Painting Over the Mural

Posted: April 26, 2022 in Uncategorized
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When the artist Thomas Hart Benton climbed the ladder in the House Lounge of the Missouri Capital in 1936 and began painting the mural that would become one of his most famous, it was during a record-setting blazing hot summer that he did so. Though he had been given two years to complete the commissioned piece, he finished it in six months. But perhaps it wasn’t just the heat that prompted him to complete the project in record time; It might have been the fact that he had just spent the last eighteen months traveling Missouri and preparing his sketches for its creation. By the time his feet walked up those Capital steps he had most of the mural already in his mind, custom fit to the only room left in the Capital that had enough available space for a project of its magnitude.

As I toured the Missouri Capital today, I made sure and visited the Benton mural. I had seen it numerous times in print or online. But this was the first time that I walked the actual room and cast my eyes on the wonder of it all.

The mural begins with the statehood of Missouri in 1821 and wraps around to the mid 20th century. What is conspicuous is the subject matter. Benton wanted the mural to represent the common life of Missourians in that time and place, not only a grandiose presentation of famous people. He did just that. Actually, more than that. He made sure to include typical rural life, families at work and play, and the development of commerce along the river and in the cities. But he also included the unsavory – slavery, slave auctions, and lynchings; the subjugation of native Americans in the pioneer/settler movement; raw scenes from upended domestic life; the fires of the Civil War and Industrialization. He told it all, the whole unvarnished story.

When the artistic work was at last unveiled, many of the legislators were not pleased. They wondered why he would tell a story that featured such ordinary people and a history that was so often brutal, a history some would rather not remember. If it weren’t for the cost incurred upon the taxpayers, a goodly number of politicians would have painted right over the mural with white paint. Thankfully for us, they didn’t. The masterpiece endures. And we are the recipients of this larger-than-life truth telling.

As I strolled around the room and viewed the mural, a fourth grade class was doing the same, guided by a docent. I listened in. The students asked questions about what they saw. The guide was honest. They were seeing, hearing history, all of history. Nothing was held back. And the roof didn’t cave in.

Time doesn’t change some things, like the response of legislators to telling the whole story of history. There is a movement afoot now to whitewash our history to omit the painful parts we don’t want to think about, to know about, the parts that do not cast a flattering light on how we got here. According to them, textbooks are supposed to omit subject matter that makes students (and most likely parents) uncomfortable. A theory called Critical Race Theory is used as a straw man to batter anyone – including educators – from dealing seriously with everything from Indian genocides to the Atlantic slave trade to the ultimate cause of the Civil War. They believe we should delete these portions, not speak of them, pretend they never happened, act like they do not exist.

In the face of this denial, in the presence of this attempt to cancel history and paint over it, we need a next generation of Thomas Hart Bentons willing to chronicle the whole story. We will learn from this story, be sobered by it. We may change because of the narrative that is told and avoid repeating some of the travesties of our own history. Without including the whole story, good and bad, we will continue to paint ourselves as heroic figures and project our lesser selves onto scapegoats, consigning them to the dark side.

And so, the best response to a modern equivalent of those legislators in 1936 who wanted to cancel Benton’s work, is to refuse to allow people to paint over the story today. We must not collude in a partial telling of the story. We should not be silent in the attempt to censure books, permitting only those we agree with to sit on our library shelves. We should resist attempts to support only the art that presents us in the most brilliant and appealing light. Those attempts will not help us and will most surely continue the damage that has always occurred. Only the truth can help and heal, and one can only hope that members of the Missouri House of Representatives will walk their constituents into that mural-filled room, pause, and talk with one another about the history we share. Only then, with a courageous painting of the whole story, can a way forward become possible.

  1. debbyc1234yahoocom says:

    Great response to the people who would change or cover up our history!

  2. Audrey L Spieler says:

    Hopefully this will be read far and wide to keep the mural and prevent libraries to be ransacked as well.

  3. Joe Walker says:

    Well-stated. Thank you. We would do well to affirm and support the brave (and stubborn) Benton-like artists in our time to ensure that history is told in a variety of mediums and accessible to future generations.

  4. Audrey L Spieler says:


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