WASHINGTON—A quarrel over public art and political correctness has been simmering for a decade inside—of all places—the Environmental Protection Agency.
In a bureaucracy better known for fights over the survival of some rare toad or vanishing plant, several 1930s murals of the Old West have become a flash point in a debate over negative stereotypes and artistic censorship.
The mural that's sparking the most debate depicts Indians brutally scalping and murdering white settlers. All the women are naked, including one who's on all fours as a male Indian stands behind her, seizing her hair.
Called "Dangers of the Mail," the 1937 mural was painted by Frank Mechau, a prominent Western artist.
Critics also have singled out several other murals, including two by Wichita, Kan., artist Ward Lockwood, as either historically inaccurate or promoting offensive stereotypes. They want them removed.
"It's the basic stereotype of native people as being violent savages," said Richard Regan, a former EPA employee who was among the murals' early opponents. "It reinforces the stereotype for people who may not know that much about native culture."
Regan and others said the art wasn't appropriate for the workplace.
"When you have very few Native American employees, it makes people less sensitive to it," said Washington lawyer Judith Lee, who's part Choctaw and represented EPA employees in talks over the murals.
Supporters contend that just because art makes people uncomfortable isn't reason enough to censor it.
"As a person who believes in art without censorship from the right or left, I don't feel they should take it down," said Kay Wisnia, the art curator for Western history at the Denver Public Library, which held a show of Mechau's work last year. "It's part of the heritage of the country."
For now, screens block the EPA's Mechau mural and partially obscure a few others. The search for a permanent solution has been slowed by the fact that the General Services Administration is the EPA building's landlord, and the GSA is hamstrung by rules that govern changes to historic buildings such as the EPA's headquarters.
The GSA accepted public comments about the controversy last fall and created a Web site, www.gsa.gov/arielriosmurals, with links to some of the murals. It will convene a panel of experts in October to consider whether to leave them up with better educational explanations, move them to a museum or find other alternatives.
"We have to balance respect for historic art and respect for sensitivity to art that depicts people in a bad light," said a GSA spokesman, who declined to be identified because of agency policy. "It's not easy to find a solution."
Native American employees of the EPA have been upset about the murals ever since the agency relocated to the capital's Federal Triangle area along Pennsylvania Avenue in 1996.
Built in the 1930s, the building used to house the Postal Service. The offending murals were among 25 that were commissioned as part of a New Deal art program that became part of the Works Progress Administration, which provided jobs to the unemployed during the Depression.
Most are about delivering the mail and are not controversial, with a Norman Rockwell-like innocence. One features heroic-looking workers laden with bulging sacks of mail in a train yard. Another offers an almost whimsical—and subtly political—look inside a general store as townsfolk buy supplies, read the newspaper ("Farmers Organize," the headline says) and collect their mail.
Tension between public art and shifting public attitudes is nothing new. Time magazine published a photo of "Dangers of the Mail" when it was hung in 1937, and the Colorado Indian commissioner called it a "breach of history" and "the craziest thing I ever saw."
In 1941, a WPA mural called "Negro River Music" hanging in a St. Joseph, Mo., post office caused a stir when local African-Americans complained. One pastor said it portrayed their race as "a lazy people with no other thoughts than singing, dancing and clowning." But the mural never came down.
In recent years, political pressures caused the Smithsonian Institution to drop a planned exhibit about America's dropping of the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities in 1945. And former Attorney General John Ashcroft demanded that the exposed breast on a statue be covered during his news conferences.
"This notion of controversy, we have to be careful not to make it look like it's the public that is reacting to something," said Alison Hilton, the chair of the art, music and theater department at Georgetown University. "Sometime it's some small component that is reacting, or some element of the government."
Mike Mechau, the son of the painter behind "Dangers of the Mail," put it more succinctly. In a letter to the GSA, he wrote, "removal of historic public art on grounds of political correctness will set a very bad precedent."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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