TOPEKA, Kan. - The elections are over and all too quickly the 2013 legislative session will convene in Topeka. The Capitol has been in the midst of renovations but one iconic image remains to greet a new year and new visitors to the Capitol: John Steuart Curry's mural of abolitionist John Brown.
America has a long history of religious zealots embracing a political cause but Kansas may be unique in vividly paying homage to a law breaking, fire breathing, gun toting abolitionist. Curry's mural is riveting and yet chilling. Artistically, he has captured the out of control intensity of the era known as "bleeding Kansas", but also how the righteousness of one man has too often shaped and warped American politics.
Curry terrifyingly shows the face of religious fanaticism infecting the soul of John Brown. His eyes are ablaze with God-like wrath, and like a giant Moses parting the red sea, his outstretched arms form a cross symbolizing his own crucifixion for the sins of others. He is the zealot gone mad, convinced he will be the one to lead the nation to destruction, but ultimately rebirth and the promise land. In his left hand, John Brown holds the word of God (the Bible) while in his right, he grips a rifle aptly nicknamed the Beecher Bible.
Did Curry paint an Ode to Fanaticism or was he symbolically revealing the dangers of what happens when one man uses violence to achieve his goals? I was unaware of the controversy surrounding this famous mural until I was given a booklet on the building of the Capitol which reviewed the debate over Curry's depiction of John Brown. The Kansas Council of Women were unhappy stating: "Rather than revealing a law-abiding, progressive state, the artist has emphasized the freaks in its history-the tornadoes, and John Brown, who did not follow legal procedure..."
I have to agree with the ladies on several points. First, it's embarrassing to have a crazy uncle like that splashed up on the wall for legions of strangers to view and conclude that Kansans must be mutants who produce more than their fair share of fanatics. And, Brown wasn't even a native Kansan but joined up with his sons later and then resorted to violence when he could not politically change the world around him. For men like Brown, the art of compromise, the ability to reason and develop some workable plan to transition slaves to freedom, was in many respects a far more difficult task than just starting a war.
Second, why didn't Curry paint a mural of the women of Kansas who were determined to have a seat at the table of government? Why not a mural dedicated to the long battle for Woman's Suffrage in Kansas? The famous suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, stumped the state trying to win full voting rights for women in 1867. Kansas women continued to fight for the vote and amazingly prevailed in 1912. Kansas became the 8th state in the Union to pass full suffrage for women before the 19th Amendment granted that right to all women of America. Now that would make a great mural!
My ultimate unease with Curry's mural in the Capitol building instead of in a museum comes down to one simple reason. In such an important government building where lawmaking is the cornerstone of a free and democratic society, the mural seems to glorify a person whose mark on Kansas was due to violence. Regardless of the noble cause to abolish slavery, Brown was a murderer. Imagine if other state capitols such as Springfield, Illinois included a mural prominently depicting under the dome a scene of Al Capone shooting a tommy gun into the air in his belief that the feds could not control a man's sacred right to make a living.
Curry defended his amazing mural by stating he wanted to tell the story of Kansas, warts and all. I applaud that effort but he sends the wrong message by memorializing a religious fanatic. Brown killed five Kansas men in cold blood. He led his own sons and others to their deaths in attempting to raid the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry to gain access to weapons and start a war in Virginia to end slavery. His actions were treasonous.
While other famous abolitionists of the period viewed Brown as a martyr, in truth he was a man unwilling to honor the democratic process of debating, voting, organizing and protesting to effect change. No society can remain stable or strong if individuals believe God supports their right to disregard the democratic process and use violence to get what they want.
Most troubling to me is that while no one is arguing to sanitize the history of Kansas, such a prominent mural of religious extremists in the Capitol is a painful reminder that lawmakers and the governor have too frequently listened to the voices of religious zealotry in Kansas when it comes to governing. There is no denying how the collusion between religion and politics in Kansas continues to make a mockery of good government.
I am afraid Curry's mural has become a proud, symbolic painting for the religious zealots in Kansas to march forward in their righteousness like old John Brown. We desperately need a mural in Topeka that glorifies reason over superstition and secular government over a Christian Theocracy.