Reviews > Culture

Philistines of the left

Culture | Liberals like to shock, but they don't like to be shocked

Issue: "Every law counts," Dec. 23, 2000

When conservatives are shocked by a work of art-especially tax-funded art that is pornographic, blasphemous, or just gross-liberals make fun of them as censors, prudes, and philistines. Art, they say, often offends conventional sensibilities. Art is supposed to be challenging, provoking, and make people feel uncomfortable.

But while liberals like to shock, they do not like to be shocked. Now a public, tax-supported work of art is offending liberals, and-not willing to be challenged, provoked, or made uncomfortable-they are working hard to censor what they do not like.

When the Environmental Protection Agency moved to its new headquarters last summer, the Ariel Rios Building in the Federal Triangle complex in Washington, the employees found on the fifth floor a 13-foot-wide mural titled "Dangers of the Mail." It depicts an Indian massacre of white settlers, complete with a warrior getting ready to scalp a naked woman.

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The mural, judging from the title, was a tribute to postal workers who braved the dangers of the frontier to deliver the mail, and was painted in 1937 by Colorado artist Frank Albert Mechau. On the seventh floor is a similar painting by William C. Palmer, "Attack on a Covered Wagon." The historic federal building contains other murals as well, but only these two have been deemed offensive, because they depict Native Americans in a negative light.

The historical fact that Indians did, sometimes, attack covered wagons and did, sometimes, massacre settlers-including scalping some, sexually assaulting some women, and gruesomely torturing some captives-is beside the point. So is the possibility that those who died settling the West-and the federal employees who kept the mail going despite the Indian attacks-deserve a memorial.

It is just not considered politically correct to portray a Native American in any other way than as a victim of white oppression. Paintings of whites massacring Indians are acceptable, as showing the evils of Western expansion. But, in the current climate, it is bad form to portray Native Americans as being "the bad guys."

White liberal guilt, of course, is rather confused on the matter. Another controversy broke out over the famous sculpture by James Earle Fraser, "The End of the Trail," a statue of an Indian warrior, lance down, drooping over his horse, a poignant memorial of the tragic mistreatment of the American Indians. The sculpture is housed at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, where it is a testimony to the forced migration known as the "Trail of Tears."

This work has also come under attack: It indeed affirms Indian victimhood, but liberals criticize it for showing the Indian as being defeated. Now a plaque at the Cowboy Hall of Fame dutifully apologizes for the statue's implication that the drooping figure depicts weakness, and affirms the great pride and undefeated spirit of the Native American warrior. One would think, by this logic, that a militant Native American might appreciate the Ariel Rios murals, as showing historical examples of Indian victories.

That the federal building even has murals raises another issue. During the Depression, the Roosevelt administration dealt with massive unemployment not by writing welfare checks but by putting people to work. The Works Progress Association (WPA) hired 8.5 million Americans to build roads, parks, buildings, and other public works.

The WPA also supported writers and artists-not by giving them grants in the way the government funds the arts today, but by employing them to use their talents in socially useful ways. Writers and scholars researched the history of local communities, interviewed elderly history-makers such as former slaves (recording their oral histories), and preserved America's history and culture through other projects. No-longer-starving artists were set to work painting murals in federal buildings.

Today, a small-town post office in rural Kansas or Nebraska is likely to have on its walls a mural-often a startlingly good work of art-depicting the community's history and achievements. The murals in the Ariel Rios building, including "Dangers of the Mail" and "Attack on a Covered Wagon," are part of this legacy of government support for the arts.

The EPA, with its offended employees, has covered up the murals, with the delicacy of those who put fig leaves on nude statues. The General Services Administration, which is responsible for federal buildings, is fighting the EPA's censorship. After all, the National Historic Preservation Act protects the building, including its art works.

One final irony, as reported by Fern Shen of The Washington Post: When the mural was first unveiled in 1937, it sparked controversy, not for its negative portrayal of Native Americans, but because the woman about to be scalped was not wearing any clothes. Time magazine ran a picture, sparking reader complaints about taxpayer money funding dirty art.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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