Artist Sam Kerson will continue to fight Vermont Law School effort to cover up murals commemorating abolition of slavery

On October 20, a judge with the US District Court for the State of Vermont ruled that the Vermont Law School (VLS) can go forward with its plan to conceal two murals painted by the artist Sam Kerson in 1993-94.

Titled The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave, the work is comprised of two 8’ x 24’ panels. The first depicts the enslavement of Africans, a slave market, forced toil and a raucous scene of slave rebellion. The second mural depicts the abolitionists Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman, as well as South Royalton, Vermont residents sheltering refugees as they make their way to the Canadian border. A number of people, possibly Quakers, help escaped slaves mount a white horse, a symbol of peace, in front of the Vermont legislature. The murals commemorate the efforts of black and white Americans in the US and Vermont to end slavery.

Located in the Chase Community Center of the Vermont Law School in South Royalton, the works have been the target of complaints by certain students over the years. Criticisms that have taken place in the context of the George Floyd protests, however, and after national debates over the fate of the Victor Arnautoff murals in the George Washington High School in San Francisco, have caused the school administration to seek to hide the murals permanently.

Although black as well as white students have objected to the removal of the Kerson murals, the school has joined the wave of reactionary iconoclasm that has resulted, for example, in the creation of the Chicago Monuments Project by that city’s government, which is considering the removal of statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as well as the recent decision to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from New York’s City Hall.

In an effort to save his murals from destruction, Kerson challenged the school’s decision with a lawsuit based on the federal Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA). The 1990 law allows artists to protect their work from any “intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation.” The recent decision by Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford finds that the school’s plan to permanently cover over the murals does not infringe on the artist’s moral rights. Since VARA does not prohibit the permanent concealment of a work of art, the judge has ruled that the school’s proposal can be compared to a museum placing a work of art in storage. However, the artist provided evidence by art conservationists that covering them will likely cause damage over time, a process of degradation that is not covered by VARA.

By preventing Kerson’s murals from being seen, the VLS is sending the message that there is something objectionable about them. By also accepting that damage could be caused to them, the school is also indicating that they could care less about their preservation. For these reasons, the artist and his lawyers have decided to appeal to the Second Circuit Court.

Kerson’s lawyers, Steven Hyman and Richard Rubin, have stated: “VARA was intended to preserve our cultural history and protect the honor and reputation of the artists who contribute so much to that history. The Law School’s unyielding intent to entomb these murals—acknowledged to be of recognized stature—behind a wall so that they can never be viewed again is clearly both an affront to Mr. Kerson’s honor and reputation, and to the values intended to be preserved by the Visual Arts Rights Act.” The phrase “recognized stature” is significant here because it indicates that the school and its legal representatives acknowledge that the value and merit of the works are not disputed.

We are faced with a contradiction: a valued work of art is to be hidden from view. And how is this contradiction explained? What is it that some students have objected to? According to court documents, the work has been denounced for “cartoonish, almost animalistic” depictions of enslaved African people. These depictions were said by the associate dean for student affairs and diversity, Shirley Jefferson, to have created an intolerable atmosphere. However, until the George Floyd protests in 2020, there were not enough complaints to impel the administration into action against the murals.

It should be obvious to anyone who has given the briefest glance at the murals that the work is fanciful and colorful, while it simultaneously elicits strong feelings about the suffering of tens of millions of slaves.

The Valley News reports that “Kerson said he based the characters in the mural on photographs from Cameroonian composer and author Francis Bebey’s book African Music:A People’s Art, and that they are meant to appear as heroic figures. His defenders said Kerson can be thought-provoking, but well-intentioned.”

Known for his engagement with progressive causes, with murals painted in 1990 for the Sandinista Workers Sports Center in Nicaragua and graphic works on themes like nuclear catastrophe, the death penalty and the war on Palestinians, Kerson is an original and assertive stylist who has worked in various art forms, including painting, sculpture, theater and video. But no research or thoughtful consideration for the opinions of others are to be expected from those fixated on race, who offer only a crude and incriminating response.

Wherever images of race are involved, self-appointed representatives of particular groups take it upon themselves to intervene in public spaces in the supposed interest of individual, group and community “empowerment.” Since so much of academia and the “left” have adopted postmodernism’s emphasis on “difference,” the prerogatives of identity take center stage. As in the Kerson case, there is virtually no concern for whether a work of art or someone’s career is being destroyed, while the pretense is maintained that such “activism” is challenging the norms of privilege.

In fact, dispensing with concerns about social inequality and raising claims about “institutional racism” and the need for “symbolic reparation” play into the hands of the ruling elite, which is seeking to divide the working population along racial, ethnic and gender lines.

VLS lawyer Justin Barnard insidiously argued that the school’s mission was “to educate law students in a diverse and inclusive community, and it became clear over recent years that the mural—which many feel depicts Black bodies in a caricatured, stereotyped manner—was inconsistent with that mission.” These claims were repeated to the media by Glenn J. Berger, the chairman of the school’s board.

Like gossip, dubious ideas and groundless claims get passed from one person to another. Eventually, even the reasonable start to believe them. On this count, it is worth mentioning that the artist has chronicled his saga with a series of artworks, The MuralistImagines the Destruction of his Work. This biting satire includes one image where men in suits, as in Breughel’s The Blind Leading the Blind, follow one another into a pit of censorious despair.

Kerson’s anti-racist art has been proclaimed to be “racist” by a right-wing sleight of hand, corresponding to the feelings and opinions of aspiring petty bourgeois who feel that depictions of slavery and related degraded conditions are not respectable and uplifting enough.

The decision to “only” cover up the murals represents something of a retreat on the part of VLS officials, who in July 2020, proposed to “paint over” the murals after complaints by students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski.

In an email to Dean Thomas McHenry, Davis and Urbanowski argued that the mural, which, in the words of Kerson’s website, “celebrates the efforts of black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice,” was offensive and inconsistent with the school’s commitment to fairness, inclusion, diversity and social justice.

In August 2020, and in order to comply with VARA guidelines, the VLS Board of Trustees notified the artist that he was free to remove the murals within 90 days and take ownership of them. But the murals cannot be moved without being destroyed.

Berger has made it known that covering the works is only a preliminary strategy and the school will further urge the District Court to allow it to remove the mural. The school has rejected the proposition that the murals be covered with a retractable curtain, which would allow them to be seen anytime. It prefers to cover them permanently and wait until the 74-year old artist dies, at which time VARA will no longer be applicable.

One could expect more from a school that teaches law than pursuing and winning an ill-conceived, anti-democratic case on technicalities.

Works of art are not subject to education and appreciation at present, but to interrogation and the fetishism of perceived violations. The methods of study and interpretation now practiced by diversity experts coincide with the shift of emphasis from the production process to consumer and lifestyle concerns.

In the words of Jameson and Urbanowski, “not all intentions align with interpretation.” The non-alignment of the artist’s work with the opinions of these law students should serve, they argue, as a “current example” of racial conflict. In their view, this culture war clash they have stoked should be corrected by choosing a black muralist to paint new murals, since, they say, “the story of Black experience should be told by Black people.” This turning of the tables is problematic in itself, but is highly disingenuous given the fact that one of the people who assisted in painting these works is the black artist Kenny Hughes. The dedication of the Kerson murals also included a speech given by the prominent African American civil rights activist and lawyer Florynce Kennedy.

The notion that tearing down works by left-wing artists will bring about social justice would merely be laughable if only the demand for whites and members of other so-called “privileged” groups to step aside and center black lives did not come with bullying tactics and McCarthy-like methods and punishments. In Vermont, high school principal Tiffany Riley was fired for stating on her personal Facebook page that she did not think people should have to choose between the black race and the human race. When consulted on the Kerson case, Senator Bernie Sanders deferred to the decisions of the VLS administration and to the phenomenon of Black Lives Matter. He offered no defense of the murals.

The working class must stand firm and support artists like Sam Kerson and composer Bright Sheng at the University of Michigan in their struggles against this destructive trend.