Friday, March 13, 2020

We can’t learn from art we can’t see

Dettail of "Outstanding American Woman" mural by Edward Millman at the Al Raby High School.

     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. 
Cartoon for "Contribution of Women" mural
by Edward Millman, on display at the Whitney
     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.

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