There’s nothing like the prospect of overreaching do-gooders in higher education to stir the dormant juices of conservative pundits. In today’s Washington Post one finds George F. Will’s starchy prose condemning liberal insensibility at Yale University: “Yale Saves Fragile Students from a Carving of a Musket”–a bromide that’s so nearly insensible I wonder about Will’s civic future as it’s obvious he’s forgoing the potential value and goodness of human beings.
Will is incensed that administrators at Yale are concerned about the placement of an altogether remnant and ugly bas relief on the facade of Sterling Memorial Library. In truth it’s a hideous thing, a carving of a thick lipped Indian and a gnashing pilgrim, each clutching their cliched weapon—a bow and arrow and a musket. Make no mistake, they’re in combat, and no love is lost in this stupid, rebarbative vignette. George Will thinks it’s art, or at least, something to be cherished. You wouldn’t know that when the carving was made the curriculum at Yale (and elsewhere) centered on “the white man’s burden” and featured a heaping helping of Social Darwinism. Will cannot imagine that this mise en abyme has an untoward semiotic history. He’s chosen to read discomfort with the stone cartoon as a pean to the contemporary (perceived) coddling of emotionally needy college students, a link that’s about as sensible as saying wolves often dress up as grandmothers and this is why union wages are declining.
Poor Yale students! Poor babies! They can’t take a racist carving! Look! They require campus counseling services because they have mental illnesses! What weaklings! How permissive college administrators are! Will offer us the usual suspects—permissive parents, dewy eyed faculty, and a general decline in our nation’s moral fiber. You’d never know that the sculpture in question is actually quite despicable.
Detestable or ignominious art always lacks scruple and nuance. It’s purpose is to cement common opinion. Both the left and the right can create repellent art. I’d like Will better if he simply said: “Ugly art ye will always have with ye, and get over it.” That might be a defensible position but of course we know who’s paying for Will’s lunch and it’s not the art historians. The basic conservative tenet is this: “racism’s in the past, get over it. They’re just statues, dude.”
Trouble is (as theologian John Lamb Lash puts it) “You can die from kitsch. And we’re close to it.” And you can certainly die on Native American reservations where healthcare is third rate and poverty is numbingly omnipresent. And images depicting old race wars are provably malign.
No. In Will’s stifling mental pup tent the problem is today’s students have permissive mommies.