Recently, the Walker Art Center placed a sculpture in the Sculpture Garden inspired by gallows, among them those used to hang Native Americans during the Minnesota Indian Wars. The outcry was predictable.
I have wanted to comment on this issue for some time, but have been reluctant to do so because of the vitriolic posts the issue has generated. I am not wanting to castigate anyone or shame anyone, but merely to generate some thoughtful discussion on art in general and this art in particular. The Walker has agreed to dismantle the sculpture.
Those who know me know that I am pretty much a First Amendment absolutist who supports the free exchange of ideas, believing that the best way to combat bad ideas is with good ideas. Shutting down discourse generally has the opposite effect.
Durant’s “Scaffold” is art; as much as Seranno’s “Piss Christ.” Both works were roundly condemned by those who were offended. The point is, however, that art is challenging at times and will cause us to think and consider. “Scaffold” causes us to consider the consequences of history and our use and misuse of capital punishment, and of our collective pogrom against those who are different than us (whoever ‘us’ is). I will not criticize Durant for his work as it does remind me and challenge me concerning our history. So too do the paintings in the Capitol that the Governor tried to suppress. Frankly, if one is offended by a work of art, the artist has probably succeeded in his task. Think about and consider why the offense, what it means to you, and how you might react to the same.
What I will criticize is its placement in the Sculpture Garden, a place of whimsy and recreation. “Scaffold” is out of place next to a giant cherry and blue rooster. There are appropriate places to display such a work, but the Sculpture Garden is not such a place, and the Walker’s management was wrong to place it there.
So, some might ask, “What about the Confederate Monuments, are they not art?” Probably, but they do not belong in public areas. It is okay to put them in some kind of museum if they are properly contextualized. For example, Robert E. Lee’s statue recently taken down in New Orleans could be in a museum with the following caption? “Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Virginia during the Civil War committed treason against the United States and violated his oath as an officer in the U.S. Army in order to lead an army in rebellion, the purpose of which was to defend and extend the institution of slavery.”