When Art Offends

Here is a letter I just sent to Rev. John Jenkins, President of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, in reaction to his administration’s announcement that it will cover up twelve painted murals of Christopher Columbus. It seems the university received a petition from 300 of its students who are offended by the murals, which have been there since 1884.

Dear President Jenkins:

With regard to your decision to cover murals that commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World, I shall not use your time or mine to refute all the calumnies against a man whose genius and grit changed mankind forever…and ultimately for the better.  Instead, let’s look at the murals as art.

Art, it seems, is more sacred than anything in liberal America. I know that because for many years I and other proud Italian Americans have been objecting to the relentless deluge of Mafia movies.  We claim often that they are insulting, demeaning, and portray our culture as crime ridden and violent.  To every charge that we make the answer is always the same: The Godfather is an artistic masterpiece, The Sopranos is a work of art.  The supporting arguments are that Mafia characters are 3-dimensional; they are complex; they are tormented souls, such as Tony Soprano needing a shrink.  College courses around the country incorporate Mafia movies into their humanities lectures – see how light and shadow dramatize extortion scenes, how “an offer he can’t refuse” has entered universal lexicon, and how murdering your enemies during a Catholic baptism is cinematic genius.   On and on, we are rebuffed, belittled, and lectured on the importance of Mafia movies.  Of course, the biggest shock is that those defending the “art” of Mafia movies tell us these films are not really about Italians – Italian gangsters are only the “symbols” of America’s turmoil.  If this is to be the standard, then the Columbus murals are also American works of art.

Television networks don’t delete Mafia movies from their broadcasts to respect our feelings. Hollywood hasn’t stopped churning them out every year.  Why should they?  As the MGM motto states Ars Gratia Artis (“Art for Art’s Sake”).  We may cover-up pornographic art.  We may ban political art or racist art.  But, the Notre Dame murals are none of these – they convey a true story.

In one mural, Columbus is shown in chains with the caption “Bobodilla Betrays Columbus.” This is a historical fact.  Columbus was arrested for punishing Spanish colonists who exploited the natives, hence the downcast natives at his side.  Other murals show half-naked natives, which they were in 1492.  Another mural shows Columbus introducing Christianity to the natives, which he did.

What the murals do not depict – and this may be the real problem – is Spanish cruelty. By the same token, they do not depict native cruelty – Columbus lost 39 of his Santa Maria crew to an Indian massacre – or native cannibalism.

Notre Dame’s knee-jerk reaction to a few students is to cover the murals, as the Italian government did recently with Renaissance statues when some Iranian clerics visited Rome – so as not to offend. This is a sort of Solomonic solution to avoid defending historic art.  You claim that the fabric covers will be removed at appropriate times.  When, I can’t imagine.

Instead, you plan to photograph the murals and use the reproductions at another location along with the “fuller story” of Columbus’s arrival. Would Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and David Chase allow Italian American activists like me to splice a “fuller” and opposing version onto their “art” for the viewing audience?  If the label “art” can protect offensive films, surely 19th Century paintings commissioned by your Church deserve the same defense.

In closing, I would like to offer you the input of our Italic Institute as you produce a “fuller version” of 1492.  Please find enclosed brochures on the subject which summarize our extensive research on this momentous period.


John Mancini, Executive Director,  Italic Institute of America

5 thoughts on “When Art Offends”

  1. Thank you, John, for calling this sad situation out. It’s bad enough that it happened, but happening at an institution as prestigious and forward-looking as Notre Dame. Perhaps their reputation is not as well deserved as it is. It would have been nice if the university put the issue in front of the whole student body. My guess is the majority of the students would have voted for the right action, which would leave the murals as is.

  2. Thank God we have a spokesperson like you to give the rebuttal opinion to all the defamation our shared Western culture has to endure in these times of “diversity”. That word, it seems, is only applicable to a protected class and way of thinking. Traditional values, Judeo-Christian philosophies, and a reliance on personal responsibilities are denigrated by the prevailing media-government-educational institutions that previously helped lift our forebears into the middle class and beyond.

  3. Here we go again – the attack on a man who’s spirit is a symbol of the reason why western civilization has been such an influential culture for the past two thousand years. It may seem off topic, but I was recently listening to an Italian American singer-songwriter named Jim Croce. His music is a testament to the Italian spirit and Western spirit – wanting to be a professional musician someday but having to work at a car wash for now to support your wife and children. It’s that idealism that has driven the impeccable developments of western civilization for so many years. It is the reason why we celebrate Columbus Day, since it is a symbol of that spirit, and it is the reason why Italian Americans were able to survive in a harsh and hostile New World that continues to bash them for just about everything relating to our culture, traditions, and ethnicity.

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