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.
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.”