In Minnesota, the Walker Art Center is taking down an outdoor art installation because a Native American tribe was offended by it. It’s not only taking it down, it’s going to burn the thing, which has been exhibited in the US and Europe since its creation in 2013:
“Scaffold” was to be one of the new pieces added to the Walker’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden during its multimillion-dollar renovation. Conceived as a commentary on capital punishment by the artist Sam Durant, the sculpture comprises elements of seven different hangings in U.S. history.
But one of those events — the execution of 38 Dakota men following the U.S.-Dakota war in 1862 — remains a subject of special pain in Minnesota. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The large, boxlike frame of “Scaffold” recalls the gallows erected in Mankato, Minn., for the hangings a century and a half ago.
“The wood will be removed and taken to the Fort Snelling area, because of the historical significance of this site to the Dakota Oyate, where they will ceremonially burn the wood,” the center added.
The statement also noted that Durrant, the “Scaffold” artist, has “committed to never create the Dakota gallows again. He commits to transferring the intellectual property rights of this work to the Dakota Oyate.”
Unbelievable. It’s hard for me to see the artistic merit in the thing — it’s nothing more than a scaffolding for a hanging, erected here as a political statement — but that is beside the point. The artist’s intent was to protest capital punishment by memorializing seven different hangings. The action by the Dakota protesters goes beyond simply objecting to a work of art that they find offensive. What they’ve done here is to successfully intimidated a major museum and an artist into taking down and destroying a work of art that was created in sympathy with the Dakotas’ suffering.
This is reminiscent of the current controversy at New York’s Whitney Museum, in which a white artist painted a portrait of Emmitt Till’s open casket at his funeral. Black protesters have demanded that the museum take down the painting because the artist is white. Fortunately, the Whitney’s directors and the artist in question have more fortitude than their Minnesota counterparts. Here’s a New York Times story comparing the two incidents. Excerpts:
Both works, made by artists who are white, recall historical acts of racial violence and have been viewed by many as painful and insensitive to communities that have suffered directly from those injustices.
Central to both cases are issues of cultural appropriation and artistic freedom. Should white artists, no matter how well intentioned, represent harrowing stories that are not their own to tell? Conversely, should any subject matter be off-limits to artists because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or other life experiences?
What does it mean to say that any story is not an artist’s to tell? Says who? How would art be possible if woke hecklers had a veto?
What the Walker and artist Sam Durant have done sets a dangerous precedent for artistic freedom. It is particularly sad, even infuriating, to see an artist agree to have his own work ritually burned because it offended some people. Reminds me of the old wisecrack about a liberal being somebody too open-minded to take his own side in a fight.
Seriously, what kind of artist agrees to let other people tell him what he can and cannot create?
UPDATE: Thanks to reader Dennis Sanders for tipping me off to this story.