Walker Art Center Shouldn’t Take Down “Scaffold”

“Scaffold” by Sam Durant which depicts the 1867 hangings of 38 Dakota men is one of 18 new pieces at the revamped Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. — DAVID JOLES — STAR TRIBUNE

I’m going to make an unpopular statement with many of you all, especially to some of my family.

That said, I don’t think the “Scaffold” exhibit at the Walker Art Center should be taken down.

1) This isn’t like a confederate memorial or a swastika flag. With this gallows piece there is no glorification of a past wrong.

2) Rather, the piece raises awareness of an atrocity. I’m guessing a lot people didn’t even know that the largest mass execution in United States history took place in Minnesota, by our revered Abraham Lincoln. I’d argue the increased awareness this piece has already caused is a very good thing.

3) Art is supposed to create conversation and evoke emotion. This was successful in both. This created a discussion about capital punishment and America’s less than pristine history. I’m fine with the differing opinions regarding art and encourage them, but I don’t see the removal as a “victory.” Though for any artist, what greater accomplishment is there than to be censored?

4) I know the argument is “this isn’t your story to tell.” This is problematic on several levels to me. By ‘your’ story I’m assuming this implies White America. Okay, fine. I’m guessing a lot of people’s ancestors weren’t even in America at the time this occurred but we’re all still grouped together (maybe that makes it even less of my story to tell). But there is still the complicit benefit White America has enjoyed post factum, whether you arrived 30 years ago or 300. I’m not arguing against that. But if I am going to accept the ‘your’ in this statement, then as a perpetrator, why am I not allowed to express remorse or guilt through constructive art? Am I not allowed to talk about it or create works of expression? Am I not allowed to create awareness? If I accept the ‘your’ then it is my story to tell, even though I am may not be on the oppressed side of it, I was still a participant. I’m trying to put it into context here without sounding inconsiderate, but this was 150 years ago. Even with my Jewish heritage, I wouldn’t demand the removal of a public artwork about a gas chamber done by the grandson of a Nazi, unless his intentions are stated to be nefarious. I understand the Walker piece may be an unpleasant reminder for those with more direct links to this past, but I find the reminder to be important.

5) I’m afraid this reneging of the installation will be used as ammo. This is the kind of “Social Justice Warrior” “stuff” the Right fears of the Left: the thought-policing, the repression of ideas. It’s that hypocrisy of being “totally open” to concepts you already agree with. But when the idea is unpleasant, it’ll get branded as racist or bigoted, as a throw-away answer to automatically discredit it. It’s the kind of identity politics that played a part in the loss of Hillary Clinton. Since when did the Left become the party of censorship? And let’s be honest, how much of this movement was simply White back-pattery? I do not see the removal as a victory for free speech nor for art. I see it at is an erosion of American principle. I see it as another elitist Left display proving their off-mark moral superiority. I’m afraid this moral high-ground the Left is taking is so high they can’t see the earth anymore. They keep pushing people off of their platform because of petty social disagreements. Pretty soon those enjoying the moral high-ground are going to run out of oxygen.

6) My post-modern argument: We’re putting too much emphasis on who created the piece and not enough judgment on the merits of it (it’s almost like identity politics). If this was created by a Dakota, my guess is the gallows piece would be praised as eye-opening and brave. That’s the rub, I’m sure. Why wasn’t this created by a Dakota? Why was the MLK Jr. statue made by an Asian man? I want to be clear, my arguments are not meant to diminish larger issues of genocide, cultural or otherwise. Could’ve the Walker played this better? Yes. Should’ve they discussed this piece with tribe leaders? Maybe this whole thing would seem like a great idea if they had.

7) Yes, this piece is jarring and insensitive and macabre, but I find that to be necessary to shake us from our complacency. People are going to go back to not being disturbed by the constant reminder of a gallows in their sightline. Something like this should be unpleasant. In Mankato there is a buffalo statue as a memorial. What do you presume would be a more effective reminder? But I guess we’re going back to our iconic spoon and cherry, because it’s safe and blasé and this is Minnesota.