Should art ever be burned?
“Scaffold,” the controversial sculpture in the new Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, will soon be set ablaze — the final step in a plan to dismantle the piece. Modeled partly on the 1862 hangings of 38 Dakota men, the artwork exploits that traumatic history, American Indian leaders say.
The sculpture’s destruction, which began Friday, is the result of an extraordinary agreement by Dakota tribal elders, artist Sam Durant and the Walker Art Center, which purchased and planned to showcase the piece.
The burning will be ceremonial, a Dakota tradition aimed at healing. Many Dakota elders believe that torching the timbers will bring finality to the dark history stirred by the sculpture, said Janice Bad Moccasin, a Dakota prayer leader and elder.
“The fires help us to release negative energy and acts placed upon us,” she said. If the sculpture were dismantled and placed in storage, that energy would remain, she added. “We are ceremoniously releasing the spirit of that entire event.”
Still, the decision also provokes questions and concerns, with some Minnesotans citing other moments in history when art was destroyed.
“Burning books, burning art — that just to me has a real negative connotation,” said Steve Wallace, a digital strategist in Golden Valley who joined the social media debate on the controversy. He pointed to “The Fighter of the Spirit,” a bronze sculpture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which Nazis nearly melted down. “We’ve got an ugly history in this world with how we deal with things we don’t like.”
After learning that children played on “Scaffold” when it was installed in Germany in 2012, Wallace came to believe that the sculpture should be removed, he said. “While I think it totally appropriate to take it down ... burning it, I don’t know what kind of statement that makes.”
But some voices in the art world are applauding the sculpture’s destruction.
Several art critics across the country said they were pleased to hear that the Dakota elders’ wishes were granted, and that Durant and the Walker recognized their error in not consulting Indian communities. “This is how discourse should work,” said Aruna D’Souza, a writer for 4Columns.org, an arts criticism website. Mary Louise Schumacher, an art critic with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, declared: “Let it burn.”
To many Indians and their allies, the scaffold is not art at all, but rather an appropriation of their painful past by a white artist with no personal connection to the Dakota. Signs hanging on the fence outside of the garden, where groups protested and prayed, read: “Our genocide is not your art.” “Execution is not art.” “Relatives of the Dakota live here.”
Durant meant for the sculpture to tour the world, “igniting” discussions about the effects of white supremacy. Based in Los Angeles, Durant came to Minneapolis last week to meet with Dakota elders, endorsing their request to dismantle and burn the sculpture. He ceded intellectual property rights to the Dakota people, including the copyright and blueprint.
Facing starvation, a number of Dakota took up arms in 1862 after being forced onto reservations and cheated out of money they were owed. The six-week U.S.-Dakota War cost the lives of an estimated 600 white settlers and soldiers, and 100 Dakota warriors. The piece is based on gallows used in seven U.S.-sanctioned hangings, including the 1862 executions of the 38 Dakota men, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The piece was never made with a specific location in mind. But Durant said that if he had been aware of the sculpture’s placement on former Dakota land, he would not have included the gallows from Mankato.
The Walker’s executive director, Olga Viso, called the museum’s process “flawed” and expressed remorse that “we were not sufficiently aware about the implications of [the sculpture’s] placement and the pain this would elicit.” In response to questions Friday about burning the sculpture, Walker officials said in a statement it “will support the Dakota community’s decision.”
Destroying artwork in this way is “remarkable,” said Prof. Jane Blocker, chair of the Art History Department at the University of Minnesota. Public art is prone to controversy, she said, and sometimes protests end with a work’s removal. In 1989, after a high-profile trial, federal workers cut and carried off an obtrusive sculpture called “Tilted Arc” from its home in Federal Plaza in New York City, against artist Richard Serra’s wishes. But more often, removal happens quietly: a museum will simply put a work into storage, said Blocker, who teaches a course on the history of U.S. art controversies.
But Durant and the Walker’s willingness to publicly dismantle and even burn the sculpture is unusual, she said. “It’s not simply a matter of, let’s burn it to destroy it. But let’s make the burning of it a thing.”
It was important that the four Dakota communities in Minnesota come together to ensure that the sculpture be taken down and never again be publicly displayed, said Robert Larsen, president of the Lower Sioux Indian Community.
But there’s less consensus on the ceremony and burning of the wood, said Larsen, who is also chairman of the state’s Indian Affairs Council. Such a ceremony “doesn’t make sense to me personally,” because the scaffold was a replica, not the actual piece used against Dakota people, he said. “To me, ceremony is a personal thing, not to be a public spectacle.”
Rather than burning the wood, Larsen would prefer to see the parts used to “build something positive,” he added.
But other Dakota leaders want to hold the ceremony near Fort Snelling, a place of spiritual importance, as a way of reclaiming the land, said Bad Moccasin. The Dakota people have regarded that site as sacred for hundreds of years. But it was also where 1,600 Dakota people were imprisoned after the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, where hundreds of men, women and children died from malnutrition and disease.
“Our elders tell us that Fort Snelling is Bdote, which means ‘where the two waters come together,’ ” she said. “That is where our genesis started and that’s where our genocide happened.”
Bad Moccasin then began reciting what sounded like prayer: “We’re still here. We stand on the prayers of our ancestors and today we remember them. Yes, our hearts might be sad but we will gather strength and move forward in love and compassion amongst ourselves to hold each other up today.”