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LETTER: Benton's mural asks us not to repeat our past



I attended some work-related meetings on your beautiful campus earlier this week. I was visiting from Chicago, where I work at the Art Institute. 

I read with interest Katelyn Haas' front-page article "KKK depiction in IU mural reignites debate," published Sept. 11, on the depiction of the KKK in one of the panels of Thomas Hart Benton’s monumental cycle about Indiana’s history. After reading the article, I viewed the panel in question, and I then sought out the remaining panels.

Everyone should view and reflect on Benton's work more fully before petitioning to remove this art from its current location. When taking into account the cycle as a whole, the passage in question — pushed into the background — is dwarfed by the sheer scope of Benton's creation.

The depiction of the KKK is clear, but to use this as a reason to remove the panel is short-sighted. It is but a small part of the whole, an important part, but the representation of the KKK does not define the mural.

The viewer should also evaluate Benton's overall intention, specifically with respect to this passage. Underneath, in the foreground and in the center of the panel, is a little African-American girl with an injured arm resting on a hospital bed and being attended to by a white nurse. Opposite the nurse, a photographer takes the girl's picture.

These two figures act as framing devices, drawing the viewer's attention to the girl. The Klan looms above her. She, in turn, looks directly out at the viewer. This is no small point Benton is making. There is no other figure in the entire cycle that breaks the pictorial plane and confronts the viewer like she does. 

Benton is challenging the viewer to look at this young black girl and sympathize with her, to be on her side, even as the Klan still threatens. Given this, I also think it is clear where Benton's sympathies lie.

This artwork is not a tribute erected in a town square to a hoary Confederate general. Those should be shipped off to museums. Benton's "History of Indiana," however, is exactly where it should be, at an educational institution.  

And the panel in question is precisely where it should be, in a classroom. There is no finer teachable moment than to reflect on Indiana's imperfect history while recognizing the change that was still in the future for people of color in this country.

Kevin Ford

Chicago, Illinois

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