Savage Art

Princetonians go postal over '30s mural

Unloved but unmoved, America Under the Palms has hung on the south wall of Princeton's Palmer Square Post Office for more than 60 years. The 1939 painting by Karl Free depicts a stylized encounter between white settlers and Native Americans: Three white men surrounded by the symbols of learning stand erect, as angels herald their approach and two dark natives cower in the corner. Commissioned as a New Deal public arts project, it went largely unnoticed until 1998, when a few Princeton students condemned it as racist.

"This is the only painting in the post office," says Karthick Ramakrishnan, a graduate student in political science. "It has a kind of monopoly on the public space."

He led more than a year of letter writing, protests, and public testimony, culminating in a March decision by the borough of Princeton's Human Services Commission to recommend adding a second, more contemporary piece of art to the building. But the original image remains, planted in that muddy territory where public art meets public sensitivity.

On native grounds: Karl Free’s America Under the Palms (1939)
On native grounds: Karl Free’s America Under the Palms (1939)

More than 10 feet wide and about as tall, America Under the Palms looms over one end of the narrow post office. The colors have faded, but its style, an ornate mishmash with neoclassical pretensions, shines through. On the left, three solemn men in frock coats and stockings stand surrounded by a globe, books, and classical busts. Under a palm tree in the center are two symbols of America, a blue-robed recumbent Columbia and a bald eagle, with Princeton's Nassau Hall in the distance.

A Native American man in a loincloth and a woman in a garland of shells crouch in a corner on the right, as if poised to flee the scene. The man holds up one arm, shielding himself as angels hover above, blowing their horns and pointing at them. At the bottom of the painting, a verse reads, "America! With Peace and Freedom blest/Pant for true Fame and scorn inglorious rest./Science invites, urged by the Voice divine,/Exert thyself 'til every Art be thine."

Ramakrishnan says he found the reference to "inglorious rest" particularly galling, implying "that the Native Americans were too lazy to really make something of the land."

He wrote a letter to The Daily Princetonian, a campus newspaper, in October 1998, generating a flurry of retorts in the Princeton and Trenton papers. "Maybe I missed something, but those were books being carried by the settlers, not guns," Neil Brown, a resident of Robbinsville, New Jersey, wrote in the town daily, the Princeton Packet. "The Enlightenment philosophy of Europe believed in reason, tolerance, individualism, and skepticism as its defining tenets. The spread of this belief system is the basis of our existence and growth as a nation. Dare I say, it's what might have attracted your family to migrate here."

It was this idea, that the painting somehow truly represented what it meant to be American, that drew Micah Treuer, president of Princeton's Native American students association, into the campaign. The artist himself eventually became an arbiter of the American aesthetic. America Under the Palms was the last federal commission Karl Free did before becoming a curator for the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Treuer, 21, from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, says he even received personal letters defending the painting, including one that said, "Why are you even bothering? It's an accurate historical depiction." But finding a remedy has proven even more difficult than establishing that the painting was offensive in the first place—no one wanted to be cast in the role of public censor.

"We're not art critics," says Frank Santora, regional spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in Edison, New Jersey. "Our job is to deliver the mail."

The Postal Service has refused to remove or alter the painting in any way, particularly since it sits in a historic landmark building. With the Postal Service taking a hard line, the Human Services Commission was reluctant to support the students' demands.

The controversy heated up again in the fall. As Mayor Rudolph Giuliani clashed with the Brooklyn Museum of Art over Chris Ofili's painting of the Virgin Mary, the students organized a Columbus Day protest at the post office.

"It was a ripe moment," Ramakrishnan says.

But even as he welcomed the attention generated by Giuliani's tirades, Ramakrishnan recognized he had joined a losing team.

"It bothers me that in this case, I'm on the Giuliani side," he says. "This is what makes this issue so difficult to grapple with. Communities deserve to have more control over what goes on in their public spaces."

In many ways, the students' objections parallel those raised in the 1930s, according to Wall to Wall America, a study of Depression-era public art by the art historian Karal Ann Marling. Many community leaders derided the murals for historical inaccuracy or for ignoring local standards of taste.

The Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts had chosen Karl Free for the Princeton mural because his first commission, installed in Washington, D.C., in 1938, portrayed a meeting between French explorers and Native Americans in Florida in a realistic manner. But that painting was a copy of a 16th-century French work. Left to his own devices in Princeton, Free offered instead an "obscure allegorical muddle" that revealed him as "an academic reactionary disguised as a historian," Marling writes. Unlike other towns, however, Princeton's citizens' panel, chaired by a Princeton professor, raised no objections.

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