Tuesday, July 31, 2012

About the Ag murals

In 1956, George Beattie was commissioned to create a series of mural paintings to decorate the lower and upper lobbies of the new building for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, across the street from the state capitol. Understanding that he was working in two significant art traditions—history painting and public works on walls—Beattie  fashioned eight images: four for the lower lobby imagining the history of agriculture in Georgia and four for the upper lobby showing modern agriculture.

Image: detail, Beattie, Truck Farm, 1956.

The four images not currently on display depict modern agriculture with a truck farm, a farmers’ market, the veterinary laboratory of the Department of Agriculture, and a farmer and his county extension agent working on soil conservation techniques. Those paintings show the profound influence of the prevailing sentiments in favor of scientific agriculture. Willard Range, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, wrote at the time:

“For with industrialization and urbanization came urban markets that have made dairying, truck gardening, and livestock production profitable; and with them came mechanization, electricity, an alert interest in education, and the application of science to agriculture.” — A Century of Georgia Agriculture, 1850–1950 (University of Georgia Press, 1954)
Beattie’s history murals for the lower lobby appear relatively progressive for the segregation era in a public building near the capitol of a southern state, especially when compared with Professor Range’s own apologia, which calls the years prior to the Civil War the “Golden Age” of “King Cotton” agriculture and ignores all the basic evils of slavery.

His murals present an idealized view of agriculture in the pre–European contact life of American Indians, in the role of James Edward Oglethorpe in founding the colony of Georgia, in the labor of enslaved persons on a sugar plantation, and in their work on an antebellum cotton farm. Beattie idealizes and makes heroic, based upon traditions within Euro-American visual culture, the black and American Indian figures in his paintings. Yet, he makes very specific choices about what to exclude from his history murals. He elects not to depict the horrors—the poor conditions, beatings, dislocations of families, and the like—inflicted on enslaved persons. He also ignores tenant farming, sharecropping, and the neo-slavery of using (mostly black) convict laborers in agriculture in the years after  Reconstruction and in his own time.

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