Songs From the Stacks

Songs From the Stacks - Antioch College

By Scott Sanders, Archivist

Gilbert Wilson’s Controversial Mural

Inspiration for this installment comes from the second Tuesday in November: Election Day. While the nation voted for President of the United States and Ohio decided on State Issues 1 and 2, Antioch College held its first elections in years to regenerate Community Government. The College held this election in the East Gym, which holds the very coolest thing Antioch College owns: the Gilbert Wilson Mural. A long article in the May 1937 issue of Scribner’s magazine about the Indiana muralist likely placed him on the radar of the Antioch College Class of 1938 at a time when they were considering a class gift to their school. Perhaps they saw something Antiochian in an artist described as “impatient and peremptory in his attitude toward people, but [with] the straightforward and simple purposefulness and direction of a man who knows where he’s going and doesn’t understand why obstacles should stand in his way.” Wilson was further quoted in the piece as being especially interested in plying his trade at colleges, saying, “My intentions as a mural painter are to identify my work closely with education.” Seemingly to help the seniors make their decision, the article also included several photographs of the impressive murals he’d done for Woodrow Wilson Junior High in his native Terre Haute.

Mural by Gilbert Wilson at Antioch College
Gilbert Wilson’s East Gym mural as a whole; the three sections are titled, left to right, “Collapse,” “Man Emerges,” and “Order.” (Click to enlarge.)

Here, reprinted from the Antioch Alumni Bulletin, Gilbert explains his intentions for his mural and what it all means. Given that he never worked from preliminary sketches (according to the Scribner’s piece “he must face the wall directly before he can visualize his ideas”), and bristled at the possibility of his drafts being used for approval of his work or otherwise, he was probably none too happy to explain his unfinished art in print. At the time of publication, the mural was still a year away from dedication. Gilbert’s is the outlook of the social realist, a school of artistic thought very much in vogue in the 1930s, and best exemplified by the Mexican masters Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco, though a whole host of American artists made their reputations as social realists, among them Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Edwin Hopper, not to mention Wilson’s mentor, Eugene Savage. Where he differs from many of his contemporaries is his nearly apocalyptic vision of the world in which he lived, while the most popular of the social realists generally celebrated themes of progress already in progress.

Gilbert hangs much of his description on what he calls an “ancient proverb,” though “foolish is the man” does not appear in any of the abundant quotation resources held at Olive Kettering Library; stumbling across sayings called “old” that Mr. Bartlett found unfamiliar is probably not an infrequent occurrence. It is nonetheless a useful analogy for the relevance of his art. He certainly had a variety of reasons to think that humanity’s days on Earth were numbered in the late 1930s, that there was no time for us to be boasting of our beautiful bracelets, and he cites the rise of fascism in Europe as his primary evidence.

Mural by Gilbert Wilson at Antioch College
A full-color (but lower quality) photograph of the mural, with a streak of light obscuring part of the left panel. (Click to enlarge.)

Science was always key to his art, both for its capacity to create and destroy, and he lays out how the mural expresses simultaneously the fears and hopes he pins on science for the future. Perhaps the reference Gilbert makes to the Kettering Foundation comes from the initial plan to have the mural in the Science Building. The original Kettering Foundation was located in the Science Building and dedicated to research in photosynthesis. The location of the mural was changed to the East Gym over the head of the artist, largely due to protests lodged by a member of the science faculty who feared that a constant reminder of the social responsibility of scientists might offend the College’s most generous donor, Chair of the Board of Trustees Charles F. Kettering, who had built that building with over half a million of his own dollars. A campus controversy ensued, which must have gotten pretty heated given the reproving letter from Professor M. N. Chatterjee, an adherent to the nonviolent social action of Gandhi, that appeared in the June 1938 issue of The Antiochian saying that “active participants in the squabble should hang their heads for the petty, vicious bickering indulged in equally by both factions; passive and apathetic onlookers are to be condemned for their disinterest in an issue of such grave consequence to the community.” Kettering was later heard to remark that he had no trouble with the themes exhibited in the finished product.

Gilbert closes with a series of rhetorical questions indicative of his ultimate hope for the human race. He concludes with a poem that expresses that hope by Walt Whitman—incidentally, the inspiration for the bearded figure in the center panel. (The poem is actually entitled “Song of the Universal,” not Universe.)

From the Antioch Alumni Bulletin, May 1939:

Gilbert Wilson
Muralist Gilbert Brown Wilson (1907–1991)

The Murals in the Gym

Gilbert Wilson Gives the Philosophy which Guides his Painting

I have been asked to express here something of my philosophy of art, and to make some remarks relative to the mural. It so happens that I am one who believes that no kind of art—no painting, no literature, no play, no work of a creative nature—in our day can have validity except as it relates vitally to the social scene. And so, upon the premise that all art must relate vitally to the social scene, I have approached the painting of the mural in the Gymnasium here at Antioch.

I believe that the intense instability of the social condition of the world prohibits me from painting as artists before my time have painted, both as to technique and to subject matter. I cannot see the virtue of painting murals in a lasting medium on what is, figuratively speaking, a crumbling wall. I believe that we who find ourselves impelled to create in this present day are committed by the very nature of the times in which we live to employ our talents, not toward the creation of beauty, but rather toward a preparation—I might even go so far as to say—a preservation of the chance for beauty.

There is an ancient proverb that runs like this: “Foolish is the man who boasts of his beautiful bracelets, having lost both of his arms in war.” It is simply that this is a day when the primary concern is arms, not the bracelets we wear on them. I am taking the bracelets, of course, as a symbol of all culture, all human refinement, all the accomplishment which the human race can lay claim to, above and beyond a purely physical or animal existence.

What is culture;—what is refinement;—what is human intelligence in the face of a thing like Fascism? Its tendency is not only to destroy these aspects of man’s life but literally to destroy life itself. Fascism is to the social state what insanity is to individual personality. Its only expression is violence. Its ultimate end is annihilation. To identify Fascism with destructiveness we have but to look at its inextricable relationship to the war approaching in Europe. Without seeming to be too much of a “calamity howler,” may I ask, if it is preposterous to assume that our civilization may possibly be on the verge of destroying itself? Never in all history, before 1914, did we have a World war. Another World war is following only two decades later. Doesn’t the very implication of the word “World,” as a descriptive term for these wars, have possibly some significance as to the ominous seriousness in which present civilization finds itself?

Returning to the analogy of the “bracelets,” we might even say that it is a more serious question than the mere preservation of a man’s arms. It is virtually a question of saving the whole man.

That the world problem becomes infinitely complex when considered in its manifold ramifications, I grant you. It seems horribly impossible of solution. But this vast and staggering complexity does not alter the fundamental simplicity of the world problem when looked at in terms of Man and Nature.

Mankind, the world over, since the primitive ages, has had a common enemy; nature. All in all, the forces of Nature are so savage, so inalterably relentless, so hostile and utterly regardless of Man that it seems sheer suicide for the human species to ignore the fact that that it is only through collective effort that they can ever expect to subdue and order the elemental principles involved in the struggle to live. The very instinctive impulse which impelled primitive man to band together instead of foraging as separate individuals must and will continue to effect a union of the world’s peoples. This ultimate union we might well believe to be a natural consequence were it not frustrated by the various forces growing out of the competitive idea of survival. Competition to survive in an age as potentially plentiful as ours is as senseless as grunting compared to speech.

It is widely claimed that there is in Man’s nature an inherent disposition to be bad, to be hateful, to be cruel and destructive. I do not believe it! And that is one of the premises upon which I base my philosophy as a painter. I believe all of Man’s anti-social traits derive from the age-old attitude of competitive survival, which is nothing more, I suppose, than the “economic determinism” of Karl Marx. Put the economic system right and Man will be right. I believe that.

And this leads me to believe that we must come to some form of society in which world’s wealth is owned and shared equally--by all people of the earth. To continue with the belief that it is possible to maintain an individualistic attitude toward the struggle to live is to deny the simple validity of “Together we stand, divided we fall.” The world’s armaments might be taken as the epitome of the physical abuse of the physical sciences. This towering of armaments is inevitable in an economic system based upon a nationalistic competition for world markets. Nations are but individuals exercising an individualistic attitude toward survival.

In the mural, where I have sought to paint the collapse of modern civilization under capitalism, it is but a picture of what one artist feels is ahead if something is not done.

What to do? The most as I see it is this: It is the artist’s task to try to sift the world problem down to the simplest, most cogent terms. Then it is his take to paint something which will seek to remind us of the few basic and fundamental premises upon which a solution of the world’s problems rests, namely these: First, absolute equality of the two sexes; second, that all races are equal—that they must and will slowly merge into one greater entity which will be the consummation of them all; and third, that mankind must so order his society that machines will do the labor, leaving him free to expand the spiritual propensities of his nature. The world problem cannot very well be reduced to simpler terms than these; and these simple terms are essentially what the mural at Antioch shall attempt to set forth.

“Collapse,” the left panel of the mural.

In essence then, the mural shall endeavor to set forth both a warning and an ideal. In the first panel, I am trying to paint the epitome of COLLAPSE. It will be an effort to express as complete a statement of chaos and destruction as is possible with pigments. A mural, you know, should be something which cannot be expressed in any other way except form and color. In this first panel I am trying as an artist to sound the last note in the scale of human values, the very deepest of doomful depictions, the utter essence of finality so far as a defeated civilization under a machine age can be conceived.

In contrast to this, without sentimentality, or dreamy fanciful imagination, I have tried to state as simply as possible the social idea—the ordered world state. Whereas the COLLAPSE panel is constructed with sharp angles and an absence of horizontal and vertical lines, the panel called ORDER will be built on the geometrical form known as the circle. Around a circular table are grouped the different races of the world eating. Beneath is a machinery comprised chiefly of wheels to express again the circle. The machinery is placed at the bottom of the ORDER panel because we might assume that is where order belongs in the ideal society. (In the COLLAPSE panel the machinery is at the top.) In the upper part of the ORDER panel is a circular symbol embodying Photosynthesis.

Man Emerges
“Man Emerges,” the central panel of the mural.

While Antioch College is famous for its work in photosynthesis, as carried on by the Kettering Foundation it is not simply for that reason that it has been incorporated into the mural. I have used the idea of photosynthesis primarily because it so significantly ties up with a depiction of THE ORDERED SOCIETY. The implications of photosynthesis are so vast in the beneficent possibilities to be released for the human race, once the secret of chlorophyll is resolved, that it might almost be said to presuppose the socialization of that virtually unlimited source of power. And that is how I have expressed it in the mural.

In the central panel, there shall be an effort to state simply the absolute equality of the two sexes—that neither is superior to the other. And in this same pictorial statement shall be an emphasis (in contradiction to the idiotic ideologies underlying Fascism) of the absolute equality of the races, their eventual and inevitable blending into one color; likewise the ultimate expansion of the spiritual propensities inherent in the generic human being. In essence, the central panel will proclaim the true emergence of Man—something expressing the human being that will be possible once mankind is freed from the tragic insecurity and suffering attending his present state.

It is upon this assumption—idealistic indeed—that some such state of human perfection can be realizable once man has ordered his society.

“Order,” the right panel of the mural.

I believe it is the task of art to objectify and set forth these ideals.

An ordered society is undeniably one of the major goals of the human race. To the degree that it is achieved, we might suppose, to the extent that Man be allowed to take the next step in his long evolution up from the mud and slime out of which science tells us he began. When Man has ordered the economics of his physical existence, then—and then only—will he step forward and begin his spiritual evolution—a program as comparably vast, truly, as his physical evolution has been vast, And he will expand into an inconceivably wonderful state of being beyond any past or present estimation.

Would I be though mad if I say I see the people of the future communicating with each by means of what we now rather hoaxingly term mental telepathy? Mad if I see the eventual control of health and physiological functions so perfected and brought within the discipline of the mind that death will be unknown on the face of the earth? If I say I see men visiting the planets wresting them from unlivable temperatures and making them habitable? If I see these planets peopled and reached within the twinkling of an eye? Mad if I say I see the measureless measured? Infinity become finite? If I say I see the universe and eternity encompassed in the palm of a hand! Yes, I suppose it is madness. But in this madness, let me sing Walt Whitman’s Song of the Universe:

In this broad earth of ours;
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe in its central heart,
Nestles the seed perfection.

By every life a share of more or less,
None born but is born,
Conceal’d or unconceal’d
The seed is waiting.
. . . Give me, O God, to sing that thought,
Give me, give him or her I love
This quenchless faith,
In thy ensemble, whatever else withheld
Withhold not from us,
Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space,
Health, peace, salvation universal.

Is it a dream?
Nay but the lack of it the dream,
And failing it life’s lore and wealth a dream,
And all the world a dream.