The University of Wisconsin is into big-time censorship these days, and its latest Pecksniffian episode is particularly ludicrous. As reported by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), a branch of the University at Stoutt (UWS) has ordered two paintings removed from public view because they depict “interactions between white traders and First Nations people” and could have a “potentially ‘harmful effect’ on students and other viewers.”
While in principle paintings could be inappropriate in that way, but when you see the two at issue below you’ll realize this episode of fear is completely manufactured. And again it was manufactured by one of those “diversity teams” or “bias report teams” whose brief is to sniff out and then snuff out anything that could possibly offend anyone. As the NCAC reports:
The paintings, which were commissioned under the Works Progress Administration and painted by artist Cal Peters in 1935, can be found in the University’s Harvey Hall, a building currently undergoing major renovations. In preparation for the Hall’s grand re-opening this fall, the paintings were to be restored by university art students under the direction of their professors. The restoration work, funded by the Wisconsin Historical Society, began back in 2013.
This summer, however, the paintings caught the eye of the University’s Diversity Leadership Team (DLT) who expressed concern that the depiction of First Nations people would reinforce racial stereotypes. The issue was brought to the attention of University Chancellor Bob Meyer who, after a series of discussions with the DLT, ruled in their favor. Because of the risk of “having a harmful effect on our students and other viewers,” the paintings will not appear in the new Harvey Hall and will be placed into storage, Chancellor Meyer announced. Given the sensitive subject matter of the paintings, he continued, if they are to be displayed, it must be in “a controlled gallery space” that provides “context” for a viewer. And “a controlled gallery space” just does not exist at the University, so the paintings will most likely just remain out of view.
Okay, are you ready to see the offending artworks? Here they are. First, “Perrault’s trading fort”:
And the other offensive painting: “French trappers on the Red Cedar”:
What, exactly, is offensive here? Certainly the Native Americans aren’t depicted in a derogatory or offensive way; what we see are trappers and Native Americans either trading for furs or interacting (probably with the Native Americans as guides) on a trapping expedition.
What we see here is part of the North American fur trade, in which Native Americans would trade fur from animals they’d trapped with “settlers” for items like axes, blankets, pots, and beads. It was reciprocal trade, and in many cases helped defuse tensions between the native inhabitants and the whites. Remember that Steve Pinker, in Better Angels of Our Nature, gives commerce credit for producing the people-to-people interaction that helped efface xenophobia.
Moreover, the paintings are probably historically accurate. How, exactly, do they reinforce racial stereotypes of Native Americans? I’d say they depict acts of comity, not enmity.
The problem appears to be only that the artworks show interactions between white traders and Native American trappers. I guess that could lead some Pecksniffs to conjure up an image of the abysmal treatment of Native Americans by American settlers and the military, but that’s not what’s shown here. And if that’s the only connection between these paintings and “offense,” then I reject it completely.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), ever on the case, has written a letter to UWS Chancellor Bob Meyer that you can see here. FIRE, in fact, has bent over backwards to encourage the case of these paintings to be used as a “teaching moment”; here’s part of their letter:
Popular attitudes held by Americans in the 1930s differ from contemporary views—and, accordingly, are of historical significance. Conversations about history are not just conversations about what happened; they are also conversations about how we talk about what happened. Cal Peters’ work invites reflection on the politics of historical memory and presents a valuable educational opportunity. Substantive dialogue across the divides of racial misapprehension, anxiety, and pain will demand courage, imagination, dedication and perseverance. Putting Cal Peters’ 1930s paintings in a closet ends the conversation prematurely and to the detriment of current and future students and faculty.
. . .We strongly urge the University of Wisconsin-Stout—a public institution bound by the First Amendment—to keep the Cal Peters paintings on display as both historically important artifacts and teaching tools. To facilitate an open discussion about these works, we recommend that you provide an opportunity for observers to describe their reactions in writing—perhaps in a nearby notebook—and that you consider sponsoring workshops and the display of other work that provides different perspectives.
Removing representations of historically oppressed groups from view will not change the facts of history. Instead, more representations, more voices, and more conversations are needed. We ask that you trust your faculty and students to answer that challenge.
h/t: Greg Mayer