Thomas Hart Benton’s daughter, Jessie Benton, Responds to Mural Controversy at Indiana University

‘My Father Painted the Truth’

by Jessie Benton

This guest column was submitted by Jessie Benton of Los Angeles, the daughter of artist Thomas Hart Benton. [provided by the Herald Times Online]
I am coming late to the discussion of the Benton murals at Indiana Universityand the desired removal of one of its panels. It is not the first time this has happened, and it seems to me a more significant time for the dialogue that it has caused. I would like to add a little personal background, so that people can look at my father’s paintings with an open mind and an open heart.
I was raised in a household with an Italian mother, an immigrant, who respected all people, no matter their religion, their ethnicity, their color or their sexual preference. And believe me, in the ’40s and ’50s, and even in the ’60s, it was not easy. My father was one of the most liberal minded men of his times. He was the first American painter to portray African-Americans as people rather than slaves.
In 1941, he did a portrait of Ben Nichols, a painting he called “Aaron.” The respect and admiration he had for this man clearly shows in the painting. In 1942, “Portrait of A Negro Soldier,” not white soldier, showed the sacrifice being made by all of our men in World War II – to bring attention to the African-American as a citizen, a human being, a man willing to die for his country, who deserved and earned the respect of all his countrymen. And many more such portraits of his various friends.
I grew up in a world that had separate bathrooms, separate schools, separate seating arrangements on public transport. But not in my house. My father felt very deeply the horribly unfair treatment of people of color by whites, and particularly hated the cowardly K.K.K. As a child, he had witnessed a lynching in the small town he was raised in, and it had left an indelible impression of fear and horror inside him. He wanted people to remember our history, the good and the bad, to own it, so that it would never happen again.
My father was not just an artist; he was a commentator on American society, and an historian through his art. He was as truthful on canvas as he was as a man, controversial, yes, because he believed in revealing the truth as a pathway to greater understanding among people. And it was his own truth, a personal belief system, truly American, that this country could pull itself out of blind ignorance and darkness and be the “melting pot” of diversity.
He would be shocked by the white supremacist movement of right now and the persecution of the Jews and Muslims by the Neo-Nazis. Does no one remember the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps of World War II? Does no one remember the lynching of innocent men by cruel and stupid organizations like the K.K.K.? The burning of churches? But we’d better. It was not that long ago!
My father painted the truth, so that Indiana would not forget a dark side of its history. Thomas Hart Benton was not a racist; on the contrary, he was a champion of civil rights for all. Rather than hide the painting away in some dark corner, shine a brighter light on it. Do not deride and misunderstand the intentions of my beautiful father. Look deeper. It is art. Instead of denying history, embrace it, talk about it, keep it from ever happening again. Thomas Hart Benton was on your side. It is diversity.
For the love of art, peace, love and honor for all.

 – Herald Times Online

View all of Thomas Hart Benton works
currently available at Kiechel Fine Art
Aaron, Thomas Hart Benton, 1949, Lithograph, 13 x 9.5 inches, $3,800

Commission on Multicultural Understanding – Benton Mural
The Benton Murals have been a source of controversy and conversation on the IU Bloomington campus since 1941 when Indiana University President Herman B Wells had the painting installed in the IU Auditorium, the IU Theater (now the IU Cinema) and Woodburn Hall. Created by Thomas Hart Benton for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the 22-panel mural series depicts the social and industrial history of Indiana from Native American mound builders to the industrialized age.

In Defense of Keeping the Indiana University Mural That Depicts (But Doesn’t Glorify) the KKK
In recent years, people have protested the racism of Confederate statues, Hollywood and sports mascots. But a curious campaign has taken place on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus.
One Response to “Thomas Hart Benton’s daughter, Jessie Benton, Responds to Mural Controversy at Indiana University”
  1. Sharlene Newman says:

    I think that we can all appreciate the piece as a work of art. And I can appreciate the intent behind depicting the KKK in the mural. However, Jessie’s seemingly condescending surprise that some “can’t handle” the mural being in the classroom shows her white privilege. She never has to worry about racial discrimination. She doesn’t know what that is. It wasn’t her grandmother who was gang raped and beaten by a group of white men. She had no fear of the Klan. The comment was insensitive and flippant. Yes we all understand that the KKK is part of Indiana’s history and present. That doesn’t mean seeing them isn’t a distraction for some who have experience with them.

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