David Yaffe-Bellany

The students eating breakfast in the Calhoun College dining hall on Friday morning were not gathered there to witness the removal of a widely loathed work of 19th-century portraiture. They were focused more on oatmeal and coffee than on the vexed history of race at Yale.

But at about 10:50 a.m., Calhoun Master Julia Adams entered the dining hall, trailed by two men with a ladder and some bubble wrap, art technicians trained to haul priceless paintings from place to place. They had come to take down the glowering portrait of outspoken slavery advocate John C. Calhoun that had hung on the back wall since the 1930s.

The two technicians — dispatched by the Yale University Art Gallery to carry out the painting’s removal — set up a ladder, and carefully lowered the portrait from its position above the dining hall fireplace. There was scattered applause from the nearly two dozen students finishing breakfast. A photograph of the painting’s removal was promptly posted to the popular Facebook group Overheard at Yale. It all happened in less than 10 minutes. The speed with which the painting came down, Adams said, took her by surprise.

The two men laid the portrait facedown on one of the long tables at the front of the dining hall. They looped white tape around the canvas, then covered it with a couple of layers of plastic and bubble wrap. The painting suddenly looked more like a sizable delivery of cold cuts than one of the focal points of a polarizing debate about racial justice on campus. It was, at least for a moment, just an object — a not-particularly imposing, not-particularly remarkable hunk of paint and wood and metal.

One of the lessons of the racial unrest that has rocked campus over the last four months lies in precisely this disconnect — the chasm between the seeming banality of names and objects and the intense trauma they elicit. The painting in the dining hall, as well as two other portraits of Calhoun that hung in the master’s house, did not come down simply because, as many students complained, the paintings were visually unappealing. The troubling power of those portraits lay in what their very presence seemed to signify: a long-standing disregard for the visceral discomfort the images provoked in some corners of the college community.

At dinner that night, a handful of students pointed to the blank space on the wall, noticing for the first time that John C. Calhoun would scowl no more. They were pleased, for the most part. One said the hall had gained an atmosphere of comfort and renewal, that the removal of the painting felt more like an act of creation than the tearing down of an ugly symbol.

The inside of the dining hall was still dark and gloomy. Outside it was still bitterly cold.

But above the dining hall hearth, a portrait-sized rectangle of decorative paneling now lies empty. For many in the college, the profound silence of that blank wooden backdrop will produce its own kind of warmth and light.

  • theburren

    Come on, YDN. You call this reporting? Not a single quote, not even a paraphrase. This is a personal essay, not reporting in any meaningful sense. That this made it through the editing process like this should reflect poorly upon the organization.

    • Goldie ’08

      The last line sounds like its straight out of “Bart’s People”

  • Guy

    “The intense trauma they elicit.” What utter nonsense. Such is the bubble in which the privileged, pampered Yalie elite live. “Trauma,” from a portrait. What nauseating nonsense.

    • Goldie ’08

      Ghostbusters 2

  • Guy

    Why the bubble wrap, and the technicians from the Art Gallery? Why bother? If this portrait is so loathed, so traumatizing, why not merely bring it to the middle of Cross Campus and burn it? Why save it? What is there to save?

    At least burning it will change history, making John Calhoun completely disappear, and make the delicate snowflakes that comprise the Yale undergrad student body feel “safe.”

    • ldffly

      Why stop with burning in Cross Campus? As Stalin did with images of comrades who suffered liquidation, any pictures of areas within Calhoun College which included Calhoun’s portraits must have his portraits replaced by images of some other work of art.

  • Nancy Morris

    It’s fairly obvious what should replace these paintings: Gothenburg-based graffiti and mural artist Carolina Falkholt should be commissioned to paint site-specific vaginas where the scowling visage of John C. Calhoun once presided.

    Falkholt is no stranger to vaginas. Apart from presumably having one herself, they feature quite frequently in her work. For example, her intricate vagina painting already adorning a Gothenburg streetscape (with ovaries to boot), is attached to this comment. There is simply no better way to signal Yale’s determination to stamp out any remaining traces of its culture of rape and patriarchy and elimination of microaggressions of all kinds, and nothing could better capture the enlightened current sentiments of Yale undergraduates.

    Further, such commissions would come at a critical point in Falkholt’s career, providing essential support. The placement of her latest vagina (an image is also attached to this comment) — in a school whose students range in age from 13 to 15 — has sparked concern that the painting’s setting was “inappropriate.” Incredibly, the municipal head of children, youth and cultural affairs in Nyköping, Sweden announced that local authorities had decided to paint over the artwork.

    Predictably and with good reason, some questioned the sanity of those who found the mural offensive, and news that the mural was to be covered was shared extensively on social media. On Carolina Falkholt’s Facebook page, her fans sent her notes of support. “Isn’t art supposed to stir emotion?” wrote one, while others said her work had contributed to an important dialogue. Surely there was never a truer word written.

    Nyköping municipality ultimately backed off. The school’s principal added his voice to the debate, saying he would like to keep Falkholt’s work. Harke Steenbergen, who will run the school, said he personally liked the art and “its message”.
    “I see many pedagogic advantages to having her art in the school,” he told the Goteborgs-Posten newspaper.”

    I should say so! But the situation remains unresolved and volatile!

    Who could quibble with “the message” of a nice, juicy, smiling vagina hanging on that dining hall wall? Talk about stirring emotions!

    • ldffly

      Please don’t give the Corporation any ideas.

    • Phil Ostrand

      This is satire… right?

      • Nancy Morris

        O, has the march of the politically correct and the increasingly crowded progressive agendas now reached the point where it is impossible to distinguish satire from vaulting vision? Are you perhaps having a bit of difficulty understanding why plastering paintings of vaginas in streets and on the walls of junior high schools (and Calhoun’s dining hall) are acts of feminist empowerment, where plastering images of vaginas on the center folds of magazines are hideous examples of pornographic female objectification?

        How dare you!?

  • Loog Moog

    This is SO soft on white privilege ! Why not BAN white people from colleges entirely ? That would learn them…