Human Rights

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Petition to Thomas McHenry

Stand against the destruction of the Underground Railroad Mural.

Please sign this petition to the President of the Vermont Law School to not destroy the Underground Railroad Mural that is currently hanging in an important space in the building. For over 20 years, the piece has moved and provoked students and visitors. However, in our current sensitized times, the painting has drawn criticisms for stereotypical portrayals and white privilege.  Now the law school is attempting to prevent further controversy by having it covered over or removed.  What this means, is the piece will be destroyed.   While it is obvious to most people that caving to the prejudices of the moment is a poor way to make great art, nor a behavior we want to encourage in our future lawmakers, that is precisely what this kind of action does.  Not only does it encourage a sad moderation in artistic expression, it also insults the intelligence of viewers as unable to perceive metaphor... something we all understand almost instinctually.   More importantly than these far-sighted reasons, it is crucial to stop its intended destruction NOW.   The Artist himself has filed suit to prevent its destruction, but his legal challenge will need the support of a public outcry. From a purely artistic point of view, it is a stunning piece.  I cannot understand how anyone could see it as anything less than a masterpiece.  I am especially bothered by those who see the African figures as anything less than heroic. Especially Harriet Tubman and the slave on the auction block who stands with the nobility and subtle disappointment of a Boddhisatva.  The contrast between the portrayal of the allies and the portrayal of the collaborators is not only genius, but fully supported in artistic history from Degas to Fauvism to Picasso. It is also very clear that these criticisms are a sign of the times more than any considered or reasonable opinion. To suggest that we are unable as human beings to understand the struggles of other human beings simply because of physical difference is the ugly dark side of the empowerment movement.   This piece successfully portrays both races in a way that is unflinchingly human.  Neither seems to escape an honest portrayal, but it is very clearly critical of the white races. To say that anyone could look at the painting and say that it relieves white people of responsibility for slavery by making them green only makes sense when you don’t look at the painting as a whole.  It is very clearly a chromatically consistent painting because of the interplay of the green, the purple and the rich reddish tones.  If you painted the white people with any crayon caucasian flesh tones, they would not only look out of place, but they would stop the movement of the composition– thereby drawing even more of the viewers attention. Then maybe there would be an argument for putting them in too flattering a light. “You made them look like barbie or a ‘china girl’” would be the response. Even more poetically, the green color of the collaborators gives them the sickening otherworldliness that African narratives of slavery described in their first contact with Europeans. It lends them an air of death, of representatives of decay, of a culture on the cusp of its greatest defeat.  Reading it from left to right, it is also purely American in the way it’s structure reflects Hollywood storytelling.  The terrible beginning, the suffering of the second act, the minor victories that encourage the protagonist in the face of insurmountable odds. Even the epic scope of moving between the landmarks of history to the ordinary stories of unsung individuals.  Finally, in the most Hollywood ending ever, the visual narrative ends with the hopeful white horse and the escape to freedom.  But of course, everyone knows the story doesn’t end there.  Everyone knows the white horse is both symbolic of hope, but also draws attention, and could foreshadow the coming war, the destruction of drugs on the African-American community, or even the skittish support of the white allies.  The classical building in the distance is both a clichéd image of heavenly rest and reminder of the neoclassical facade of antebellum culture.  It towers over the scene almost like a warning of the rise of white nationalism while also commenting on the ivory tower where the viewer now stands.    The power of art is the unity of its perspective. How the extreme bias of the individual artist reaches out to the most individualistic parts of ourselves.  We don't call art by committee 'art' and there is a reason for that.  The value art has over every other assemblage of human ingenuity is its ability to preserve not only the attitudes of a time, but also the personal and intimate passions of artists.  A divergence of opinions about a piece of art is the best we can hope for, because it is only in that civil but confrontational space that the law represents, that the true work of eliminating systemic racism can be done. 

Syed Meer
942 supporters