, waiting, immutable. 

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