Some 68 years ago the NYC Art Commission rejected a mural planned by noted radical socialist painter-photographer Ben Shahn for the new Rikers Penitentiary. Protesters rallied, petitions circulated, editorialists waxed eloquent. That cause celebre is revisited in part of a Shahn exhibition by Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum. These excerpted texts and reduced images from the exhibition's catalogue and web site tell and illustrate some of that controversy.
For more, visit Harvard University Art Museums' Ben Shahn at Harvard. To order, visit Yale University Press and use 0300083157 as the ISBN search term.
NYCHS appreciates being permitted to post these exhibition materials excerpts. Harvard College President and Fellows retain the copyright and reserve all the rights thereunder.
Lou Block & Ben Shahn Memorandum to LaGuardia on Murals for Rikers Island Penitentiary
. . . . At the beginning of research and after conversations with
Commissioner [Austin H.] MacCormick, Dean [George W] Kirchwey, Mr.
[William B.] Cox, [executive secretary] of Osborne Association, and Warden
[Lewis E.] Lawes, we abandoned the idea of dealing with the history of
penology. We felt that the murals would have more force if they treated
only with prisons of our own time, both of an unenlightened nature and
those which have been administered by individuals who believe in the need
for penal reform.
The corridor for which these murals are intended is about 100 feet long by 18 feet wide and the available space for painting above a tiled dado is about 12 feet. As you enter the corridor facing toward the chapel entrance, the left hand wall deals with those prisons which are still administered under methods which leave very little to which the inmate can look forward. In the sketches which you have, this wall begins with a cell block indicating the filing cabinet nature of this type of institution. This permits no possible chance for individual treatment or rehabilitation, of the prisoner. It is also intended to indicate the overcrowded unsanitary conditions which exist in these prisons.
. . . The succeeding panels on this wall carry through the different types of penal institutions and methods which have not encountered the influence of reform. The chain gangs of the South, institutions in which no work is provided for the inmates, and a survey of similarly unenlightened institutions are portrayed. . .to help you identify the various panels, the following list gives you the order in which they will appear:
The wall over the chapel entrance contains a symbolic figure of Thomas Mott Osborne pointing the way toward proper prison methods. . . The long right hand wall contains the positive activities of institutions which are administered under more enlightened methods. The introduction into prisons of schools for illiterates, facilities for teaching trades with well equipped shops and civilian instructors, outdoor recreation, and work under healthful conditions are shown on this wall. . . .
The wall over the exit door is to contain an apotheosis of both walls. Existing conditions such as the difficulties facing a man released from prison; unemployment; the hostility of the public to an ex-convict; and similar circumstances make any summation hard to arrive at.
What we would like to suggest is the possibility of a full realization of reform direction as it affects a convict both in prison and after his release, reacceptance without stigma by society, the opportunity for employment, and a general readjustment calculated to prevent a return to crime. This wall is still in a tentative state, however, and we are hoping in additional talks with Commissioner MacCormick to develop this theme to its most logical form.
We would also like to point out that these murals are not directed to the inmates of the penitentiary but, in accordance with the plan of Commissioner MacCormick, are intended to visualize for visitors, especially visiting penologists and students of sociology, the problems which have been set forth in this series of murals.
[NOTE: The full text can be found in the Ben Shahn's New York: The Photography of Modern Times Exhibition Catalogue from which the above was excerpted. NYCHS appreciates being permitted to post these exhibition materials excerpts. Harvard College President and Fellows retain the copyright and reserve all the rights thereunder. For more, including the larger original digital versions -- between 100Kb and 600Kb -- of the images shown here much reduced, visit Harvard University Art Museums' Ben Shahn at Harvard. To order, visit Yale University Press and use 0300083157 as the ISBN search term.]
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