The administration at Note Dame College has announced it will cover up painted murals of Christopher Columbus. It seems the college received a petition from 300 of its students who are offended by the murals, which have been there since 1884.
Painted by Italian artist Luigi Gregori, the murals commemorate the saga of 1492 when the New World was joined to the Old by a courageous navigator from Genoa. Depicted in the murals are Taino natives of Hispaniola. To some, the natives are depicted as too servile; to others the sight of Columbus is insulting. For far too many people, he has wrongly become the personification of genocide and everything evil in Western Civilization.
I shall not use this space 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 three-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 become 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 all so, 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. The Notre Dame murals are none of these – they tell 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. 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 when some Iranian clerics visited Rome – so as not to offend. This is a sort of Solomonic solution to avoid destroying the murals. Notre Dame claims the fabric covers will be removed at appropriate times. When, I can’t imagine.