Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding the placement of Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” in the renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which was set to open Saturday.
With that date now pushed back to June 10, and work underway to dismantle and burn Durant’s piece, conversation has turned from the Walker’s new giant blue chicken to questions of white privilege, cultural appropriation and racism. Here’s what you need to know.
So, what’s the big deal?
“Scaffold,” first exhibited in Europe in 2012, is based on the designs of seven gallows used in U.S. government-sanctioned executions, including the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato after the U.S.-Dakota War.
Walker Art Center and Durant made what the artist called a “miscalculation” when they failed to consult the region’s Dakota community. In the Dakota’s eyes, the piece is not a work of art, but instead an act of retraumatization to a people for whom the past 500 years has been wrought with systemic genocide.
The piece brings up questions about art in the age of cultural appropriation, a time wherein all artists — and white artists in particular — must reassess their creativity, especially if it involves the culture of oppressed peoples or marginalized communities. People are highly sensitive to the continued prevalence of white people among our society’s cultural gatekeepers, including at the Walker. Whether or not you call it “white supremacy,” it tends to devalue and undermine both the lives and experiences of people of color and native/indigenous peoples.
Ultimately, Durant (who is white) took responsibility for what went wrong. He apologized for “the trauma and suffering” his work triggered and admitted that while his work involved extensive research, he had not actually met with any of the people whose histories he invoked. Big mistake.
How did we get to this place where white male artists are hailed as cultural arbiters?
Think back to works hailed as “great” within the canon of Western art history. Édouard Manet’s 1865 painting “Olympia” depicts a nude prostitute, her skin pallid and her body worn, with a black female servant who is offering her flowers. Exploiting the bodies of women and people of color has been a part of Western art history for as long as the white male artist has been hailed as a “genius.” So basically, forever!
Have other artists been called out for causing pain to marginalized people and communities?
Durant’s sculpture echoes the recent art world controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket,” depicting the disfigured corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black child murdered by a Mississippi lynch mob in 1955. Till’s murder was one of the harbingers of the civil rights movement.
The painting is now on view at the Whitney Biennial in New York. Black artists wrote an open letter to the Whitney asking that it be removed, that a white woman had no right to make this painting, and that it was a gross use of her own white privilege.
For her part, Schutz also questioned her decision to paint Till, especially in this heightened political climate, as she explained to the New Yorker earlier this year: “It’s a real event, and it’s violence. But it has to be tender, and also about how it’s been for his mother. I don’t know, I’m trying. I’m talking too much about it.”
The painting was polarizing, but ultimately it ended up staying in the Whitney Biennial, where it remains on view through June 11. In Durant’s case, the artist and the Walker acquiesced to demand from the Dakota communities and their allies that the sculpture be taken down, and the wood used in the piece is expected to be burned in a ceremony.
How did Olga Viso discover “Scaffold” and what did she love about it?
The Walker’s executive director first saw the work in 2012 at Documenta, an art fair in Germany. Before the controversy erupted little more than a week ago, she recalled that encounter. The work was situated in a park, she said: “People were all over it and climbing it. [I thought] it would be great to have something that people are actually encouraged to climb and touch.”
More seriously, she was struck by its power as a “meditative piece and a memorial that looks at the issue of capital punishment in the U.S.” — one that asks the question: “How do you memorialize contentious moments in our history that are perhaps invisible?”
Wait, I thought that the Mankato executions of 38 Dakota men in 1862 was actually a very visible part of Minnesota history.
And that’s exactly where the Walker went wrong. It assumed that the audience for the sculpture would be in a position of privilege, far removed from the executions (wrong!), and that they would be interested in discussing this issue in a more abstract way (nope!).
This piece would have been right in the middle of the Sculpture Garden, a place where children — native or otherwise — are encouraged to play and hang out. It is a free activity, something that parents take their kids to, and that school groups tour.
Oh man, I thought art was about “freedom of expression.” Is this censorship?
This is not censorship. It’s true that the piece incited anger and frustration, but the Walker and Durant chose to open the dialogue that led to its removal — a decision that was agreed upon with the assistance of a neutral mediator. “Censorship” implies the piece was taken down against the wishes of the artist. In the transition, Durant also ceded all intellectual property rights to the Dakota, including the copyright to the story and the structure.
I’m a white artist and I am scared of being called a cultural appropriator. What should I do now?
First, cry it out, because white privilege is just *so hard* to accept. (Sarcasm here!) Then, run to your computer RIGHT NOW and google “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.
Also, here’s a thought to reflect on, from Minneapolis artist Shana Kaplow: “I am seeing how white artists and institutions try to process racism and oppressor patterns by depicting the suffering of those who are victimized as a way to say, ‘look how badly we have treated _____ group. Isn’t it terrible?’ But what really happens as a result is a violence, a re-injury, as well as the exploitation of earlier suffering. It isn’t, in fact an undoing of it at all. It isn’t a ‘step toward healing’ through ‘dialogue.’
“Most whites need to do much more internal work before we can even truly dialogue with marginalized communities. Because it’s more about listening to what they have to say about their experience, and letting our hearts break for the suffering caused, really notice our hearts, and surrender needing to defend or explain or intellectualize it.”
Has there been work by a Native artist that respectfully discusses the Mankato executions?
Years ago, in fact, the Walker commissioned a site-specific exhibition by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, an artist who is Southern Cheyenne. “Building Minnesota” ran during the spring of 1990 along a stretch of West River Parkway in downtown Minneapolis.
Forty aluminum signs were dug into the ground, each for a Dakota citizen who was executed in 1862 and 1865 by orders of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. The signs were installed in the old milling district that used to be the heart of commerce in Minneapolis.
“The Native tribes of the Upper Midwest were not allowed the sovereignty and dignity to provide for their own economic livelihood through hunting and gathering,” the artist wrote. “As the forty signs are offered along the water called the Mississippi, which remains a highway for American business, we seek not only to extract profit from our surroundings. We also wish to honor the life-giving force of the waters that have truly preserved all of us from the beginning, and to offer respect to the tortured spirits of 1862 and 1865 that may have sought refuge and renewal through the original purity that is water.”
Staff writer Jenna Ross contributed reporting.