Garrett — Senator Wants to 'Promote Some Diversity' in Congressional Artwork

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August 13, 2003
Senator Wants to ‘Promote Some Diversity’ in Congressional Artwork
WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 — There is not much to distinguish the painting of Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce from the countless other official portraits that line the corridors of the United States Capitol. The senator, who represented Mississippi in the late 1800’s, is dressed in a dark, three-piece suit, a watch chain of gold stretched across his ample belly. His face bears a look of calm seriousness, befitting a man of power.
There is, however, one thing that sets this picture apart: Senator Bruce is black.
In a gallery populated almost exclusively by images of white men, the portrait of Bruce, who was born into slavery and became the first African-American to serve a full Senate term, can be a startling sight. But its position — just outside the entrance to the visitors’ seats overlooking the Senate chamber, in view of the thousands of schoolchildren and tourists who pass by each year — is no accident.
Bruce’s new prominence is the result of a quiet campaign by Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, who is seeking to correct what he and other lawmakers regard as a longstanding injustice: a dearth of images of women and members of minorities in one of the nation’s most visited buildings. Mr. Dodd, a second-generation senator, practically grew up in the Capitol and said he has long wanted to “promote some diversity” in its displays.
As the senior Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee — a position that gives him a seat on the Senate Commission on Art — he now has the power to do it.
“This has been a place that has been dominated by white males, but that’s not the only story,” Mr. Dodd said. “It seemed to me that as I looked at the faces of kids coming through here, the face of America is very different. I want them to be able to see somebody who represents who they are.”
Yet by dabbling in a realm where art and politics collide, Mr. Dodd has entered the culture wars, a treacherous place for any politician. Some commentators, like Vivien Green Fryd, a professor of art history at Vanderbilt University, call his effort long overdue. Others, like Roger Kimball, an art critic and author, call it political correctness, an exercise in historical hypocrisy.
“It’s part of the feminist and civil rights agenda to rewrite history so that the people who had been excluded are now included,” said Professor Fryd, a feminist and the author of “Art and Empire: The Politics of Ethnicity in the U.S. Capitol, 1815-1860” (Yale University Press, 1992). “I think it’s very, very important that those kinds of works should be added.”
Mr. Kimball, who is managing editor of The New Criterion, a monthly magazine, rails against such thinking. “This is to let political correctness triumph over accurate history,” he said. “The truth of the matter is that with very few exceptions the people who framed the political documents that founded this country were white men. That’s just historical fact.”
Of the estimated 800 works in the Capitol’s collection, only 21 include depictions of African-Americans — including a portraits of a half-dozen House members, a bronze bust of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and some paintings of historic scenes that include sharecroppers and men working on a cotton gin.
Women fare slightly better: there are 28 works depicting them. Of these, three feature Pocahantas, including one of her baptism in which, Professor Fryd complains, this Indian princess appears “transformed, whitened and Europeanized.”
Although women and members of minorities have long served in Congress, certain rules can make it difficult to memorialize them in art. Senators, for instance, cannot appear in portraits until 21 years after they have left Congress, with the exception of the majority and minority leaders. “It’s the idea of the test of time,” said Diane Skvarla, the Senate curator.
Still, some lawmakers are determined to bring the Capitol’s art into the current century. Last month Rep. Danny K. Davis, Democrat of Illinois, introduced legislation requiring the architect of the Capitol to commission a sculpture of women from ethnic minorities. The Capitol’s Statuary Hall collection of statues donated by the states includes six women, but all are white, a situation that a spokesman for Mr. Davis called “tragic and unacceptable.”
A similar bill died last year in committee. But in 1997 a group of lawmakers and advocates for women won a related battle, persuading Congress to move a sculpture of three suffragists — Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony — from the Crypt, a circular room on the first floor of the Capitol, up one flight to the Rotunda, a far grander slice of real estate.
Critics said that the statue, completed in 1920, was too heavy and ugly. It features the busts of the three women emerging from a seven-ton block of marble, and to say that it draws unfavorable reviews would be an understatement. Around the Capitol the work is known derisively as “three women in a tub.” To Alan Fern, former director of the National Portrait Gallery, it simply looks unfinished.
“I always thought it was kind of funny,” he said.
Funny or not, the suffragists became a rallying point for women like Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine. “It really talks about the values of our nation and the premium that we place on the role of women in our society,” she said. “Every time I see that statue, I smile, because I think that’s where they belong.”
Yet the Capitol is extremely tight on space, so when the women moved into the Rotunda, a man had to be expelled. He was Roger Williams, a proponent of religious freedom and the founder of Rhode Island. His likeness is now in a far less conspicuous spot, a thought that makes Mr. Kimball seethe.
In his view, “art and politics don’t make good bedfellows.” But in the Capitol, where politics is an art, art and politics have coexisted, however painfully, for the better part of two centuries. “It isn’t an art museum,” said Barbara Wolanin, the curator of the Capitol. “It’s a political institution that also has art.”
The result is a collection that is uneven at best, having been influenced throughout the years by the whims of the people who populate the place, not to mention their constituents.
“When you’re a museum director, you and your board and your curators pretty much have control over what happens,” Mr. Fern said. “But in the Capitol you have political decisions to be made, you have the chairman whose wife saw something.”
In the 1950’s for instance American Indians began complaining about two statues on the Capitol’s East Facade, works they said depicted Indians in a negative light. When the facade was renovated, other statues were refurbished; the Indians quietly disappeared.
“Should these statues remain off the U.S. Capitol building, or should they still be there as a historical record of the ways in which we stereotype Native Americans?” Professor Fryd asked. “I think that by removing the statues you are erasing our history, and that is more dangerous than letting those images stay.”
Similarly, in 1987 Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Colorado Republican and American Indian who was then a freshman member of the House, objected to a century-old painting called “Death Whoop” that showed an Indian holding a bloody knife, having scalped a white man who was laying at his feet.
The painting, in a committee room in the Longworth House Office Building, was summarily put into storage, only to be resurrected in 1995 after Mr. Campbell moved over to the Senate. At the time a Congressional aide told The Washington Post that the new committee chairman, Representative Don Young, Republican of Alaska, “felt that the collection should be intact,” and that Mr. Young’s wife, a native Alaskan, agreed.
After the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, Bob Dole of Kansas, then Republican leader of the Senate, decided Congress should commemorate the crew with a portrait in the Brumidi Corridors, the vaulted, ornately decorated hallways painted in the 1800’s by the Italian muralist Constantino Brumidi. The corridors are replete with scrolling vines and allegorical scenes inspired by Roman paintings. But Brumidi left open a series of blank ovals, and it is in one of these that the portrait of the Challenger crew appears, hopelessly anachronistic.
Even the Statue of Freedom, the classical bronze female figure draped in flowing robes that sits atop the Capitol Dome, was the product of a political dispute. In 1855 Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War who later became president of the Confederacy, objected to the sculptor’s plans to include a liberty cap, the symbol of freed slaves. Instead the statue wears a helmet.
Mr. Dodd is undeterred by this history. In addition to the portrait of Senator Bruce, painted by an African-American artist, Simmie Knox, and unveiled in 2001, he also pressed for a painting of Senator Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine Republican who was the first woman elected to both houses of Congress. The artist is Ronald Frontin, who, not coincidentally, painted the official portrait of Senator Snowe’s husband, John R. McKernan Jr., a former governor of Maine.
The Smith portrait is not finished, and there is no word yet on where it will go. But one thing is certain: it will not hang down the hallway from the portrait of Senator Bruce.
That space is already occupied by the portrait of another Mississippian, Senator James Eastland, which wasthe result of a deal Mr. Dodd brokered with Senator Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican, Rules Committee chairman and former Senate leader. That arrangement, negotiated when Democrats still controlled the Senate and Mr. Dodd ran the committee, was this: Mr. Lott would back Smith and Bruce if Mr. Dodd backed Eastland.
Mr. Dodd said he got the better deal: two paintings for one. But that is the way Washington works, he said: “I was the chairman.”