Confronting the Columbus Murals

In the controversy at the University of Notre Dame, perhaps everyone has been standing too closely to see the whole work of art for what it is, argues Ryan Mas.

February 6, 2019
 
One of the murals at Notre Dame
 

The president of the University of Notre Dame, Reverend John I. Jenkins, recently announced that murals depicting Christopher Columbus and indigenous peoples, painted on the plaster walls of the Main Building, will “be covered by woven material consistent with the décor of the space.” The decision comes after years of lobbying by the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame, joined by hundreds of others who signed a petition calling for the murals’ removal. These groups have largely celebrated the announcement as long overdue.

Meanwhile, however, conservative groups have pushed back, arguing that the decision infringes on artistic and academic freedom of expression. In his letter announcing the move, Jenkins himself notes that the murals were originally painted by Luigi Gregori in 1882-84 “as a didactic presentation, responding to cultural challenges for the school’s largely immigrant, Catholic population,” a fact that conservative groups underline in their protest. Better to encourage the work of art to elicit debate than to shutter, censor and shy away, they argue.

Perhaps everyone in the debate has been standing too closely to see the whole work of art for what it is. Perhaps we all need to step back, ponder and reflect on what is going on here.

For starters, let’s step back from Gregori’s original intent and think about what the murals mean today. A work of art’s meaning can never be reduced to the artist’s meaning. Art is, by its very nature, multivalent. Art is a snapshot in time, pulled through decades of shifts in cultural and historical context, constantly taking on new dimensions. Art is 3-D. The artist’s intent is but one dimension.

Regardless of what Gregori intended in 1884, Native American students have made it abundantly clear that today, in 2019, the murals symbolize violence and oppression -- not peace and integration.

Let’s also step back from the murals themselves and consider their physical context: on the walls of the Main Building, where prospective students are first greeted, where visitors are drawn, where high-profile events are hosted. The Main Building elevates the murals’ symbolic importance. The controversial murals do not exist in a place of debate but rather in the symbolic heart of campus.

Let’s step back from Jenkins’s solution, too, and contemplate what covering the murals might mean. On the one hand, it means putting away the oppression that the murals have come to symbolize and proclaiming that the exploitation of indigenous peoples has no place in Notre Dame’s heart.

On the other hand, is this not just a cover-up? A Band-Aid?

Behind the new, fancy fabric, the murals will remain -- plastered onto the walls, inseparable from the physical structures that hold up the institution. In Jenkins’s own words, completely removing the murals “would damage and likely destroy the works.”

We at the university, he seems to be saying, remain attached to the idea of preserving the art as much as we remain attached to the idea of keeping the structures of injustice in place. We’re unwilling to confront our past and change who we are underneath. The murals could be displayed occasionally, Jenkins offers. Yet so could hatred.

Jenkins argues that Gregori’s depiction “hides from view the darker side of this story, a side we must acknowledge.” Yet covering the murals is hiding something from view, as well.

And so, when we step back, the woven material itself becomes a work of art -- a shrine to our hesitancy to confront the very structures which make unjust discrimination possible in society. A monument to our reluctance to tear down the walls we put up to keep people down, preferring instead to make those walls invisible. A facade.

Perhaps removing the murals would be uncomfortable or upsetting. To whom? Speaking truth to power is uncomfortable and upsetting to the powerful. Are they the ones we want to protect?

In fact, destroying the murals could be an artistic gesture of its own. It could be a testament to the Catholic university’s commitment to its value of human dignity even when it’s inconvenient, as it was at a time when a Catholic boy’s confrontation with an indigenous person sent the country a drastically different message than it does today.

And so, finally and most important, before we congratulate or decry, let’s all take a moment to step back from the controversy completely and examine ourselves. Let’s ponder the painted walls of oppression in our own hearts. And let’s consider doing more than just hiding them away.

Bio

Ryan Mas graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a B.A. in theology and German in May 2018. He is currently a Fulbright English teaching assistant at a secondary school in Germany.

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