The crowd at the ballroom at the University Center last Wednesday evening was large, especially for any occasion not involving a celebrity—like, say, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Rubin, or Margaret Cho, who have spoken in this room.
In fact, there is a celebrity of sorts, one endowed with the extra intrigue celebrities have when they vanish for a while. The celebrity is a very large painting, 140 square feet of vivid color along the windowless western wall of the room. It’s an oil-on-canvas mural in a style akin to that of Thomas Hart Benton, perhaps by way of Diego Rivera.
The painting of 28 lively figures, singing and dancing, depicts the history of music in Tennessee, representing the state itself, east to west. Beginning on the right, gospel singers, perhaps sacred-harp singers, in front of a white clapboard church. White workers making baskets, weaving, making a patchwork quilt; in middle Tennessee, a white square dance, with fiddle and banjo, and on the western left, with a riverboat in the background, a four-piece jazz band with sax, trumpet, drum, piano.
The Greenwood Mural, as it has been known lately, has been one of UT’s persistent legends. It’s been right there for almost 51 years, but for most of that period, the painting, sometimes described as UT’s premiere piece of original artwork, has been hidden from view.
It’s a strange story, one with enough irony for an O. Henry story, maybe a little too much. The reason many of the people in the ballroom Wednesday night seemed to be getting impatient with each other had to do with a controversy about how a few of the 28 figures were depicted. Especially the ones over to the left.
An organizer estimates about 300 attended last week’s discussion of the suddenly revealed mural; it’s exactly the same number as the estimate of the crowd that came to the original unveiling of this same painting by Marion Greenwood in this same room, over half a century ago. But the 2006 crowd was different in a couple of obvious respects, in that perhaps a third of the people who composed it had dark-colored skin. And though this paint dried over half a century ago, the conversation in the ballroom was more animated than the polite conversation that attended the dressy commencement-weekend unveiling in 1955.
“Well, that’s not so bad. I don’t see what the fuss was about.”
“Look. He’s a slave. It’s glorifying slavery!”
“Do you think he looks happy? I don’t.”
“Nobody told you you had to come in here. If you don’t like it, you can just stay away.”
“But we’re paying for this. We’re paying for this room.”
“I just don’t want to look up every day and see a slave with a bag of cotton.”
“But how can you talk about the history of American music without showing slaves?”
Whether the mural even depicts any slaves is not clear. There are depictions of eight black people on the left. The four jazzmen certainly aren’t slaves; the instrumentation suggests an early 20th-century combo. Two are dancing, as are some white people in the mural. Most of the discussion revolves around one figure, a black man seated, just east of the jazz band, with a bag of freshly picked cotton. He wears a straw hat and work clothes and appears to be singing. A little girl is at his knee.
Many observers seem to base their assessment of the painting on the issue of whether he’s smiling.
Though most of the attendees appear to be students, the room includes some familiar faces. There’s KSO violinist and retired WUOT disk jockey Norris Dryer. He seems genuinely surprised. “I think it’s an excellent work,” he says. “I’d always heard the slaves were shackled. They’re not. And I’d always heard they were smiling. They’re not.” He’s been around long enough to remember the painting before it was covered, but he admits he had come to believe the stories. “Urban legends, they call them, don’t they?”
And there’s Fred Moffatt, the semi-retired art professor and art historian. “I think it’s a really nice painting,” he says. “The reason it’s been covered is not really known. But I’m glad they did cover it for a while. So many murals have been destroyed because they don’t please the present generation.”
The reason he’s glad is that the concealment might have saved the painting. At the height of UT’s student unrest in the spring of 1970, someone attacked the mural with acid, paint, and a knife. That vandalism began an unlikely chain of events that resulted in this noisy gathering, almost 36 years later.
It came as a result of efforts by UT college scholars senior Eric Harkness. Two years, ago, Professor Tim Ezell had a little fun with the Ohio-raised undergraduate. He mentioned the Greenwood mural, asking Harkness if he’d ever seen it. When Harkness replied no, he’d never heard of it, Ezell responded, “Are you sure? It’s in the UC ballroom.” When Harkness heard of the secret painting, it became something of an obsession. He approached the issue as methodically as the public-policy major he is.
“It jumped out to me to have a discussion on these two central issues: one, what is censorship, what is the role of censorship in our society? Was it censorship or was it protection? And two, racism. Does the painting serve as a metaphor for how we deal with race on this campus?”
Harkness made it his personal crusade to excavate the mural, but he learned that one strong-willed personage stood in his way: UT Vice President for Operations Phil Scheurer.
As it happens, Scheurer was in charge of the University Center during a controversial period in the early ’70s, and made the choice to cover the painting with paneling. Later, as a much-loftier administrator, he let it be known that the mural would remain covered as long as he was in charge.
Harkness brought up the prospect of uncovering the painting during the ’04-’05 school year. It died quickly, Harkness suspects, because of Scheurer’s influence.
He brought it up again with a fresh Issues Committee last fall after writing a story about it in the Daily Beacon . At the Issues Committee’s fall retreat in November, the committee made unveiling the Greenwood mural top priority for the upcoming semester.
Scheurer had, in the meantime, retired. “I’m sure it did serve to grease the skids a little bit,” admits Harkness.
Harkness, along with Issues Committee leaders Catherine Abbott and Samantha Jacobs, as well as the Student Government leadership and Vice Chancellor Tim Rogers, arranged for the unveiling, and the lively discussion it elicited.
Anton Reece, UT’s Director of Student Activities, is the master of ceremonies. Reece is black, but speaks highly of the painter, and proudly of the painting. As he introduces the panel, for a moment, we might think the committee’s assessment will be unanimously positive—perhaps speaking in the past tense of the days when a painting like this might have been considered racist.
Then Reece introduces Eric Abercrumbie, director of the African-American Cultural Center at the University of Cincinnati. A stocky, graying man who bears a passing resemblance to James Earl Jones, he has been smiling as he chats with his colleagues.
“I’m glad this is happening on your campus and not on mine,” he says. “I feel like I came to a mortuary to see a body. I didn’t know what the body would look like, I just knew there was a body.
“I came here with prejudice,” he admits. “Prejudice had set me up to brace myself. And when I saw it, it made me sick to my stomach!”
There’s a surprised murmur in the crowd.
“The reality of America is that black folk are still the guests. There were no black folk here when this was here. When some brothers and sisters came, they said, ‘hell, no.’”
“It raises the question, ‘Is it art, or is it racism?’ To me, it’s racism. It clearly depicts segregation. It depicts the plantation life. Guess what? I don’t want to go back to the good ol’ days. The whole thing needs to go. Let it go somewhere else if you want my daughter to come here.”
The crowd seems a little stunned by Abercrumbie’s jeremiad, and applauds in patches. The rest of the evening will revolve more around Abercrumbie and his views than around anything specific in the suddenly revealed painting to the spectator’s right.
Saadia Williams, of the Race Relations Center of East Tennessee and executive director of Project Change, speaks next. “While it does disturb me, I am not angry. I expected the persons to be stereotyped, to be buffoons. But I don’t see that here. I do believe there is artistic value in this mural.”
Then Bruce Wheeler, author and retired UT history professor, speaks, supplying context for the controversy around the painting in 1970. “Today, UT is almost soporific,” he says. “Then, there was a feeling that change was in the air.” He details a series of dramatic events, some of them violent, in 1969-71, of which damage to the mural was only one. “The university’s record on institutional racism is dreadful,” he said.
“Is the mural overtly, purposely racist?” he asks. “Probably not. Is the mural unintentionally racist? Probably so.”
Then Sylvia Rhor, a young assistant professor and mural expert from Carlow University in Pittsburgh, takes her turn, describing the poor record of murals generally in depicting races fairly. But she seems to want to champion Greenwood, an artist with whom Rhor was familiar, though she was unaware of the hidden UT piece. “You know how hard it is for a woman mural artist to be respected?”
Tina Dunkley, curator of Clark University Art Galleries in Atlanta and an artist herself, encourages removing the painting to a more critical space, to use as a “teaching tool.”
Questions from the audience prompt further discussion among the panelists.
Rhor is surprised that a public mural executed in segregated Tennessee would include any blacks at all. “I have seen millions of murals, and in the majority of works, America looked as white as this sheet of paper!”
The day before, she’d shown a photograph of the mural to her class at Carlow in Pittsburgh. “They didn’t see anything controversial about it.” Rhor sees that less as a credit to the painting than as a comment on the apathy of her students, who she says may not understand the sensitivity of the issue; she sees value in the painting, and defends the painter, but also thinks people should understand why it’s a problem for some.
The panel is split about how well the artist herself could have understood the sensitivity of the black-white issue; Rhor defends Greenwood’s record of portraying minority subjects, generally even preferring them to white ones; Dunkley expresses her skepticism of Greenwood’s perspective as that of a “tourist mentality.”
“She could have made them white,” says Dunkley. “And you would have believed it, too.” Dunkley proposes a competition to replace the mural with something more appropriate for the 21st century.
A young white man stands up and challenges Abercrumbie’s fury. “Is that your problem, not anybody else’s?”
“I try to be honest,” says Abercrumbie. “I find it offensive. I think it should be removed. It could place the university in the challenging position of people questioning the sensitivity of the University of Tennessee.”
A couple of the panelists have come with personal agendas, and much of the discussion takes place without specific reference to details in the long painting on the right side of the room, the one with the modest inscription in the upper right-hand corner:
Marion Greenwood, 1955 .
Marion Greenwood may seem the most unlikely white woman in America to be at the center of a controversy involving racial insensitivity. Some parts of her life are obscure or contradictory, but certain themes prevail throughout her life and work.
Born in April, 1909, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Greenwood, the daughter of a professional painter, was smart and precocious herself, a child prodigy. She left home at 15 with a scholarship to the New York Art Students League; her teacher was well-known artist (and socialist) John Sloane. She later worked at Yaddo, the prestigious artists’ colony at Saratoga Springs.
One of Greenwood’s best-known early works was a portrait of then-young Aaron Copeland, who would become one of the two or three best-regarded American composers of the 20th century.
From there Greenwood went to Paris, where she studied at the Academie Colarossi for a time, before returning to jazz-age America. A photograph online shows a 20-year-old Greenwood at Woodstock, a carefree and gorgeous bohemian, cavorting in the woods with figures in bizarre costumes on some forgotten occasion.
In 1930, she found work making sketches for The New York Times , but the glamour of the big city held little interest for her. She would later say she had little regard for urbane fashions, “cute and fancy nudes and pretty-pretty things.”
She said she preferred “the life of America, whether it be industry, farming, or just plain people.” Drawn first to the Southwest, she painted portraits of Native Americans.
And in 1932 or ’33, she went to Mexico, becoming, for whatever it’s worth, the first female American artist to receive a mural commission from a foreign government. An article in the Times bemoaned the state of female artists in America, forcing even an artist of the stature of Marion Greenwood to go to Mexico to find work.
In Mexico she impressed legendary muralist Diego Rivera, among the most famous muralists of the 20th century—Rivera recently figured in the film, Frida , about his fellow artist and long-suffering wife, Frida Kahlo. Rivera had been impressed with Greenwood’s work, and hired both her and her sister Grace to work on a massive mural project in a civic center in Mexico City. She reportedly worked with Rivera on frescoes at the Hotel Taxquero. She also made a mural at the University of San Hidalgo in Morellia.
Some described her as a “militant”; her work depicted the exploitation of agricultural workers, a subject that would have appealed to the socialist Rivera.
A 2002 survey called A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts reports that Greenwood was “widely admired throughout Mexico...she became something of a local icon.” Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros said Greenwood was so popular in the ’30s she “could have been the queen of Mexico.”
She illustrated a popular youth biography of Mexican revolutionary hero Benito Juarez. Today, several websites that cite Marion Greenwood are in Spanish.
She returned to the states occasionally, once to create a mural for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and around that time did a notably idealistic mural, “Blueprint for Living” on a New Jersey housing project.
Soon after, she painted a mural in Tennessee, a piece exalting TVA for the Crossville Post Office. Federal authorities overseeing the project apparently insisted on multiple changes—an intrusion she hadn’t encountered much in Mexico. According to author Robert Henkes, who devotes 17 pages to Greenwood in his 1991 book, American Women Painters of the 1930s and 1940s , that mural experience “prompted a dismayed Greenwood to reconsider future commissions.”
She began to favor the easel, which didn’t call for government patronage. According to Henck, “Greenwood’s career as a muralist ended in 1940.” She would make only two notable murals in the last 30 years of her life.
She spent much of the 1940s working with black subjects in the U.S., where she worked for a time in Harlem (“Rehearsal For an African Ballet”) and in the Deep South (“Mississippi Girl”), as well as in Haiti, where she was especially drawn to voodoo culture. Some are sentimental, but some critics have found it remarkable that some of her pieces, like “Mississippi Girl” (1945), show apparently defiant subjects.
Meanwhile, Greenwood had married a London-born journalist, playwright, and adventurer named Charles Fenn. As an agent for the American O.S.S., Fenn went to China and soon befriended a Communist revolutionary named Ho Chi Minh, working with him for a time against the Japanese. Fenn later wrote a sympathetic biography of Ho. Though Greenwood eventually joined Fenn in Asia and did a good deal of painting in China, the two split soon after the war.
In 1954, she came to Knoxville to accept a one-year teaching job at UT, which involved a commission to paint a mural depicting some aspect of the history of the state. She came here in the late summer of that year, as the first 78s by a little-known singer named Elvis Presley were selling astonishingly fast at a record store on Market Square.
It was a critical year in the nation’s history, the year of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board decision, which effectively made the “separate but equal” standard for public schools illegal. It had no immediate effect in Knoxville, which was in some ways more segregated than it had been 50 years before. All restaurants, movie theaters, schools, and buses were segregated, as were most neighborhoods, usually with whites getting the better end of the non-bargain. Blacks were effectively shut out of representation in local government altogether. Seven years before Greenwood’s arrival, journalist John Gunther noted that Knoxville movie theaters felt obliged to delete scenes of singer Lena Horne from a popular movie—ostensibly because she was black and presented as an equal of other singers in the revue.
Knoxville was languishing in many ways in 1954, losing industry and population. But thanks to the G.I Bill, UT was growing rapidly, and changing. The postwar boom in admissions called for a new university center, named Carolyn P. Brown for the wife of a generous donor. The campus had never had such a comprehensive student union, a four-story building with bowling alleys, restaurants, offices, a bookstore, an auditorium, and a ballroom. Today, the right hallway, where the ballroom is, is much quieter than the larger one on the left, which accesses the auditorium and is a major student thoroughfare, the site of art exhibitions.
Because the building was built in stages, what’s now the main hallway didn’t exist in 1954-55. The right hallway was the only one; the ballroom was then much more central to daily life. University architect Malcolm Rice was the one who thought the school’s newest building should be adorned with a notable piece of artwork. UT’s contract with Greenwood and the circumstances of her deal with UT aren’t handy, but it was reportedly the result of a combination of a $5,000 endowment from UT and a private gift.
Racially, in 1954 UT was just beginning to creak with the strain of inevitable change; a couple of years before, without the inducement of the Brown decision, the university had chosen to accept a few black graduate students on the grounds that the state was not allowing “separate but equal” accommodations elsewhere. By 1955, there may have been as many as 68 black graduate students at UT, though some wonder if that estimate is high; in any case, they lived off campus and were not conspicuous.
During Greenwood’s stay, UT’s faculty and entire undergraduate student body was, by custom and policy, white.
She went to work on a canvas five feet tall and 28 feet long. She didn’t know, when she arrived, what her subject would be.
The worldly 45-year-old artist moved into an apartment in an old house in Fort Sanders—she lived at 1830 White Ave., apartment #7. On an elevation above the Cumberland Avenue valley to the south, it should have offered plenty of natural light. The house has of course been torn down; the site is now known as the “1830 Building,” a modern office building on the corner of White and 19th.
The News-Sentinel paid her a visit, and remarked that she looked like an artist. They ran a photo to prove it—she was a middle-aged Cyd Charisse. No cute ’50s hairdo for her, she was content to wear her dark hair in provocative bangs. Reports didn’t make much of her strong professional connection to Diego Rivera, who was perhaps not as well known by name in the United States then as he would be after his death.
She discussed her love of travel: “Foreign countries have always held a fascination for me,” she said. “It’s exciting to paint other faces in other lands.” It’s unclear whether she considered Tennessee an “other land,” but the ideas she mentioned were distinctive to the state: the Cherokee corn dance, the balladeers of the mountains, and the “levee life of Memphis.”
Others in the administration proposed a mural of the Revolutionary War Battle of King’s Mountain as an evocation of “the volunteer spirit” (perhaps as a replacement for a semi-famous one by Lloyd Branson destroyed in a fire almost 40 years earlier). A battle would have been a sharp departure from Greenwood’s usual subject matter. Another administrator, perhaps kidding, proposed that she paint a Tennessee-Kentucky football game. She seems to have tolerated the proposals gracefully.
That October, UT welcomed her by arranging a two-week exhibition of her paintings in the unfinished University Center. Some seemed relieved that at least she wasn’t one of those abstract expressionists.
Soon she came up with an idea, apparently her own, to depict the one thing that Tennessee, east to west, was best known for: its role as a wellspring of American music. One source refers to the project as “Theme of American Music,” perhaps her original title. But it would be known informally as “The Singing Mural.”
She worked on it for months, using handy models. History professor LeRoy Graf posed for one of the East Tennessee figures, the hymnal-toting preacher no less. (Graf was a Unitarian from northern Ohio.) Another model was art instructor Robert Schlagater. She also traveled around the state visiting moonshine suppliers in the east and dockworkers in the west.
The fact that Greenwood chose to paint eight of 28 characters black might seem remarkable in itself; to represent the state proportionally, she would have been obliged to include only four or five blacks, but she may have known that the weight of black influence on popular music was disproportionate.
It’s also significant that all the blacks were portrayed on one side of the painting; they’re as segregated as if they were on a city bus. Researchers have been unable to find a contract for Greenwood, and it’s unknown whether she had specific instructions or restrictions.
It was just six days after the Supreme Court had ordered the desegregation of all public schools “with all deliberate speed” that the Singing Mural was formally unveiled in the ballroom, on June 5, 1955. It was a commencement weekend Sunday afternoon. A total of 300 people, three times the number expected, appeared in the ballroom to watch. Professor Alfred Schmied, the head of the fine-arts department, made the formal presentation to the university. UT President C.E. Brehm was there to receive it.
A reporter remarked, “There was a spontaneous acknowledgment of awe as the curtains were pulled aside....”
Professor Schlagater described the artistic aspects of the mural. Its symmetrical balance was unusual, everything hinging on the dancing white couple hooking elbows in the middle; the black cottonpicker was reflected on the east side by an old white man weaving a basket.
If there was any discussion of race, or of potential for controversy, it didn’t make the papers. (One report described the not-yet problematic left side of the mural: “West Tennessee is depicted at left with its cotton economy and Dixieland music”; another referred to “the blaring beat of Beale Street blues and jazz.”) The first people who saw the painting, almost all of them white, considered it a symbol of progressiveness and, artistically, a crown jewel for the university.
Even Marion Greenwood herself was swept up into the superlative fever. She declared that the Singing Mural was her best work in the United States.
Extension librarian David J. Harkness (no relation to Eric) made a characteristic quip, that the painting represented Tennessee “from Ol’ Smoky to Ol’ Man River.”
Though Greenwood is listed as a Knoxville resident in the City Directory in 1956, most assume she left soon after the 1955 unveiling, at the end of her one-year teaching job.
“Right now I just feel empty,” said Greenwood after completing the mural. “I don’t know what to compare it with, to explain the effort it takes to do a job of this nature.” Stories of her time here are hard to come by, most of them second hand, but some say she was an enthusiastic drinker.
She assailed a project of that size only once more in her life; in 1965, she created one last mural, called “Tribute To Women,” at Syracuse University. That multiracial study, depicting women of all ages and multiple nationalities in native garb, seems like an idyll of ’60s liberalism. In photographs, it seems to lack the depth of the Knoxville mural.
Over the years, many of her murals of the ‘30s were lost, painted over, or, like “Blueprint for Living,” victims of demolitions.
The Singing Mural stayed in place in the ballroom of the Carolyn P. Brown University Center for more than a decade without memorable objection, as UT slowly desegregated, admitting its first undergraduate black students in 1961.
If the mural were sometimes a problem, it was not because it was deemed controversial, but because the larger-than-life figures in the mural were a more powerful image than most of the speakers who stood in front of them. UT President Andy Holt reportedly found it especially distracting, and arranged to have a curtain placed in front of it for certain events, especially his own speeches.
Evidence of spoken or written complaints about the painting before the spring of 1970 seems to be hard to come by. In UT’s standard history, To Foster Knowledge , the authors remarked in 1984, “It is said that some blacks had objected to the mural as falsely depicting slaves as ‘happy niggers’; if this rumor is so, no confirmation has been forthcoming....” However, several who remember UT from the period say they remember complaints that the painting was emblematic of “Uncle Tomism.”
Meanwhile, Marion Greenwood retired from her global wanderings, settling in her native state, splitting time between homes in New York City and in Woodstock, where she had studied as a precocious teenager. She was likely somewhere nearby when one of her neighbors, a farmer named Max Yasgur, agreed to host a rather large rock ‘n’ roll party there in 1969.
Things were stirring all over the country. UT students had been a little slow to join the counterculture, but by late 1969, some were describing Tennessee as the most active university in the South. Students were animated over issues ranging from women’s-dorm curfews to the Vietnam War. In 1969, UT’s student body elected a black man, Jimmie Baxter, to be president of the Student Government Association. In early 1970, Peter Kami, a charismatic Brazilian student, challenged the selection of Ed Boling as UT’s new president in a January incident on the Hill, a show of mass insubordination which had led to arrests.
On May 4, National Guardsmen at Kent State fired on student protesters, killing four. In Knoxville, Baxter announced a student strike. Thousands of UT students flowed into Cumberland Avenue, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with angry red fists.
On May 16, a crowd of mostly black students protested another shooting, this one by police, that left two students dead at Jackson State, in Mississippi. Meanwhile, the antiwar protests, most of them predominantly white, continued unabated. It would be one of the most violent weekends in UT’s history, at least in terms of vandalism. On four successive nights, UT sustained damage. The ROTC station and the music annex were firebombed; windows were broken out of several buildings, including Stokely Athletic Center and the new Humanities Building. Vandals started a fire in a residence hall. And on that Sunday night, or sometime before 7:30 Monday morning, somebody attacked the Singing Mural with gobs of thick oil paint.
The next day, as a photo of the vandalism—paint smeared over the square-dancing white couple in the middle—was on the front page, and UT officials were asking whether the painting was reparable at all, someone got in and attacked the painting again, this time with a knife or razor. UT said the painting was a “total loss.” A $1,000 reward for information about the vandals was announced—and never collected.
Wheeler remarks that the vandalism to the painting was done almost at random, without any obvious political statement. All three sections of the painting were damaged. He believes the miscreants were rogue white students. No one ever made a statement or claimed responsibility for the vandalism, but many assumed it had something to do with criticisms that the painting was racist.
Anxious about the problem, UT limited access to the ballroom, and when they allowed it to be open, posted an armed guard in the room. Finally, two years after the vandalism, in May, 1972, UT chose to cover the mural with paneling, matching the decor of the room perfectly—so perfectly that most of the students who visited it over the next 34 years, to attend a lecture by former Yippie leader Jerry Rubin or an X-rated performance by comedian Margaret Cho, never knew it was there. In September, 1985, President Ronald Reagan gave an address to a select crowd in the room—an event commemorated with a brass plate installed beside the still-concealed painting.
Memories are short, and some written accounts of what’s in the painting are inaccurate. If a painter tried to reconstruct the mural based on descriptions of the painting published during its concealed years, the resulting painting would look very different from Greenwood’s.
The vandals’ damage to the painting isn’t obvious today. McClung Museum curator Joe Hopkins undertook to repair the painting while it was still concealed, and apparently succeeded.
Artist Marion Greenwood, once described as a militant, herself, never heard about the damage to the painting she had once considered her greatest work in America. She may never even have heard about any objections to it. Almost three months before the night of vandalism, on February 20, 1970, Greenwood died, at the age of 60, in an infirmary in Kingston, N.Y., near her Woodstock home. Though some published sources claim she died as a result of injuries in a car wreck, The New York Times , for which she had worked as an illustrator almost 40 years before, reported that her death came “after a long illness.”
At the panel discussion last Wednesday, the usually unflappable Bruce Wheeler seems, just for a moment, flapped. “If we can avoid the finger pointing, we can make some progress,” he says. “This is our mural. Get over it. This is us. Let’s study it, discuss it, then get it the hell behind us.” He sees the mural’s weird history as a metaphor for UT’s general attitude toward race; the university has a tendency to face problems and panel over them.
The University Center officially closes on weeknights at 9:30. The program transgresses that deadline by a couple of minutes, and even then the crowd doesn’t disperse quickly. The room dissolves into a couple of dozen miniature panel discussions. Some, mostly blacks, insist that the painting should be removed not only from the room, but from the campus. Some, mostly whites, insist that it should stay where it is, in a public place, seen every day as it was intended to be.
Brandice Green, a black engineering student, articulates the ambivalence of the room. “When I saw it, I thought, ‘That doesn’t seem like anything too horrible.’ Some thought the slave looked happy. I didn’t see it like that.”
But she adds, “I’m uncomfortable with it like this, people walking by it every day: black people picking cotton. I just don’t think the location is appropriate for it. It’s too easily looked over.”
She’d rather see it in a museum, where the fact that a slave is shown in a painting about music can be discussed and explained in a historical context. “I’m from Memphis, and I love the blues,” she says. “I sense some people don’t even understand what slavery had to do with the music.”
Much of the discussion boils down to the fact that seeing a representation of a black cotton-picker in an everyday place doesn’t bother most whites. It does bother many blacks.
Those aren’t the only perspectives.
One of the more surprising complaints comes from an angry young white undergraduate. She says in all the talk of the painting being racist, we’re overlooking the fact that it’s sexist; the women, she says, were shown as subservient.
A young black man wonders what the reaction would be if the painting showed Jewish people in the context of the Holocaust.
One young black woman is offended that only the whites were represented as religious; blacks go to church too, she says.
One thinks it’s weird to show cotton so prominently in a state more associated with tobacco.
A young white man insists the discussion of removing it was a matter of censorship, and declares that anyone who had personal problems with it could just avoid the room.
An older black man pleas for art with a stronger, more heroic evocation of his race.
A young white woman remarks that the activity in the painting gets “wilder” as you move east to west, white to black.
One young black undergraduate says, “It doesn’t offend me, personally. I’m beyond that. But maybe all people should be pissed off. On that side, you’ve got hillbillies and rednecks.”
There are 300 people in the room, and it’s easy to believe there are 300 opinions about the Greenwood painting.
If the purpose of art is to provoke thought and conversation, the Greenwood mural has done its job.
Last Friday, after only two days of exposure to the dangerous public, it was recovered with the paneling that kept it concealed for 34 years. The specifics of the fate of the Greenwood mural are uncertain, but it will almost certainly be removed from the University Center, but remain in Knoxville, perhaps in UT’s McClung Museum, though its size presents logistical problems.
Toward the end of the Wednesday event, Vice Chancellor Rogers unintentionally deflated the gravity of the evening a little with an anticlimactic announcement: UT had sometime earlier chosen to remove the mural due to the hazard of water damage. Every time it rains, he says, moisture gets into that wall. Maybe a museum, he said; they’ve been looking into it.