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Newly Woke Artist Agrees To Burn Own Work

In Minnesota, the Walker Art Center is taking down an outdoor art installation [1]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. [2] 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.

103 Comments (Open | Close)

103 Comments To "Newly Woke Artist Agrees To Burn Own Work"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 4, 2017 @ 2:23 pm

I listened on NPR today to a young Korean man explain how a renowned chef’s improvised change to a Korean dish left him feeling attacked.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The young Korean man should see a therapist for his obsessive disorder. The chef should continue to experiment with the entire range offered by human culture.

#2 Comment By Native Daughter On June 4, 2017 @ 4:18 pm

To RD: Indians were here first. Why do the cultural norms of an outside group apply to us? The entire concept of “artist” as constructed by the dominant culture is foreign to Dakota (and in general Native) norms, where “art” is supposed to serve the larger community. So I guess as conquered people we are just supposed to put up with it, right?

[NFR: No, and don’t play the victim card. It won’t work on me. As a citizen of a free country, you are supposed to put up with it. So am I. So are we all. Of course you have the right to protest (so do I; so do we all). Nobody has the right to tell any of us what we can and cannot think about a work of art. But the idea that a museum cannot exhibit a work of art because it offends you, and indeed that the artist has to destroy that work of art because it offends you — well, that is deeply troubling. There is a difference between expressing anger or offense in the face of an artwork, and expecting it to be removed from public display and burned. Where do we draw the line? Who gets to say which works of art are allowed to be displayed in public? By what right? (Oh, and for the record, I think the “sculpture” in question was ugly, and that it was in poor taste to display it in a sculpture garden.) — RD]

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 5, 2017 @ 9:17 am

Indians were here first. Why do the cultural norms of an outside group apply to us? The entire concept of “artist” as constructed by the dominant culture is foreign to Dakota (and in general Native) norms, where “art” is supposed to serve the larger community.

When I was growing up, the history of the U.S. was generally presented as a heroic pageant, including the one-sided battle of virtue against the savage Indians. Around 1965-1975, some healthy questions were raised about this paradigm, and of course it was self-servingly false. Westward expansion was in many ways a brutal, bloody, genocide. That wasn’t all it was, but it was a good part of the story.

So we got informative and well-researched books like Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, and even earlier Mari Sandoz’s Cheyenne Autumn. But, as time went by, we learned many other things as well. The cultures of the Indian nations or tribes (either one applies in various ways and at various times) were indeed brutal, bloody and ruthless, along with many better qualities. The Commanche ran a ruthless empire and took slaves. Notably, they took slaves without regard to race, creed or color, although they generally killed Apaches rather than enslave them. Lakota had good reason to fear and hate Pawnee, Blackfeet had good reason to fear and hate Lakota. And don’t even talk about Lakota and Ojibwa.

The culture of the 18th and 19th century tribes was greatly changed by contact with Europeans, including the Iroquois genocide of the Huron and the Illini, both occasioned by rivalries in the fur trade, the Lakota being chased out of the forests and onto the plains by the Ojibwa, who had gotten guns from the French, but then the Lakota acquired horses, which wouldn’t have been there if not for earlier Spanish incursions…

Also, it seems the only reason that Europeans made significant incursions in the first place is that diseases like smallpox and measles wiped out 90 percent of a native population that might otherwise have been much more formidable, and, a large part of the surviving native gene pool inter-married with Europeans, who are among their descendants. (Just like, genetically a majority of British Anglo-Saxons are still Celtic, the conquered culture).

Even facile statements about “Dakota norms” are dubious, because in fact from 1492 until 2017, native “norms” and culture have changed repeatedly and enormously. Nobody really has authority to speak of a uniform “culture.” Come to think of it, there was the beginning of a feudal aristocracy forming around Cahokia, although it didn’t last. Read the archaeology of that site in Illinois.

So when someone talks about “native norms” they are giving a personal opinion of what they and a handful of people they know would like to think… like any people anywhere in the world who had, or wants to artificially reclaim, a national myth.

In any event, any person of native descent, partially or wholly (and there aren’t many fullbloods of any so-called “race” left in America) is free to express their opinion. But they are not free to demand that anyone’s work, artistic or otherwise, be subject to their veto because “we have a different way of looking at things.” Speak your different way, create art that reflects your different way… sooner of later, some of it will be auctioned by Sotheby’s for millions of dollars, and native artists are wise enough now to hold onto the legal rights so they get the money.