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“There is no art for art’s sake. There are no, and cannot be “free” artists, writers, poets, dramatists, directors or journalists, standing above the society. Nobody needs them.” Josef Stalin, 1946
There has been some criticism recently of the decision to include a cast of a portrait bust of Josef Stalin in the exhibition Their Finest Hour: Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin and the End of World War II, currently on exhibition in the Daura Gallery at Lynchburg College. It should be noted that the exhibition is the culmination of a semester-long project of 13 Lynchburg College museum studies students under the direction of Barbara Rothermel, assistant professor of museum studies and director of the Daura Gallery. This exhibition was not planned, developed, designed, or installed at the instigation or behest of any other parties.
There are those who believe it is unethical to “honor” Josef Stalin by placing him on a pedestal next to the revered Churchill and Roosevelt. They believe Stalin’s contributions should be represented with a plaque or sign. But we are not honoring Stalin’s political stance, ethics, or rule by terror, but rather his involvement in World War II in the Allied victory.
As an institution of higher learning, Lynchburg College prides itself on making critical thinking a key component in the education of its students, including those who decided to curate the exhibition. Their Finest Hour is an historical and educational exhibition that examines the “Big Three” Allied leaders and how they worked together to defeat the Axis powers and end World War II. The three leaders of the Allied nations are displayed in this historical context to show their nation’s involvement. History does not deny that Stalin ruthlessly murdered millions of his own people, nor do the curators of the exhibition. His actions are explicitly condemned in the exhibition text. Rather, we are acknowledging that Stalin was one of the “Big Three” and are, therefore, presenting him within this historic context. Not accepting that Stalin partnered with Roosevelt and Churchill, and met with them at the Tehran and Yalta Conferences, is a false representation of history.
We, the student curators of Their Finest Hour worked long and hard in planning and assembling this exhibition. Every detail was carefully and strategically considered. If we had thought, after painstaking research, that Stalin was an unnecessary counterpart to the other Allied leaders, then his bust would not have been displayed. That being said, the point of our exhibition is to educate our fellow College students and visitors on the relationships between the three Allied leaders whose efforts brought an end to World War II. Not two, but all three, were integral to this context and none is emphasized or given more or less importance than the other. The portrait busts, accompanied by historic artifacts and a photographic timeline, do not memorialize the death and destruction caused by Stalin, but commemorate the efforts of each of the Allied leaders, without whom the War could never have been won. It is important to recognize that the concept of the exhibition is much more complex than just displaying the bust of Josef Stalin. Acknowledgement of all three leaders on a level field allows the exhibition to delve into the true significance of “The Big Three.”
This exhibition does not seek to glorify Stalin, nor does it try to deny any atrocities he committed. Their Finest Hour seeks only to tell the history of “The Big Three” and their alliance during World War II. Whether people want to admit this or not, Stalin is a significant part of World War II history. The exhibition does not put any of the men on the metaphorical “pedestal.” Although, technically, all three portrait busts are on pedestals, this is merely a device upon which to stand them.
We understood as a class that we might receive negative feedback for including Stalin in the exhibition, but we believe we did a great job in portraying “The Big Three” – Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin – within the context of the Allied nations and the planning of Operation Overlord. The exhibition speaks for itself.
Historian George Trevelyan once remarked, “Let the science and research of the historian find the fact and let art make clear its significance.” In Soviet Russia, as in other totalitarian countries, the government controlled all artistic organizations. All forms of artistic experimentation were condemned as a sign of decadent Western influence. The state proclaimed the arts to be its ideological weapon and created a system of control over art with strict criteria of what kind of art society needs. All deviations from the state’s demands, either in form or in content, were strictly forbidden and the violators prosecuted. It is our job to remember our history, to discuss it, analyze it, and interpret it in accordance with the principles of freedom of speech. As an institution of learning and growth, this exhibition has proposed several important questions. The class has gone above and beyond to show the history of the “Big Three” during World War II, without omitting information just because people do not want to remember the facts. We should never ignore, cover up, or try to change history because we do not agree with it.
LC students who signed this letter: Laura Albrecht ’13 of Belvedere, N.J.; Elizabeth Burton ’12 of Whaleyville, Md.; Carley Dobson ’13 of Salisbury, Md.; John Griemsman ’13 of Ruther Glen, Va.; Nicole Hargett ’11 of Hampton, Va.; Mandie Middleton ’13 of Nokesville, Va.; Ellie Rapp ’11 of Vienna, Va.; David Satchell ’12 of Hampton, Va.; Christopher Spoden ’12 of Marshall, Va.; James Thornhill III ’12 of Madison Heights, Va.; Sarah Turner ’12 of Lynchburg, Va.; Justin Underwood ’12 of Middleburg, Va.’ and Jessica Wilson ’13 of San Antonio, Texas.