Covering Up

A friend whose opinion I respect, and whose opinion here is indisputable, says that we shouldn’t cover up history, that societies that cover up history repeat it, can’t learn from it, and so they fail, or will fail.

But, I can’t help feeling dissatisfied with this yet. What’s really being covered up? When things are covered up, how is this done? Generally, how do we cover up history? I don’t refer to the coverings over the O’Hanlon fresco at the University of Kentucky. Beyond those coverings, looking at the image itself, what is it covering up?

Ann Rice O’Hanlon Fresco, University of Kentucky

Lets consider that the fresco itself is a covering, hiding from view something that needs hiding. Can the hiding, the method of hiding, be achieved by putting some of what’s hidden in plain sight?

A reader named Ben Jarvis comments on today’s Washington Post article,

Ben Jarvis

12/1/2015 8:47 PM EST     Wasserman: “in her depiction of slavery. I don’t think the college would have approved a design that showed the overt cruelty of the slave master.” —- Whether depicting overt cruelty or romanticized whitewash, the image plays to the notion of white superiority and black subjugation. That’s the whole context and story of American slaveocracy and southern culture professor Frank X. Walker, and that’s why it needs to come down.

I take Jarvis’ comment together, and in contrast, with Wendell Berry’s article in Lexington’s newspaper a few days ago, November 30th, 2015:

Wendell Berry, if you ask me, is Kentucky’s most substantive writer. His piece here though comes up short. His editorial doesn’t reach, nor does it even point to, as it should, the achievement of his (1970) book, The Hidden Wound. 

“The Hidden Wound” is revealing, and the reveal is surprising. Berry draws away the veil and uncovers the damage white people did – to themselves – through the institution of slavery, and the damage we continue to do – to ourselves – with what continues to follow from it.

That’s the remarkable thing about Berry’s “The Hidden Wound”. While any reasonable person will reflect on the damage done – to those enslaved and otherwise oppressed – few yet consider the psychic damage, heinous,  that oppressors inflict on themselves. We distort, and we remain committed to our distortions, although, if forced to reflect on them, we  find them unpleasant. So we cover them up. How do we do this? The methods are sophisticated.

That’s what I’m getting at. The O’Hanlon fresco is at the moment, due to controversy, covered. But the work itself, acts as a covering.

The fresco indeed shows a society distorted (so credit there to the artist where it’s due), with identity built on the most idiotic and violent of all ideas. Ideas that can be held only in sick minds, in a sick society, the ideas of a caste system. But the presentation, in the painting, seems idyllic, or at least normalized. This is a big contrast then, between presentation and reality. Was it intentional? Was O’Hanlon’s intent to cast light into the chasm between appalling ideology and its concomitant violence, and the normalcy with which such obscenity is to be viewed by whites?

In a 1964 interview, regarding what she painted in 1934, O’Hanlon says that she includes blacks in the work because some of her family “had Negro servants who were usually very adept, often they were very fine musicians, often quite well educated.” O’Hanlon says it would be inconceivable not to include blacks in the painting, and also adds that the scene she painted “… was long, long before any of this racism had crept up”. The interview is here: 

My hope to find her intent to criticize is a bit collapsed. But it is the nature of things being covered up, that often the cover is extended by people unaware they’re extending it.

The choice between including blacks in the painting as cast apart, or not including them at all, is a false choice.  Of course blacks could be included in ways other than apart, and other than the exception of their use as entertainers. I don’t think its enough to say that 1934 predates political correctness. Art can be aspirational. I don’t see any aspiration in this painting. Now, not all art has to be aspirational. It doesn’t matter. Art can be whatever anyone wants it to be. And there is no limit to its variety.

But this is the front door of our University, and we do want to be aspirational, and there are limits to the number of art works we can present at our front door. What we have at our front door is this: a picture of a society broken apart by caste, and an artist who says that the situation painted ” … was long, long before any of this racism had crept up.”

What does that mean? We had a pleasant apartheid system, and then later, racism crept up and took us by surprise? That’s what it sounds like, and looks like, to me.  A painting like this is a covering up, a hiding, a shroud, a fantasy, a story we tell ourselves that helps us pretend that our violence, doesn’t exist, that our nightmare world view, our racism, our apartheid, is normal, pleasant, and desirable. This is our endemic mental defect.

At our front door, apartheid should not be painted as normal, nor viewed by its author as pre-racist in 1964, nor by us in this way today as if we cherish this memory and present it as our finest. We cannot envision that apartheid comes first, and racism comes later. This is gibberish. And gibberish is not what we should present to those we welcome at our front door. (And it shouldn’t be in our basement either)

The first question I’d ask when entering Memorial Hall:

Is this fresco here to remind us of our crimes (against humanity), or is it here to hide, to cover up, to normalize, to shield and give comfort to those who find such a world view perfectly reasonable and desirable?

Where does this leave us?

We should read Wendell Berry’s book, The Hidden Wound. It will improve the discussion. I care not so much if the fresco is left in place, or left in place and accompanied by other works in commentary,  or removed and reinstalled elsewhere, or removed and destroyed. I care more that we keep uncovering.

A New Covering, Uncovering

Well, perhaps I do care. Here’s an idea, inspired by Wendell Berry’s, The Hidden Wound. The University should commission an artist to paint again, on panels completely covering this fresco. The new painting would convey a healthier vision of the world. On occasion, we could open the panels to reveal the original fresco beneath and remember our hidden wound (hidden to some of us) that we have to heal with greater imagination.

We can cover up the cover-up, and in doing so we can uncover. Maybe someday, we can recover.


Some commenters refer to The Coddling of the American Mind , yes, an excellent article in The Atlantic, one of many such articles lately. It describes a very real and very troubling problem. But raising this argument in defense of  the O’Hanlon’s fresco is short sighted. Don’t be of the belief that this coddling is a new phenomenon. Take a look at the American attitude toward race, slavery, apartheid, and ask yourself about the centuries long covering up and coddling of the white mind through pretty pictures and fantastical stories. It’s a bell we can hardly stop ringing. We’re the thin-skinned. We’re the ones who can’t function without covering up.

Let me add a couple of quotes from a real writer:

“As a people, we have been tolled farther and farther away from the facts of what we have done by the romanticizers, whose bait is nothing more than the wishful insinuation that we have done no harm. Speaking a public language of propaganda, uninfluenced by the real content of our history which we know only in a deep and guarded privacy, we are still in the throes of the paradox of the “gentleman and soldier.”

However conscious it may have been, there is no doubt in my mind that all this moral and verbal obfuscation is intentional. Nor do I doubt that its purpose is to shelter us from the moral anguish implicit in our racism—an anguish that began, deep and mute, in the minds of Christian democratic freedom-loving owners of slaves.”
― Wendell BerryThe Hidden Wound

“It is not, I think, a question of when and how the white people will “free” the black and the red people. It is a condescension to believe that we have the power to do that. Until we have recognized in them the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity we will be able to set no one free, for we will not be free ourselves. When we realize that they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain, then the wound in our history will be healed. Then they will simply be free, among us–and so will we, among ourselves for the first time, and among them.”
― Wendell BerryThe Hidden Wound

(image, top: University of Kentucky Memorial Hall )

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom Foster says:

    I rate Wendell Berry, but haven’t read The Hidden Wound, though its message, as described, sounds spot on. I don’t know this very American controversy, but the same issues apply equally to covered-up English history.

    I can’t imagine what kind of cosy PC-ness lead to covering up the fresco – was it to avoid offence to the descendents of slavery? The children both of the perpetrators and of the victims need to remember, and agree together the tough truth of what happened, and is still happening downstream.

    To me, the fresco brilliantly wakens us to the reality of slavery, in a way that’s shocking – lulled into a scene of ‘pastoral normalcy’, suddenly the horrific jester with a gun is noticed, and the train full of whites almost riding on the backs of the regimented slaves. The whites joyride, desport, socialise, in their neat Disney picket-fence main-street; the blacks stand separate in the corner, go to the river for solace – and do all the work.

    The structure of slavery is absorbed in one unguarded glance, far more effectively than by a depiction of the acts physical brutality inherent, against which unpleasantness our automatic defences would be instantly erected.

    Maybe it’s because it was painted in the ignorant innocence of pre-PC 1934, that its ‘normalcy’ can be so shockingly enlightening today. I doubt a present day artist could quite trick us into ‘getting it’ in this way.

    We all need to wake up and humanly agree together the truth of what happened to bring us to where we are, as well as the truth of what is happening now so that a fresh set of lies and delusions is not projected into our future.

  2. Thank you for that comment Tom, which is thoughtful, and exactly what we need to hear. Just one thing about the context over here. It’s gone beyond PC to counter PC and counter counter PC. But that doesn’t really express it. Involved are shootings (like Ferguson), institutional bias, swastikas painted in feces, a hunger strike, resignation of a University president, at a neighboring state University.

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