When it comes to the Anton Gag painting “Attack on New Ulm,” which was hanging in the Minnesota State Capitol before being stored during the building’s renovation, George Glotzbach admits he has “skin in the game.”
He is a former member of the board of the Brown County Historical Society and his wife, Sharon, is president of the Wanda Gag House Association, which is charged with preserving and interpreting the Gag family’s work. (Wanda Gag was the daughter of Anton Gag.) On top of that, both of the Glotzbachs had ancestors who were “inside the barricades” during the battle with Dakota Indians in 1862 and nearly killed.
The painting is one of several being re-evaluated by a subcommittee to determine whether it is still appropriate to be displayed at the Capitol when the renovation is complete. Some works, particularly those involving American Indians, have been deemed by some as historically biased or as demeaning. This fall, members of a subcommittee to study the art work have been conducting “public input” meetings around the state to see what Minnesotans think. Glotzbach attended one of those meetings recently in Mankato.
“I have an agenda on this just like the Indians have an agenda,” said Glotzbach. “This thing hit us like a ton of bricks when we found out that the ‘Attack on New Ulm’ painting was on the hit list. I see this as nothing more and nothing less than censorship, so I’m every bit as biased as the presenters were in Mankato.”
Cathy Klima, communications officer for the restoration project, said seven of the 10 public input meetings have been completed, including one Tuesday night at Hamline University. Klima said the subcommittee is synthesizing the information gathered and will make a preliminary report to the Legislature in January. An online questionnaire about the issue has drawn 1,300 responses.
If you think getting a public consensus on controversial art seems like an impossible task, you are not alone.
“Art is subjective,” said Klima. “The subcommittee is very aware of that. We haven’t even gotten to the question of ‘what is art’ yet, or what kind of art is appropriate for a public space.”
Paul Anderson, a retired Minnesota Supreme Court justice, has participated in a few of the input sessions and often starts them with a joke: “The past, the present and the future went into a bar. It was tense.”
But while he has heard “a wide spectrum of opinions” on the art, “I’m very pleased there hasn’t been more tension.”
Several of the paintings, including the “Treaty of Traverse des Sioux,” have drawn complaints that they glorify moments that were actually moments when Indians were being exploited or tricked.
One member of the subcommittee, Gwen Westerman, a professor at Minnesota State University Mankato, has criticized the New Ulm painting as historically incorrect because it shows Indians shirtless, and because their faces are indistinguishable.
But “Attack on New Ulm” has stirred people to action, including the Gag group, a couple of prominent historians and a group called Family and Friends of Dakota Uprising Victims. They maintain that Gag interviewed and painted Dakota Indians and had a better perspective than anyone living now.
On a blog about the Dakota War, John LaBatte, an expert on the war who has both white and Dakota ancestors, said the depictions are accurate according to eyewitness accounts, and he wrote: “The Dakota War of 1862 was one of the most important events in Minnesota history. This event needs to be represented in the State Capitol artwork.”
Don Heinrich Tolzmann, who served for many years on the faculty of the University of Cincinnati and remains a frequent speaker on the topic of the Dakota War, has written to the subcommittee and says the painting is indeed accurate. He stresses that each art work is an interpretation and someone could take issue with Michelangelo’s “David” or DaVinci’s “Last Supper,” too.
“History may be offensive to those who do not know it and reject it, and rather than come to terms with it, are now trying to censor it,” Tolzmann said. “Also, art is not a photograph, and should not be judged as if it were.”
He has what I consider a logical compromise on this particular painting: Use the art as a teaching moment.
“The works of art should definitely remain in place, but can certainly be provided with a guide to them,” Tolzmann wrote to the subcommittee. “They could explain that this is how artists saw the war and what they based their depictions on, in the case of Gag for example, how his work was based on firsthand sources. These should be nonjudgmental comments, and then provide visitors with references to works on the topic.”
Glotzbach fears the worst, that this public consensus-building on art will allow people not qualified in history or art to be judge, and that only the most benign works will remain.
But Anderson said such worries are exaggerated.
“We’re not interested in rewriting history, that’s not our agenda,” Anderson said. “Here’s our challenge: Understanding there’s a better interpretation and a broader interpretation of Minnesota history, and deciding where to put art in the Capitol to better be able to do that.”