While Charlottesville debates a petition to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, a quieter controversy has been ongoing at UVA about a prominent work of art.
One day after Rolling Stone came out with its now discredited “A Rape on Campus” on November 19, 2014, the Cavalier Daily wrote about artist Lincoln Perry’s acclaimed mural in Old Cabell Hall, “The Student’s Progress,” which depicts fictitious student Shannon’s journey through the university.
“Props to the University for knowing how to take a joke,” said the Cavalier Daily about one wall on the left staircase depicting partying students.
Subsequent coverage of the mural was not so amused.
Less than a week later, UVA music professor Bonnie Gordon took aim at the mural in a piece she wrote for Slate titled, “The UVA gang rape allegations are awful, horrifying and not shocking at all.”
Wrote Gordon, “The mural depicts, among other scenes of daily life at the University of Virginia, a male faculty member standing on a porch and tossing a mostly naked student her bra as his beleaguered wife comes up the stairs.”
That panel is in an alcove also on the stairs, and Gordon says undergrads who pass it are bothered and she’s seen parents shaking their heads at the painting. Nor is she a fan of the scene of the male student duct-taped to a column at the Rotunda in which a presumably drunk girl is being dragged off.
“I don’t want that mural in a teaching space or in a student space,” says Gordon. Nor is it the UVA experience she wants her children to experience, she says.
A committee was formed to examine the mural in January 2015, and it submitted more than one recommendation to the university administration, according to UVA spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn. A decision has not been made, he says.
The mural was commissioned in 1996, funded by a prominent group of donors. Perry worked on the piece for 16 years, and the final panels were unveiled in 2012, including the ones Gordon finds objectionable. “It would be different to me if it were in an art museum,” she says.
“Museums are teaching facilities,” says Richard Guy Wilson, who is chair of the university’s public art committee and a mural benefactor. Old Cabell Hall is a “preeminent art building” and Perry’s mural plays off the copy of Raphael’s “The School of Athens” there, he says.
“We will become the laughing stock of the country” if the mural is removed, he says.
Perry is “arguably the best mural painter in the country,” says Paul Barolsky, who teaches Italian Renaissance art and literature at UVA. “He’s a superb draftsman and storyteller and he painted an allegory of UVA.” The idea of removing the panel, says Barolsky, is “preposterous” and sets “a dangerous precedent.”
He asked his students to look at the mural. “They just shrugged their shoulders,” he says. “It’s not obvious. One thought it was streaking.”
He says, “If you start to cover up paintings that offend one person or another, where do you draw the line? Should I not teach Italian masters because of nude figures?”
Perry’s mural is a contemporary reinterpretation of the classical theme of the virtues and vices, which comes from a long tradition dating back to Plato and Aristotle and which may make some people uncomfortable, explains Lyn Warren, who owns Les Yeux du Monde gallery and who sells Perry’s works.
The artist is not trying just to paint some salacious scene, she says, and he balances good and evil, conflict and harmony. “That’s why it stays interesting,” she says. The mural is full of references to philosophy, literature and art, recreated in the context of Jefferson’s university, she says.
“It’s a masterpiece,” says Warren. “After Monticello and the Lawn, it’s one of the most important art works in this area. It’s one of the university’s greatest treasures.”
History professor John Mason is a fan of the mural and particularly likes the way it “mashes through the gentility that is UVA.” He likes the bacchanalia scene because “UVA can be uptight. It’s a feast for the eyes.” And he likes the satire in the work.
However, like Gordon, he finds the panel with the “professor and young woman clearly interrupted in hanky-panky” inappropriate. Where once, in what he calls “the ‘Mad Men’ era,” a university professor may have considered attractive female students a “perk,” he says, now there’s no faster way for a faculty member to lose his job.
“We shouldn’t smirk at it any more,” he says. “If it came today, no one would allow that panel. Times change, sometimes very quickly.”
Mason says he doesn’t have an answer about what should be done. “I’m not saying it should be painted over,” he says. “Do you offer the painter a chance to redo it? Do you make it a teaching moment?”
That’s a debate that remains ongoing. And while Perry declined to comment for this article, in a 2005 interview conducted by his wife, Ann Beattie, he said, “I was glad if people brought their own interpretations to my work.”