If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a proud liberal and as they used to say back in the day, I will happily let my “freak flag” fly. But I’m not a dogmatic liberal. I think our side gets a little too precious about things from time to time. Free speech in this country has slowly and troublingly come under assault from the left in this country. When UC Berkley is burning because Ann Coulter is being brought to campus and when we have to worry about speaking the name of the President of the United States without issuing a trigger warning, then I think we have to re-evaluate where we’re going as a country and as a people. In my opinion, free speech is the most important right guaranteed to us as Americans by the Constitution. And that means everyone gets a voice, no matter how vile, ridiculous, or ignorant that voice may be. You can’t put parameters on free speech because eventually those parameters will affect the things you want to say.
But I also believe that free speech is a great power and to quote one of the wisest American Philosophers of the 20th Century, Stan Lee, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
So, it is with real regret and dismay that I must say that the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has been egregiously derelict in meeting that responsibility.
The Walker’s outdoor sculpture garden has been under a major expansion for the last year or so. Minnesotans are rightfully very proud of the sculpture garden, and of the Walker itself, which has long enjoyed a reputation for finely curated collections of contemporary art that provoke thought and emotion. Some of the finest modern art and artists in the world are represented in the Walker’s galleries.
But the decision making process that was used by Executive Director Olga Viso, her curatorial staff, and the Walker’s Board of Trustees upon the installation of Sam Durant’s Scaffold in the expanded sculpture garden must be questioned. The message it conveys can be easily misconstrued from the artist’s intent, and the piece raises the specter of cultural appropriation.
Scaffold, according to Viso, is “constructed of wood and steel, [layering] together the forms of seven historical gallows that were used in US state-sanctioned executions by hanging…” Among the sculpture’s components are pieces that came from gallows used to execute Saddam Hussein in 2006 and abolitionist John Brown in 1859.
More relevant to Minnesota, the sculpture also uses wood from, and the form is suggestive of, the gallows used to execute 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato following the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, commonly known as the “Dakota Uprising.” This event was, and remains, the largest mass execution in American History.
Scaffold is meant to question the United States’ history of capital punishment, but in Minnesota it evokes greater feelings than just that, and the placement of Durant’s piece in the Walker Sculpture Garden is completely inappropriate.
First, we must consider that the trials of the Dakota 38 are seen in history’s eye as a sham. These prisoners of war were convicted of rape and murder of civilians, capital crimes to be sure. But the proceedings were not explained to the vast majority of the prisoners and the quality of their legal representation was questionable at best. More than 150 years later, this execution remains a highly controversial subject among the Native American people around the country, but especially here in Minnesota.
The Walker’s Sculpture Garden is the highest profile collection of public art in the state, if not the Midwest. The signature piece, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry, has become emblematic of the Twin Cities, and Minnesota, itself. A high profile addition to the garden is Katharina Fristch’s Hahn/Cock, which is a twenty-five foot high sculpture of a blue rooster. These well-publicized pieces send a tacit message that the sculpture garden is a place of whimsy. Since it opened in the mid-80s, the sculpture garden has always been seen as a place to gather, and to relax. It’s a recreational spot full of green space, with a beautiful little pond and a spectacular view of the Minneapolis skyline. The placement of Scaffold there feels like a celebration of the Dakota 38 execution. It feels like a celebration of our country oppressing its own citizens. We would not create a replica of the World War II Japanese/American internment camps. We would not place a statue of a fire hose turned on African Americans during the Civil Rights movement in the sculpture garden. Truly, we wouldn’t even put a replica of an electric chair or a gas chamber in such a place.
Understandably, the Native American population is quite upset. Among the protest signs hung outside the installation are messages like “Not your story.” According to the Star Tribune, some Native American activists have gone so far as to label Durant a “cultural genocide opportunist.”
I personally will not question the idea of Durant’s sculpture itself, as I believe there is a place in our society for thought provoking art like this. Nor will I question the presence of the sculpture at the Walker, or in the State of Minnesota. Scaffold raises an uncomfortable topic, but one that should be discussed. It brings a history lesson that has been sorely lacking in most schools. But, frankly, my opinion shouldn’t matter as much as those of the Native American Community. It is not difficult to empathize with the cruel insult this structure causes them. And one can easily understand the anger that comes to many people when a white man, as is Durant and as am I, turns a profit by co-opting such a painful event in Native American history.
In an open letter apologizing for the pain that the presence of this sculpture has caused, Viso admits that neither she, nor anyone connected with the Walker consulted with Native American groups or representatives. While the apology is appropriate, it does not mitigate the fact that she along with the many other people responsible for putting Scaffold in the sculpture garden are guilty of gross insensitivity, gross ignorance and gross negligence.
I consider art to be among the best expressions of free speech. I am always bothered, and often outraged, when someone like Robert Mapplethorpe or Marcel Duchamp or Kristen Visbal comes under fire. Art is a necessary part of society because it can challenge our beliefs and our norms. In a free society, we must constantly question authority. Art is an excellent means of delivering those questions.
But putting a piece like Scaffold in a beloved area like the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is an insensitive action that sends the wrong messages. It simply does not belong there and it should be removed in short order.
Rich Larson is a freelance writer in Minnesota and budding publishing entrepreneur. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org