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Missouri Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Valinda Freed and an unidentified man writing on business cards while leaning on the Thomas Hart Benton mural (photo by Dave Marner, via Facebook)

There are many things one might do while inside a room whose walls are lined with a historic Thomas Hart Benton mural: admire the artwork, contemplate it, take selfies with it. One should not use it as a surface to lean on while writing. Especially if you’re a state lawmaker.

That is, unfortunately, just what the vice chairwoman of the Missouri Republican Party did last week. At a one-day veto session at the Missouri statehouse on Wednesday, Valinda Freed exchanged contact information with someone. The two wrote their pertinent information on business cards, as you do — except they leaned the business cards they were writing on against the epic 1936 Benton mural that covers the walls of the House Lounge. Editor and photojournalist Dave Marner caught the incident in a series of photos, Kansas City Star’s The Buzz reported, and a couple days later posted one of them on Facebook, with the caption:

Which Republican party leader thought it was a good idea to exchange phone numbers using a Thomas Hart Benton mural as the backboard for her pen work?

Needless to say, all hell broke loose: over 1,000 shares, a lot of angry comments (from scary emoji faces to “Republicans don’t believe in the arts”), and the post on The Buzz. The blog contacted Freed for a comment, and she said:

I offer my sincere apology for my completely unplanned and thoughtless act. The Thomas Hart Benton mural, and all the magnificent artwork in the Capitol, are state and national treasures.

Detail of Thomas Hart Benton’s “A Social History of the State of Missouri” (1935–36) (photo by @adivoleti/Instagram)

The 13-panel mural is, indeed, a national treasure. Titled “A Social History of the State of Missouri,” it was commissioned around the time that Benton moved back to his home state, Missouri, after living for a while in New York. He took nearly two years to complete it, traveling all around the state for research. Characteristically of Benton, the work is both celebratory and unflinching, incorporating legends of the state’s history, 235 portraits of everyday Missourians, as well as brutal scenes of slavery and images of infamous political boss Tom Pendergast — which unsurprisingly caused controversy when the piece was unveiled in 1937. In an interview more than three decades later, Benton reflected, “If I have any right to make judgments, I would say that the Missouri mural was my best work.”

Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

23 replies on “Politician Stupidly Leans on Thomas Hart Benton Mural to Take Notes”

    1. She “owned up” after she was creamed online. That’s like saying anything is ok as long as you say “sorry” after. The fact that they did this without even thinking is what’s wrong.

    1. Well, my dear, I’m a Republican who teaches art history, who adores the imagery of the 1930’s and who is a fiscal and moral conservative and a social liberal. So there! Please don’t make sweeping generalizations–I caution my students not to do that all the time…

      1. PS
        Never get close enough to a painting even to breathe on it!! Now, having said that, leaning or writing against Benton’s iconic work was stupid, but I don’t think any group or political party necessarily has a monopoly on stupidity. 😉

          1. Well, Johnny, I’m an old woman who has traveled the nation and the world. I’m also a pretty good judge of character. Believe me, stupidity reigns while true humble wisdom struggles to survive. Socrates said he was the smartest, wisest man in the world. At his trial, the examiners scoffed at his hubris. “How can you be so egregiously arrogant?” He replied, “Because all of you stupidly declare you know everything. I, on the other hand, seem to be the only one who realizes full well that I don’t know everything. That makes me wiser because I fully confess my ignorance.” ?

      2. How does ‘moral conservative’ and ‘social liberal’ work? I ask respectfully and sincerely. For example, do you approve of treating LGBT people as second-class citizens? What do you think of the current GOP and its pandering to the most extreme, or standing silent in the face of racism? Or consistently voting against women’s rights? I can’t ask these questions of the Republicans I know personally because they either say “Being gay is a sin and they should not have the same rights” and “women should know their God-ordained place,” or they pretend the GOP is actually the tolerant party.

        1. My vision of morality reflects what I believe to be the foundation of Christ’s teachings–and that of some other great spiritual leaders: the greatest moral principle is love. That translates as not an emotion but a behavior pattern composed of tolerance, acceptance of differences, turning the other cheek, forgiveness and a deep reverence for life. If we truly sought these permutations of love, we would have only a small fraction of the actions and reactions that create poverty, rage, violence, injustice, destruction, disrespect, disenfranchisement and disunity. If this were our world’s reality, we would not have so many financial burdens on governmental programs to try and remedy the ills created out of our our fundamental “immorality.” The U.S. might even be able to repair the infrastructure! ?

          1. I see those government programs as our collective action to do exactly what Jesus asked us to, in caring for the vulnerable, feeding the hungry, etc. I can’t imagine the Jesus I read about in the NT voting to make the rich richer while taking food from the mouths of hungry babies and seniors. If you’re waiting for the money grubbers at the top — the ones that support poverty (because it makes them richer), gun violence, injustice, and destruction and disunity (racism of the GOP) — to have moral makeovers and become Christ-like, then the poverty and hunger and injustice will never end.

            And I assume you’re aware of Trump’s views on immigrants, Carson’s on Muslims, Cruz’ on women, Jeb on the working poor — what strikes you as Christ-like about those? I know that they talk very loudly and constantly about being Christians, but I don’t see the actions corresponding. Where is the love? Or compassion? Or even basic human decency, in supporting the gun lobby, or discrimination against gay people? I agree with those who suggest that it is impossible to claim to be a Christian and support the Republican party as it has evolved to its current state, unless there’s another version of the OT out there, where Jesus is a warmonger, a racist, and all about the money.

          2. I don’t believe and never will that all Republicans are exclusively warmongers, racists and money monsters. I also do not believe that all sincerely committed Christians are Democrats. Morality cannot be politicized. I do know that Christ was a vehement rebel against the immorality, greed and violence against the political and religious hierarchies of his time. That’s why he lost his life. But he also said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” He was not an anarchist who encouraged destruction for the sake of moral reform. The change that positively transforms people’s attitudes comes from within not from the law. “You can’t legislate morality,” nor can you tear down the fiscal framework of a society to impose generosity and concern.

          3. You talk a lot in theoreticals (which I notice conservatives love to do, because it shields them from the real, concrete effects of their policies on actual human beings). Can you stop hiding behind nice rhetoric, and answer some specific questions?

            Would you say that the current Congress of Republicans aren’t warmongers, given their solid position for war with Iran despite a solution that apart from them, is universally acclaimed as a peaceful solution? Or what Bush and his supporters led this nation into — a war based on false premises with Iraq, that made billions for his cronies’ businesses? Who in the current Republican party has spoken out strongly against racism? Or for equality for women?

            Yes, you legislate morality when you make it illegal to kill, to steal, to exploit.

            The fiscal framework you refer to is apparently fine as long as it enriches exploiters, but not if it helps the needy? I don’t think you and I are referring to the same Jesus.

          4. Also would like to add about the concept of ‘legislating morality’: the majority (Christians, white people, men) would have been perfectly fine with discrimination and with unearned authority and privilege bestowed upon them, if not for the highest court in this land stopping them. The principles of freedom and equality were stated at our nation’s founding, but clearly did not include everyone. The basic rights of enslaved people and their descendants, the voting rights and equality of women, the equality of gay people never came from white straight men and their obedient women who decided to actually act like Christians. They were hard-won battles fought in the courts of the land.

            I remember asking a racist family member in Mississippi a question. He was the kind of person who considered himself a good church-going Christian, and who would, while driving and seeing a black person crossing the road, say, “Get out of my way, nigger, or I’ll run you over.” I asked him why he hated black people so much, and his answer was, “Because the government forced them on us.” My next question: “How long should they have waited for equal rights, for freedom from terrorism, so that you would be ready?” No answer.

            Yes, we absolutely do legislate morality. It is our living testimony to our moral principles.

          5. Final word: neither I nor my family have ever been racists, at least to my knowledge or in my presence. That covers a lot of individuals and a comparatively long period of time. Both Kentucky and Tennessee branches fought for the Union and one great-uncle, a high school principal in Appalachia was an outspoken abolitionist. Numerous relations have been Methodist clergy and rode the long wilderness tracks on weary farm horses to preach the Gospel and the doctrine of emancipation and equality. I marched with my students when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak and long after. None of these aforementioned individuals were coerced by law or peer pressure. On the contrary, Only their/our consciences and innate moral behavior motivated and prompted them. I taught many, many years in the inner city close to the projects. The student body and faculty were diverse and the mutual respect, and loving concern pervaded the huge old school. Many small personal miracles occurred over the decades, and lives dramatically changed.
            So farewell, fascinating conversation partner. Believe it or not, we agree from opposite sides of the aisle, as it were. You believe in legislative remedies, whereas I still have hope and faith that human beings of good will and a sincere, innate love of others and of justice can prevail under the influence of our “better angels.”
            Be well!

          6. Your creds from an earlier time are impeccable 🙂 but times have changed. If you are a Republican today, you may be a saintly and Christ-like individual, but you are also giving your tacit consent and support to a group that has come to stand for racism, inequality, injustice, violence, and the rapacious exploitation of the poor and vulnerable to enrich the Pharisees. If you can stand before the ballot and consider that the Republicans you hand power to are really acting according to the teachings of Jesus, the kindest thing I can say is that you are fooling yourself.

            “Call on God, but row away from the rocks.”

            “The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is that good people do nothing.”

            Judge Carlo Key, on leaving the GOP: “I cannot tolerate a political party that demeans Texans based on their sexual orientation, the color of their skin or their economic status. I will not be a member of a Party in which hate speech elevates candidates for higher office rather than disqualifying them. I cannot place my name on the ballot for a political party that is proud to destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of federal workers over the vain attempt to repeal a law that would provide health care to millions of people throughout our country.”

            Thanks, and good day.

  1. This is just beyond all belief. I am trying my best to imagine what kind of person would do this, but it’s as if they never learned anything about art, never went to an art gallery. Or is this an Onion piece?

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