The Atlantic

A Contemporary Artist Is Helping Princeton Confront Its Ugly Past

A new sculpture project thoughtfully grapples with the school’s participation in slavery.
Source: Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum

These days, public sculptures often seem seem intertwined with historical regret. There’s the bronze Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia; the Roger Taney effigy outside the Maryland State House; the Confederate soldier in front of North Carolina’s Durham County Courthouse. This historical regret has inspired a rush to topple sculptures. But the feelings of remorse and shame have also stirred impassioned debate about the ways in which art ought to reflect America’s complex legacy: Who should embody the values of today? What distinguishes art from political propaganda? And which artists will fill the empty plinths?

Princeton University has one answer to these questions with a new public-art project that confronts the school’s participation in the nation’s early sins. On Monday, the university unveiled , by the African American artist Titus Kaphar. The sculpture is the conceptual core of a campus-wide initiative that begins this fall and aims to reconcile the university’s ties to slavery. The Princeton and Slavery Project’s website has of articles and primary documents about slavery and racism at Princeton, which was once jokingly as the “northernmost outpost of Southern culture.” There is perhaps no better-suited artist than Kaphar to help the school grapple with past review , who are “habitually … written out of grand historical narratives.”

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