Editorial: Herbst's decision 'paints' town in bad light

A fascinating quality about art is that we often breathe our own life into it. We draw on our own experiences and opinions to give it meaning. That’s certainly happened here in Trumbull recently, but with a disturbing outcome.

The Great Minds Collection remains on display at Trumbull Library, noticeably incomplete. Despite legal opinions, back-and-forths between attorneys and compelling arguments from those for and against the art in question, the whole thing, quite simply, feels wrong.

Whether you agree with the politics, the religion or the causes of seven historical figures who share a canvas in a stylized piece or artwork titled “Women of Purpose” by Robin Morris, they changed the world. What some hate about this painting is that these “great minds” — ­Mother Teresa, Abigail Adams, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Gloria Steinem, Betty Freidan, and Margaret Sanger — stand together, with a banner before them that reads “Onward We March.”

The central debate has focused on two women in particular: Mother Teresa, a beloved and revered Catholic missionary and pro-life activist, and Margaret Sanger, a woman whose sex and reproduction education efforts led to Planned Parenthood. They each stand at opposite ends of the portrait, which we assume is no accident.

We respect the strong emotions that having these two women, artistically rendered and occupying the same canvas, can cause for those of faith or those who find themselves solidly on one side of the abortion issue.

What we can’t support is a demand by some to take the painting down. We also won’t support First Selectman Tim Herbst’s subsequent order to have it removed from display, even if it’s temporary.

Herbst’s decision came after letters of opposition were sent to the town and the Rev. Brian Gannon of St. Theresa Parish forwarded a message from an organization in India, alleging a potential copyright infringement on Mother Teresa’s image. Herbst has also cited other legal concerns surrounding the entire collection.

We give the first selectman and town attorneys the benefit of the doubt that there are some legal concerns here. The owner of the collection, Richard Resnick, has said he is more than willing to get it settled.

So, why demand that the library director take this painting down so quickly? Why give an impression, fair or not, that the town is bowing to a special interest group? Why send out a photo of the painting and post it on the town website, if you are worried about copyright infringement? Why was this the only painting in the collection taken down if we have legal concerns about the collection overall? We haven’t heard satisfying answers to these questions, which leaves us and others guessing.

Those offended by this painting, or inspired or confused about it, deserve to speak on their feelings and tell others what they see when they look at it. What better place to do that than the library, which is in the business of ideas? But, for that to happen, you have to be able to see the painting.

Interestingly, the painting description, written by Jane Resnick, doesn’t mention the differences or the potential controversy, but looks for similarities among these extraordinary human beings. “None of these goals were achieved without setbacks and struggles," the painting says of the women. "And still, worldwide, more women lack these rights than have them. These various causes cannot be compared, but together they represent the greatest of human endeavors, to make the world better, fairer, safer and more human humane place."

As we said, you use your own experiences to interpret artwork. In looking at this painting, one thought that comes to mind this week is that one of its subjects, Mother Teresa, represents the good that religion can do, in transforming people and lives to change the world for the better. Unfortunately, an effort by any residents or leaders, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian or other, to stifle expression in a free society under a banner of faith represents, for us, some of the worst.