Thoughts on the Rothenstein Mural

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In recent days the so-called Rothenstein Mural, which dominates the Senate Room at the University of Southampton, has become the subject of renewed controversy. The immediate cause was an ill-advised tweet by the president of the Student Union to the effect that she would like to paint over it. Reading the image through the lens of her own feminist and anti-colonialist politics, she was clearly angered by a historical representation of academia that contains only white men, and thus collides with her commitment to building an inclusive, diverse university in the here and now.

Unfortunately for her, however, the mural is not just any old arcane historical artefact, a tedious representation of the academic culture of a bygone age that is now past its sell-by date. Rather, it is a fascinating, complicated memorial to British university students killed in the First World War. It was painted by the distinguished artist Sir William Rothenstein in 1916 and, eventually, found its way to the University of Southampton. In suggesting that it should be painted over the president thus unwittingly pressed on a neuralgic point in British memory culture – a culture that trumpets the value of freedom but is characterised by much intolerance– with all the predictable consequences.

She was pilloried in the tabloid media, particularly by the organs of the nationalist Right. She was lectured on social media about the meanings of both the mural and the First World War by (mostly male) interlocutors whose ignorance was often, to put it no more strongly than this, more than a match for hers. A petition was started that called for her resignation as Student Union president. The University of Southampton put out a formal statement distancing itself from her remarks and stating what ‘the university community’ (that most fictional of entities) really thinks about the mural. The president was forced to issue a fulsome apology, and has doubtless learned a lesson.

Yet if the president made her point very badly, she nonetheless has a point. At the very least, she put her finger on an issue that should be treated as more than merely a problem of PR in the intelligent thinking culture of a university. For the historical, political, ethical and emotional logics that coalesce and collide in such a controversy are in essence the same that produced the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in Oxford a couple of years ago, and cognate disputes at Yale, Cape Town and elsewhere around the same time. What, such controversies force us to ask, does one do with works of art or pieces of material culture that are freighted with ideologies that are no longer – or should no longer be – our own?

The white, male scholars depicted in the Rothenstein mural that offended the president are white and male because scholars in British universities at the time were overwhelmingly, if not completely, white and male too. But this tells us only that British universities, like most other public institutions of the time, were deeply implicated in, and constitutive of, the patriarchal and colonialist mindsets of the era, mindsets that did much to call forth the war itself. Similarly, the mural commemorates academic victims of the war because it was painted for academics – just as railway stations often contain memorials to railway men killed in the war, for example, and just, indeed, as village memorials provided a focal point for mourning the local dead. All such memorials reflect the presence of multiple, overlapping, intimate emotional communities mourning in a manner that made sense to them: the emotional logics that governed them produced a commemorative idiom that was, perhaps inevitably, highly self-centered.

And yet, cumulatively and collectively, such memorials create and sustain the fiction of a war in which only white people appear to have been killed. They sanction a colonialist habit of mind that refuses to acknowledge the fact that large numbers of non-white people were killed in the war too. The same points can be made with equal force about gender. The Rothenstein Mural can hardly be held accountable for all of that in isolation. The memory culture of which it is but a tiny constituent part most certainly can.

The political and cultural work that the mural undertakes is not, after all, performed on its own but as part of a wider discourse. As such, the mural provides as good a starting point as any for a highly necessary, but largely absent, critical conversation about contemporary British memory culture in relation to the First World War. What is frustrating, however, is the seeming inability of British conversations about such monuments – which are awkward, and do jar – to move beyond crudely polemical demands that they be taken down or the dull-witted and equally crude insistence that to do so would be a denial of history. A university, in particular, should be capable of sustaining a more thoughtful, differentiated conversation about such objects, the learning opportunity in which goes beyond the lesson that one should never antagonise the boulevard press or the provincial nationalism to which it panders.

We might start by acknowledging openly that there is an awkwardness that cleaves to this mural, especially as it sits in the central governing space of the university and thus has a particular symbolic function. This does not necessarily mean that it should be covered over or taken down. Others within ‘the university community’ will doubtless take a different view, and honourably so. It does, however, mean that a more thoughtful response is needed, one that goes beyond repeating the pieties of the contemporary commemorative idiom. Other countries have developed far more sophisticated discussions about such awkward artefacts, and there is much that we could learn. Above all, in a university we should take up this opportunity for argument, criticism, and controversy – as long, note well, as it is informed – rather than seek to close it down. To repeat: the president of the Student Union made her point very badly indeed. But the issues of substance are there.