Georgia’s new commissioner of agriculture, Gary Black, has promised that once he takes office Jan. 10, one of the first things he’ll do is remove a few George Beattie murals, created in 1956, from the Department of Agriculture building, reports Creative Loafing Atlanta.
Mr. Black finds two images of slaves at work and one image of scantily clad Native Americans objectionable. The Washington Post calls the murals Mr. Beattie painted an ”idealized version of Georgia farming,” the Native Americans and African Americans are all painted as healthy and robust. Mr. Black is quoted as saying the paintings “are not acceptable today” and “don’t represent modern agricultural.” The AP reports that Mr. Black went on to say, “I don’t like those pictures. There are a lot of other people who don’t like them.”
Not according to Cinqué Hicks, reporter for Creative Loafing Atlanta. He writes that these murals have existed in the building largely undisturbed and unmentioned for 55 years, and he senses a skittishness that disturbs him, especially when the artwork is reflective of a time and a place. The notion that they don’t represent modern agriculture is what makes them historical pieces of art. The Washington Post quotes sculptor George Beasley, a friend of the painter, who said Black should commission new artwork if he has a new vision, not remove the originals. In the same article, Beattie is quoting having said, “As a human being, I am vehemently opposed to slavery, as anyone should be, but it was a significant epoch in our history; it would have been inaccurate not to include this period.” It seems that the Native American scene is being taken down solely because of the figures’ lack of clothing.
Mr. Hicks mentions the precedent set by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., whose parent institution, the Smithsonian, pressed it to remove a piece from a recent exhibit. The National Portrait Gallery removed David Wojnarowicz’s uncompleted video work A Fire in My Belly, from a massive, inspiring survey of same-sex themes called Hide/Seek. The exhibit included the work of the unknown and famous alike, the latter including the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, Georgia O’Keefe, and Andy Warhol. Wojnarowicz’s video was pulled because of an 11-second scene in which a crucifix is covered in ants. It received not one complaint, partly due to the immensity of the exhibit and it’s relatively very tiny place within it, but mostly because no one felt compelled to complain about it. The parallel between the two situations might be on different scales, but Mr. Hicks feels they’re linked nonetheless.
So why was the video pulled? A conservative website called cnsnews.com posted an item about those 11 seconds, which was then picked up by William Donohue, a member of the Catholic League, that has neither an official or financial connection to the Catholic church. Frank Rich of The New York Times eviscerated the National Portrait Gallery’s decision, which he described as really being the Smithsonian’s decision, to cow to someone like Mr. Donohue over a non-controversy controversy. Hours after Mr. Donohue’s initial battle cry, the Smithsonian yanked the video.
It seems the murals are destined to come down as well.