Is that… George Washington? With rusty nails pounded into his face?
Holding up “cascading fragments of his slave records.”
Oh. I see.
Carry on, then.
I was going to write about Harvard forbidding its female students from forming female-only safe spaces (College will Debut Plans to Enforce Sanctions Next Semester) in an attempt to shut down all single-gender frats and Finals Clubs, but then Princeton upped the ante with Can Art Amend Princeton’s History of Slavery?
No. Of course not.
Princeton University [has] a new public-art project that confronts the school’s participation in the nation’s early sins. On Monday, the university unveiled Impressions of Liberty, by the African American artist Titus Kaphar. The sculpture is the conceptual core of a campus-wide initiative that begins this fall and aims to reconcile the university’s ties to slavery. The Princeton and Slavery Project’s website has released hundreds of articles and primary documents about slavery and racism at Princeton…
Attaching strips of canvas or other material to the faces of people he disapproves of is apparently one of Kaphar’s shticks.
I’m old enough to remember when George Washington was admired for freeing all of his slaves in an era when most people took slavery for granted. Today he is castigated for not having sprung from the womb with a fully modern set of moral opinions.
Impressions of Liberty is Kaphar’s portrait of Samuel Finley–fifth president and one of the original trustees of Princeton (1761-1766)–interwoven with photographs of black actors in historical dress etched in glass.
For generations, slave-owning Christians—including Princeton’s founders—used religious ideas to justify a horrific national practice, [Kaphar] noted; Finley is holding a bible in Impressions of Liberty.
Note the framing: yes, Christians used religion to justify owning slaves. So did Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, and atheists. There’s nothing unique about Christians and slavery aside from the fact that Finley was Christian. No mention is made of pagan Africans who captured and sold each other into slavery, nor of Muslims who raided Africa and Europe in search of slaves. There were Jewish slave merchants and Confederates, as well, for slavery was a near-universal practice justified by people all over the world prior to its abolition by whites in the 1800s. The article mentions none of that; only Christians are singled out for criticism.
The article doesn’t say how much Princeton paid for the sculpture it commissioned to castigate the memory of one of its founders. The work currently stands outside MacLean House, but will soon be moved indoors, to Princeton’s permanent art collection. MacLean House–completed in 1756–is a national landmark that was home to Princeton’s first presidents, including Samuel Finley. It also housed George Washington during the Battle of Princeton.
According to the article:
On the one hand, according to records, Princeton was a bastion of liberty, educating numerous Revolutionary War leaders and in 1783 hosting the Continental Congress… At the same time, Sandweiss found that the institution’s first nine presidents all owned slaves at some point, as did the school’s early trustees. She also discovered that the school enrolled a significant number of anti-abolitionist, Southern students during its early years; an alumni delivered a pro-slavery address at the school’s 1850 commencement ceremony. …
Princeton’s racist history enabled it to provide social and political benefits for alumni—an advantage that students will continue to enjoy well into the future.
While I happen to think that universities have it much too good these days and deserve to be taken down a notch, I find this claim extremely dubious. Harvard and Yale are located in staunchly abolitionist New England and had very few ties to slavery, (Mr. Yale apparently knew a guy who had slaves, and Harvard Law School received some money from a guy who had slaves,) yet these schools are arguably even wealthier and more powerful than closer-to-the-South and more-tied-to-slavery Princeton. Stanford was founded after slavery was outlawed, and yet its students enjoy social and political benefits on par with Princeton’s.
We could argue that the entire area of the Confederacy reaped the economic benefits of slavery, yet today this region is much poorer than the Free States of the North. There isn’t just no correlation between slavery, wealth, and power–there’s actually a negative correlation. Slavery, if it has any effect at all, makes a region poorer and weaker.
… Princeton University is spreading the mission across various pieces of art through a show this fall entitled “Making History Visible: Of American Myths And National Heroes.” At the exhibit’s entrance, viewers begin with Kaphar’s piece Monumental Inversion: George Washington—a sculpture of the leader astride his horse, made out of wood, blown glass, and steel. The sculpture depicts the former president’s dueling nature: He’s glorified within a great American equestrian monument but he’s also sitting astride a charred cavity, surrounded by glass on the ground. In juxtaposing Kaphar’s artwork and a George Washington plaster bust, “Making History Visible” forces visitors, hopefully, to see and feel the contradiction in colonial leaders who sought freedom from tyranny but did not extend that ideal to slaves.
I repeat: George Washington freed all of his slaves.
We might question the point of all this. Kaphar is free to make his art, of course. His paintings display quite excellent technical skill, I admit. But why do we, as a society, feel the need to commission and display attacks on our founders? Princeton’s students could just as happily go to class each day without looking at images of Finley’s slaves; unlike Washington, Finley isn’t famous and most students were probably blissfully unaware of his slaveholding until someone decided to stick a sculpture dedicated to it on the lawn.
How do Princeton’s black students feel after walking past a sculpture depicting slaves? Uplifted? Happy? Ready to go to class and concentrate on their lectures? I doubt it. Art may be “powerful” or “open dialogues,” but no one seems to feel better after viewing such pieces.
No, I don’t see how this selective dwelling on the past improves anything.
A world in which images of your founders and heroes are defaced, their corpses judged and rusty nails are driven into their portraits: it’s like a cruel dystopia, Lewis’s That Hideous Strength or 1984. According to Wikipedia:
During and after the October Revolution, widespread destruction of religious and secular imagery took place, as well as the destruction of imagery related to the Imperial family. The Revolution was accompanied by destruction of monuments of past tsars, as well as the destruction of imperial eagles at various locations throughout Russia. According to Christopher Wharton, “In front of a Moscow cathedral, crowds cheered as the enormous statue of Tsar Alexander III was bound with ropes and gradually beaten to the ground. After a considerable amount of time, the statue was decapitated and its remaining parts were broken into rubble”.
You know, they tell us, “No one is attacking George Washington; that’s just a crazy right-wing conspiracy theory,” and then they go and do it.
Incidentally, Georgetown, according to the article, “announced last year that it would grant admissions preference to descendants of slaves whose sale it profited from in the early 1800s.” How do you qualify for that? Do you have to prove that you’re descended from the specific slaves involved, or can you be descended from any American slaves? Because I had ancestors who were enslaved, too, and I’d like to get in on this racket.
In the end, the article answers its titular question:
When Impressions of Liberty is removed from Maclean House in December and enters Princeton’s permanent museum collection, its greatest achievement may lie in the realization that no apology or recompense can ever suffice. …
“No civil-rights project can ever fully redeem anything.”