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.
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.
“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.”
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?'”