Tom Eblen

What can we learn from recent controversies over historic art?

The statue of Gen. John Hunt Morgan outside the old Fayette County Courthouse was erected in 1911 as part of a Confederate memorial movement throughout the South.
The statue of Gen. John Hunt Morgan outside the old Fayette County Courthouse was erected in 1911 as part of a Confederate memorial movement throughout the South. teblen@herald-leader.com

Considering all that Kentuckians have to think about, I have been fascinated by the amount of time and energy people have put into debating three old statues and a mural.

Who would have thought public art could create such passion?

After a young racist murdered nine black worshipers in a South Carolina church last June — and posted pictures of himself online with a rebel flag — people started thinking more deeply about Confederate symbolism.

In Kentucky, that led to calls for Jefferson Davis’ 15-foot marble statue to be moved from the Capitol Rotunda, where it was installed in 1936. Then there were calls for removing statues of John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan from the old Fayette County Courthouse square, where they were erected in 1887 and 1911.

The next target was Ann Rice O’Hanlon’s 1934 fresco in the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall. Some students are offended because the historical mural depicts blacks only as servants and Native Americans only as threats to white settlers.

Here is where these controversies now stand:

After collecting more than 3,000 public comments, the Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted last August to leave Davis’ statue in the Rotunda. But Gov. Matt Bevin, then a candidate, said he would move it to a museum.

Mayor Jim Gray asked a city arts review board to advise him on the two Lexington statues. The board heard from more than 300 people and recommended moving the statues elsewhere, although it didn’t suggest where. Gray and the Urban County Council will make the final decision.

When some students complained about the UK mural, administrators quickly covered it. The cover will be removed, officials say, after a committee recommends additional context for the display — more narrative about the mural, additional works of art or both.

These four pieces are fine works of art that tell a lot about the times and circumstances of their creation. They portray Kentucky history as most white people once understood it, interpreted it and wanted everyone to remember it.

A common thread runs through these controversies, and it is this:

Much of Kentucky’s public art offers an incomplete view of history and antiquated notions about society because we all but stopped commissioning new public art decades ago. The problem is not so much our old art, but the fact that we have so little new art to provide more diverse and inclusive points of view.

The three statues of Confederate leaders were products of a well-organized Southern memorial movement that sought to shape public opinion and memory of the Civil War. The goal was to portray secession as a noble “lost cause” rather than an attempt to preserve black slavery and white supremacy.

In fact, this is a good time to re-imagine the Capitol Rotunda as a place honoring Kentuckians whose lives symbolize our enduring values. Structural engineers advise against adding more big statues to the five already there, so we must ask ourselves: do these five men alone accomplish the goal for that space? I don’t think so.

Regardless, those three men were important figures in Kentucky history, and their statues should be displayed in accurate historical context. I think Breckinridge and Morgan should stay where they are, with additional signage to explain those statues’ role in the influential Confederate memorial movement.

Lexington’s old courthouse square is no longer a seat of government; it is a place where people learn about history. These two statues represent important aspects of history, but they tell only part of the story. More art is needed in that space to honor a more diverse set of Lexingtonians whose lives explain more about our collective story.

Bevin is right: the statue of Davis, the Confederate president, should be moved from its place of honor at the physical center of modern Kentucky government to a museum.

In fact, this is a good time to re-imagine the Capitol Rotunda as a place honoring Kentuckians whose lives symbolize our enduring values. Structural engineers advise against adding more big statues to the five already there, so we must ask ourselves: do these five men alone accomplish the goal for that space? I don’t think so.

A good argument can be made that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest and most influential Kentuckian. I would keep his statue in the Rotunda’s center, but move the big ones of Jefferson Davis, Henry Clay, Alben Barkley and Ephraim McDowell elsewhere. In their place, I would put small statues of those four men and other great Kentuckians of the past, including women and minorities.

UK is on the right track in seeking to broaden the context in which O’Hanlon’s work is displayed, but the mural’s cover should come off immediately. Effective art sometimes offends people because it confronts them with uncomfortable reality. Hiding art because students don’t understand it is an act of censorship that violates UK’s mission to educate.

Location and context matter. But, in general, we should not be moving and hiding public art but creating more of it — new works capable of increasing Kentuckians’ understanding of their past and present so they can be more informed as they shape the future.

One more thing: The three statues and mural were mostly paid for by taxpayers. We should reject the now-popular notion that art is a non-essential frill and a poor use of taxpayers’ money. After all, how many other small public expenditures still engage and provoke us a century later?

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