Savage Art

Princetonians go postal over '30s mural

"Having given the local committee carte blanche to speak for the community, the Section was stuck with their favorable decision," she writes. "The Section's only viable recourse was to strike Karl Free's name from the list of candidates for further commissions."

The recent debate over America Under the Palms is, in a sense, a chance for the residents of Princeton to have their say, 60 years after the fact.

To that end, the students surveyed post office patrons and found that most wanted to add a second piece of art and leave the original painting up. Ramakrishnan made another presentation to the Human Services Commission in January and asked the commission to recommend a second painting. "We had moved past our original position," Ramakrishnan says. "Some people had framed it as destroying art. This solution reaffirmed the value of public art and community art."

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

The commission agreed, and also suggested a study of the "historical perspective" of the painting and a display about the controversy itself. While the commission has been fractured over the painting, the compromise passed by a 7-to-1 vote, mainly because it did not require them to take a controversial stand.

"It was something that was doable," says Ryan Stark Lilienthal, an attorney from Lawrenceville, New Jersey, who sits on the commission.

But it's not clear that more art will satisfy either side of the debate. "I don't feel that there was anything so wrong with the painting in the first place," says Nora Lin, 39, a Princeton University librarian. "You have to take it in the context of that time."

Princeton computer programmer Riyaz B'hat, 40, says a new painting would not erase the problems with the old one.

"If it's offensive to people, they should take it down," he says. "It doesn't matter."

For its part, the Postal Service is hoping the controversy will just move elsewhere.

"Who's to say the new mural would not be offensive?" Santora says. "Maybe they would want to do something right in Princeton—maybe in another venue."

Still, Ramakrishnan says a new work of art could challenge the public's perception of Princeton as a lily-white university town. The borough of Princeton is segregated but only slightly less diverse than New Jersey as a whole, with a 17 percent nonwhite population compared to 21 percent statewide. But how to achieve this ideological goal without putting unreasonable restrictions on the artist is also unclear.

"It doesn't have to be a picture that shows everybody being happy," Ramakrishnan says. He rejects the strategy some communities have tried—using abstract art for its public spaces to avoid excluding or offending any particular group. "There are ways to have representational art that unifies rather than divides."

Treuer is not so sure that the symbolic meaning of America Under the Palms will ever be challenged as long as it hangs on the post office wall. "I'm kind of skeptical that we could unearth the problems with just another painting," he says.

Instead, he advocates finding a place for America Under the Palms in a local museum and perhaps rotating it in the post office with a piece by a Native American artist. In the long run, Treuer says he is hoping for a more profound change in Princeton than the images on its post office wall. "I'd like the subtext of the painting to be obvious," he says. "I'd like people just to not understand at all what's going on in that painting, to see it and say, 'How could things have ever been painted like this? How could we ever have thought like this?'"

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