“Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press” in Its Contexts

[All matters of fact and substance in this webpage were drawn from Thomas Hart Benton and the Indiana Murals, Kathleen A. Foster, Nanette Esseck Brewer, and Margaret Contompasis, Indiana University Art Museum and Indiana University Press, 2000.]

“Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press,” by Thomas Hart Benton

The Artist and the Murals

Six months before the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned to paint the mural cycle that became the state of Indiana’s exhibit. Benton was a Midwesterner but not a Hoosier. Born in Neosho, Missouri, in 1889, he was a member of a political family. Like many artists of his day, Benton studied on the Continent and in New York. He recoiled from modernist non-representational art after some early experimentation, and then adopted a sinewy realistic style that was, he maintained, distinctly American.

This move, away from both the avante garde and classical public art, resulted in Benton being considered both reactionary and radical. His response to the furor caused by his 1931 mural in the New School for Social Research sums up his early career succinctly, if not entirely accurately: “If not famous, I was at least notorious.” He was soon to be famous, in some part because of the Indiana Murals. By 1934, he was on the cover of Time magazine.

In December of 1932 Benton arrived in Indianapolis and began a deep study of the history of Indiana, planning the painting and doing preliminary drafting on long strips of paper. Early in 1933, Benton began to travel around Indiana with an eye to capturing not just the grand sweep of its history, but also the homely details that form the backdrop of that history. Benton made heavy use of “real people” as models in painting the figures that fill the mural. Benton discusses his aesthetic in his essay “A Dream Fulfilled,” in which he observes that “History was not a scholarly study for me but a drama.” He depicts that drama by dividing the history of the state into two sequences, or threads, one with an emphasis on Indiana Industry, the other depicting the Cultural history of the state.

According to Benton, the sequence of paintings was the largest mural cycle ever attempted; in any event, it was planned and completed with astonishing rapidity. The entire cycle takes up 2600 square feet. According to a contemporary, Benton painted 38 square feet a day, on average. When they were completed, the murals were so large that a large aperture had to be created to move them out of the gallery in which they were painted; on the way to Chicago a highway bridge was too low to permit them to pass; a gate at the fairgrounds had to be taken apart to accommodate them. The paintings are on wood covered with canvas; the medium is egg tempera, noted for its deep colors and durability.

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The Murals and the Controversies

The murals sparked controversy even before they were completed. In fact, the very choice of Benton raised hackles—Why had the Commission not chosen a Hoosier artist? Who had ever heard of Benton? Wasn’t his style too “vulgar” for a mural that ought to show the citizens of Indiana in the very best light?

Benton’s drawings had to be approved by Colonel Richard Lieber, director of the Indiana Department of Conservation, and one of those drawings, then as now, excited hot disagreement. Lieber objected to the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the drawings for what was to become Cultural Panel 10, “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press.” Benton, who apparently insisted on showing what was an undeniable political reality of the previous decade, in early 1933 invited Democratic legislators to discuss the Klan and its influences upon their Republican predecessors. These legislators apparently demonstrated such an enthusiasm for revealing the sins of their political opponents that Lieber caved in and agreed to permit Benton to include the Klan in the mural.

After the World’s Fair, the murals were placed in storage in a horse barn at the state fairgrounds in Indianapolis. They languished there until 1937, when the new President of Indiana University, Herman B Wells, began maneuvering to have them installed in IU’s new auditorium—there was even a rumor that Purdue University had designs on the murals for its new auditorium! Wells approached Governor Cliff Townshend, who was eager to be rid of the murals, and convinced him give the murals to the University. In 1939 the murals were shipped to Bloomington. Most of the panels were installed in the Indiana University Auditorium’s grand lobby, a process in which Benton assisted.

According to President Wells, the two panels with a “business” theme were installed in Woodburn Hall, which was then the home of the School of Business. Woodburn 100, where the murals still reside, was not a classroom at the time.

Since then, but most memorably within the past fifteen years, questions have arisen periodically, concerning whether or not “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press” should remain in what is now a classroom or whether classes should be held in that room. These questions are further complicated by the pragmatic consideration that moving the panel would damage or destroy it.

The various points of view can be summarized as follows:

One of the university’s missions is to promote and to preserve the arts

The university has work to do in improving the climate here for underrepresented groups; the presence of the mural is further evidence of a lack of commitment in that regard

The presence of the mural does not signal approbation of the Klan, past or present; Indiana University opposes discrimination in all of its forms

The depiction of an unsavory or even criminal portion of Indiana’s history is necessary to insuring that that history is not repeated

Because of the history of the Klan, some students feel exceedingly uncomfortable or distracted when they view the mural; therefore the room is inappropriate for classes

The last point is worth special mention. Despite scholarly arguments about the mission of the university and the utility of history in shaping the future, it is certain that some students are made very uncomfortable by the depiction of the Klan, to the extent that they find it difficult to attend lectures or take tests there. With this in mind, the campus has arranged for education sessions to be held near the beginning of the semester for each class taught in the room; in addition, a brochure entitled Woodburn 100 and the Indiana Murals of Thomas Hart Benton,” aimed at explaining the history of the murals and why they remain in Woodburn 100, is available near the door of Woodburn 100.

If students feel, even after attending the education session, that a hostile climate still exists in the class, they should first discuss it with the faculty member; if that is not satisfactory, then they should contact the IU Bloomington Racial Incidents Team at reportit@indiana.edu or by calling 855-4463.

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