A Tale of Two Sculptures

“Scaffold” and “Piss Christ” ignited similar fury, but reached different fates.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is regarded as one of the top art museums in the country. Earlier this year, the Walker acquired sculptures for its new multimillion dollar Minneapolis Sculpture Park. One of the acquired pieces was “Scaffold,” a striking work by a famous artist named Sam Durant. “Scaffold” is a recreation of a gallows, a hybrid design derived from seven real hangings in U.S. history. One of these hangings involved the mass execution of 38 Dakota Native Americans following the U.S.-Dakota war in 1862.

Protests over the inclusion of “Scaffold”s in the sculpture park erupted last week as local native groups claimed it was offensive due to its reference to the mass hangings. The controversy spread quickly, and last week it was announced that “Scaffold” would not only be dismantled, but possibly burned in a ritual ceremony. That’s right. This piece of fine art will be burned in a ritual ceremony.

“Scaffold” by Sam Durant

In 1987, an artist named Andres Serrano debuted a photograph titled “Immersion (Piss Christ)” at a gallery in Midtown Manhattan. It depicted a Jesus Christ figurine submerged in a yellow liquid that Serrano claimed was his own urine. It became a sensation, lauded by art critics and abhorred by religious Christians. In endured its own protests in its time, and was vandalized several times, once beyond repair. However, since “Piss Christ” is a photograph of a sculpture not a sculpture itself, it was easily resurrected, and today still makes the rounds of major galleries and exhibitions worldwide.

“Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano

What’s interesting here is the differing reactions of the protestors and establishments in their efforts to denigrate or defend the works. While some prominent Christians sought to have the the piece censored, others were more angry that it had been sponsored to the tune of $20,000 by the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts. Still others, like nun/art historian Wendy Beckett publicly approved of the piece, interpreting it as an successful illustration of “what we are doing to Christ.” The most serious critics of the piece were never identified. It was anonymous vandals who physically attacked it and ultimately destroyed it, despite gallerists’ efforts to protect it.

The destruction of “Scaffold,” on the other hand, was sponsored by the museum who had purchased the work, and approved by the artist himself. Here the Walker describes, in precise language that reads like something out of The Hunger Games, exactly how it will commit Seppuku on one of its most interesting (and I imagine expensive) acquisitions:

“The Walker Art Center agrees that it does not intend to construct this artwork again. Collectively the work will be dismantled during a ceremony beginning Friday, June 2 at 2 pm led by the Dakota Spiritual Leaders and Elders. It takes at least four days to remove the wood. It will be removed by a native construction company, and the wood will be placed in a fire pile near the remaining steel understructure with signage explaining the mutually agreed upon process until the wood is removed. This native construction company is donating their services, and in exchange the Walker has agreed to match that value to support travel for elders to the ceremony.”

Sam Durant himself offered a similar mea culpa, in which he swears that the work was created to fight against white supremacy, and thanks the Dakota nation for harassing him, because members of the white supremacist establishment need to be harassed. He writes: “My work was created with the idea of creating a zone of discomfort for whites, your protests have now created a zone of discomfort for me. In my attempt to raise awareness I have learned something profound and I thank you for that.”

The “Scaffold” controversy is only the latest in a string of uproars over liberal white artists trying to raise awareness about white supremacy via their art. In April, a painting of Emmett Till by a white artist was removed from the Whitney Biennial after an uproar criticizing it for “appropriating black culture and sensationalizing black deaths.” Just last week, a white artist withdrew from an art show in Pittsburgh after his painting of Tamir Rice was criticized as “white voyeurism.”

Art, particularly good art, has often pissed people off. “Piss Christ” is art doing what really good art is supposed to do, hold up a mirror to ourselves and make us see things differently. Never once did Serrano apologize for his work, and it would be silly for him to do so. It did exactly what it was designed to do.

There is thus an unprecedented strangeness to the current art establishment, which is manifesting an unsettling trend seems to be permeating culture everywhere. You don’t see Sam Durant standing up to the so-called establishment, as Serrano did, and saying “screw you, this is the whole point of my art!” Instead, he readily, eagerly agreed not just to let his work be censored, but to let it destroyed.

The purported reason for the censorship is that it’s not actually the establishment that’s demanding the work be destroyed, but the disenfranchised. “Piss Christ” is interpreted as speaking truth to power, while “Scaffold” punches down.

But pause for a moment and look at facts and the fates of the artworks in question. One angered people who didn’t have the power or political will to censor the piece, while the other angered people who did have that power. One was destroyed by faceless commoners, then quickly revived. The other was permanently destroyed by an art museum and accompanied by gratuitous apologies by the art museum and the artist himself. So ask yourself, who actually has the power here? Which is the real establishment? There’s a reason why violent left wing radicals get tenure track while violent right wing ones get the Supermax. It’s because an oppressor’s greatest trick is convincing the world it doesn’t exist.