The Smoking Gun
Early last year, under the cover of silence, an out-of-place and discolored stone was tacked onto a statue of a Puritan and a Native American outside the York Street entrance to the Center for Teaching and Learning, covering a musket held aloft by the colonist directly in the face of the Native. Today, a scaffold of blue plastic and metal poles shields the section of the wall which bears the sculpture, drawing further attention to the scene of systematic concealment. Many Yale students walk past, as though it’s just another construction project.
What had mostly been an unknown event on campus quickly sprung to national prominence two weeks ago, when George F. Will published his Op-Ed, “Yale saves fragile students from a carving of a musket,” in The Washington Post. Will expressed outrage over the “unilateral disarmament” of the Puritan’s musket, believing it to be a sign that Yale finds the armed white colonist more “triggering” than the Native American, whose bow and arrow remain uncovered on the statue. Will says that the Native American and Puritan on the carving are “looking not hostilely at each other but into the distance” and that the mental health services on campus try too hard to “insulate students from discomforts.”
Will’s article joins the recent media trend of characterizing Yale students as militantly sensitive, especially since the protests for the renaming of the former Calhoun College beginning in 2015. That same year, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, in his piece “The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” described Yale students as “Reddit parodies of ‘social-justice warriors’ than coherent activists.” For critics like Will and Friedersdorf, this recent action by the administration is another step towards PC culture absurdity.
Will attributes responsibility for the removal of this statue to the little-known Committee on Art in Public Spaces (CAPS), which President Salovey founded in April 2016 as an advisory group. Just two months after the group’s founding, a dining hall worker in what was then Calhoun College destroyed a stained glass window in the dining hall of slaves carrying bales of cotton. The art depicting slavery became just as important to the debate as the placement of his name on the college.
Chaired by Professor Samuel Messer, an Associate Dean at the Yale School of Art, CAPS is a committee of twelve experts in the fields of art, history, and cultural expression, created to advise “in accordance to Yale’s mission” to promote diversity and inclusion. Notable members include Professor Mary Lui, Head of Timothy Dwight College, and Kimberly Goff-Crews, Secretary and Vice President for Student Life at Yale.
In his Op-Ed, Will attributes the decision to the Committee, but strangely, CAPS has stated that the decision to cover the carving was not their own. Carol Snow, a conservator and member of the Committee, clarifies that “CAPS serves in an advisory capacity,” and that the decision to cover the musket with a removable mortar stone “was not made by CAPS.” This statement aligns with the Yale Office of the President website’s description of the Committee, that CAPS “[advises] the president about the numerous works of art situated in Yale’s public spaces,” rather than making decisions themselves. Instead, Eileen O’Connor, Vice President for Communication, told the Yale Daily News that unnamed Yale officials directed a group of facilities employees to “figure out how to remove it.” The employees ultimately decided removal would be too difficult, and instead installed the mortar covering.
A message coming directly from the Yale administration backs up Committee claims that the responsibility was not theirs, and also establishes plans for the future. On August 22nd, the University released a statement which announced that the carving will be “made available for study and viewing, and written material will accompany it and place it in historical context.” The University will move the carving to a space where it can be studied, and will take off the mortar stone covering the musket to allow for full-viewing of the depiction. President Peter Salovey stated that “alteration represents an erasure of history, which is entirely inappropriate at a university. We are obligated to allow students and others to view such images, even when they are offensive, and to study and learn from them.”
The administration’s decision to both remove and preserve the statue in its original form is certainly in line with several principles of art conservation, as the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works Code of Ethics states that conservation treatments should be reversible. Snow mentions that as a conservator she does not want to “see the musket ground down to flat stone.” But art history aside, the decision is clearly meant to assuage concerns over the erasure of history.
Since the events in Charlottesville, debate over eliminating reminders of uglier parts of the past has never been more passionate or widespread. At least 1,503 symbols of the Confederacy can be found in public spaces across the United States, manifest in statues, monuments, flags, holidays, and even names of schools. For the forces determined to remove these symbols, any remaining Confederate monument means honoring those who tore a nation apart in the name of slavery.
Dissenters see their hesitation to bring down statues differently. For many, the passions raised in favor of removing Confederate statues portends a slippery slope, where even some of America’s most beloved historical figures are fallible. Jonathan S. Tobin from The New York Post adds that even “Mount Rushmore isn’t safe” based on today’s values of society. Many, including Will, argue that the movement toward removal of unfavorable monuments represents a new generation wanting to hide from history, rather than engage with its darker underside.
Many Yale students think differently. Diego Fernández-Pagés TC‘18 states, “I don’t think anyone is ignoring or refusing to face history or violence… I just don’t want to celebrate that kind of hatred in spaces where we’re meant to be secure. In the case of the sculptural figure, I don’t think that kind of racial violence should be memorialized on the walls of my school’s library.”
Speaking for the project team advised by CAPS, Thomas Conroy, Director of the Office of Public Affairs and Communications, agrees with Fernández-Pagés: “leaving the depiction in place would have the unintended effect of giving it a place of honor that it does not deserve.” Though it would not be ideal to permanently remove the musket, the administration believes that keeping the carving intact at its place of honor would not fit Yale’s mission of inclusion. This decision indicates that the University now shares some of the beliefs of the Calhoun protestors: it is unacceptable for the very foundations of an institution to be in direct contrast to its students’ dignity as human beings. As Fernández-Pagés notes, “Put it in context, and it becomes clear that the sculpture doesn’t belong there, not because I personally can’t look at it but because it promotes values that seem to be jarringly opposed to those of the University.”
President Salovey’s eventual decision to remove the carving but still preserve it in public view serves as a compromise, but critics remain unrelenting in slamming Yale University and particularly Yale students for being oversensitive. But oddly, prior to George Will’s article, there was little controversy at all. Before the publication of his Op-Ed, the musket had been covered for several months, unnoticed by most students. Unlike the Calhoun name change, there were no marches, no protests — the actions of the University were made in the midst of silence. But with the nation’s cultural temperature at a high point, it’s unsurprising that a small change to a sculpture on a building that bears hundreds of other such decorations can quickly turn from obscurity to national controversy. With recent discussions about the removal of Confederate monuments circling across the United States, there is no doubt that the discussion about offensive pieces of art will not cease, nor will Yale cease to be an easy target for critics.