Bad art then. Bad policy now

Opinion: Editorials

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Our Views

The mural at Percy Julian Middle School was not a Confederate general on horseback. It was not the stereotypical mural, "People of the World," with its Native American and African insults and which was  rightly removed from an Oak Park public school a generation ago. It was a pretty artistically terrible WPA mural of white children ice skating in a long ago, pretty much fairytale moment. 

Originally installed at the long gone Lowell School, it somehow resurfaced in the cafeteria of Percy Julian Middle School at Ridgeland and Washington a number of years ago. Now, in a vaguely worded letter to parents, Todd Fitzgerald, the school's principal, announced that, based on input from unnamed parents and students, the mural has been removed. District 97 school officials have not yet commented beyond saying that the mural has been transported to a climate-controlled storage area. 

The offense is allegedly that the mural did not reflect the school's current diversity. The mural in question hardly reflected reality in 1937 or 2019. It wasn't real. It wasn't great art. But it had some history from the fascinating WPA Depression era. And if someone had said, "I've got a great idea for a big painting and now I need just the right wall" maybe we'd have nominated that space in the middle school cafeteria and shuttled "Child and Sports – Winter" onto a spare wall in the back hallway. Heck, it's not even a good name for a painting. 

Here's our worry. If Oak Park is going to move forward into a new era of racial equity, we're not going to get there by erasing what happened in the past, especially something this innocuous. We need to have more "courageous conversations" but not necessarily about a snapshot that could have come out of an early Judy Garland musical. 

If parents and students raised this as an issue, then let's use it as a teachable moment and not shuttle the mural off to a storage room, climate-controlled or not. 

If we're going to face up to all our shortcomings on race, we're going to need a more tough-minded and transparent approach than painting over paintings that deserve to be painted over.

Reader Comments

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Dave Slade from Oak Park  

Posted: May 5th, 2019 8:20 PM

Just wondering how many African-American families have skating passes to Ridgeland. Maybe 1937 isn't that wrong.

Valerie E. Jones  

Posted: May 4th, 2019 10:14 PM

The Federal Government wants WPA art - sooo maybe call them? Anyone with information about lost or stolen WPA artworks may contact the GSA OIG Hotline at 1-(800)-424-5210 or Share this

Alice Wellington  

Posted: April 26th, 2019 10:24 AM

Jason Cohen - no, the real irony is that for decades, nobody cared about this mural until suddenly it became fashionable to claim victimhood and search for the way to be offended by the most ordinary things.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: April 26th, 2019 10:20 AM

Jason, The mural wasn't hanging in a museum or any place where the public could readily view it. My daughters didn't go to Percy Julian, so I would really have no opportunity to view it or even aware it was there. Lastly, I think you are focusing too much on the art piece itself and not the principle of the matter.

Les Golden  

Posted: April 26th, 2019 8:40 AM

We elect a school board to represent us. This decision, one way or another, is the responsibility of the school board. If they want to respect the opinion of a few activists, then let them discuss the issues in the public forum. It was inappropriate for the principal Todd T. Fitzgerald to take this unilateral action. His job is to educate not to impose his political will. I hope the superintendent and the board will so advise him.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: April 26th, 2019 8:28 AM

I'm pleasantly surprised by this publication's sensible view on this matter. Over the past few years, there has been a disturbing push for censorship and a purging of art, statuary and the like, largely in the public square and academic settings across the country and mainly for political reasons. Rational people need to start pushing back on this.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: April 26th, 2019 6:50 AM

The real irony here is that nobody cared or even spent time thinking of this mural until it was decided to remove it. All the talk of preserving history is silly as that history was largely ignored when the mural was up because nobody paid any attention to it until finally someone noticed what it depicts. Now we are actually talking about the history of it. Everyone has literally learned this only because it's being taken down. If this didn't happen nobody would be discussing it at all. So removing it is therefore the thing that has caused people to actually learn about it and it's history. There's little that this mural represents that isn't known. Nobody is likely shocked of the makeup of the village back then. We don't need the mural to teach the kids about this. What will now be part of the history is it's removal and that, ironically, is going to give it more life than leaving it up.

Edwin Haag  

Posted: April 26th, 2019 12:07 AM

"The mural in question hardly reflected reality in 1937 or 2019" According to the 1940 census, there were 96 black people residing in Oak Park. I would venture to guess the mural reasonably reflected reality in 1937. "Our Views" may not like the painting, but Ethel Spears was a significant enough artist to have her papers archived at the Smithsonian Institute. I do agree though erasing the past will not move us forward, rather the opposite.

Michelle Roser Major from Oak Park  

Posted: April 25th, 2019 8:47 PM

"The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out?"blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?" Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Emily Lloyd  

Posted: April 25th, 2019 8:37 PM

Lack of representation aside, why does The Journal want to force our children to look at a mural it declares "artistically terrible"?

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: April 25th, 2019 7:28 PM

It never ceases to amaze me that so many people feel that the admirable and necessary effort to foster inclusion somehow requires us to accept subtraction and exclusion.

Charity Anne Caldwell  

Posted: April 25th, 2019 7:02 PM

I applaud our schools for taking action in response to the student request. I understand that more representative art is being sought/created *and* I doubt the WPA program has been eliminated from history texts (where it should continue to be taught, along with a discussion about which communities benefited from it and how).

Charity Anne Caldwell  

Posted: April 25th, 2019 6:56 PM

"It was a pretty artistically terrible WPA mural of white children ice skating in a long ago, pretty much fairytale moment." Do black, asian, latin@, and disabled children to get to be in fairy tales? If the "fascinating history" is all-white, as it has been for that majority of the history-related displays in our nation, then we are willfully upholding an all-white history.

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