Opinion

Sam Durant Doesn’t Need Defending

In responding to the “Scaffold” controversy in Minneapolis, some art world onlookers have painted the white male artist as the victim.

Dakota workers from Straight Line Construction dismantling Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden last weekend, with a protest sign in the foreground (photo by Sheila Regan/Hyperallergic)

Sam Durant’s massive sculpture “Scaffold” (2012) has been mostly dismantled in Minneapolis. The wood that formed its composite of seven gallows — re-creations of those used for as many executions sanctioned by the US government — has been removed, and its concrete base and steel structure will go next. But as the Dakota Nation meets and decides what to do with the wood, there has been some consternation over the possibility that it might get burned.

For those who haven’t been following the story, a quick recap: When “Scaffold” landed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which is jointly maintained by the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, members of the local Dakota community showed up to protest it. One of the gallows replicated in the sculpture was that used for the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862 — the largest mass execution in US history. The protesters argued that the sculpture was traumatic for their community, and Durant and Walker Director Olga Viso listened. They agreed to a mediation process, which resulted in Durant’s transferring of the intellectual property rights for “Scaffold” to the Dakota people and the destruction of the sculpture.

That outcome has dismayed some art world onlookers. In an article for the New York Times, Hilarie M. Sheets posed the question:

Against the backdrop of other recent protests calling for the removal of racially charged works at the Whitney Museum in New York City and the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, did the Walker’s decision to yield the work create a difficult precedent for museums?

It was followed by a quote from Tom Eccles, who’s the executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College (and doesn’t have any apparent connection to the situation at the Walker but seems to be the go-to source for the Times on art controversies):

Disposing of artworks and burning them is a pretty strong statement. … Where do we draw the line? The old line between harm and offense won’t do right now. I think these are mainly well-intentioned works by well-intentioned artists that caused offense both for what they contain but more significantly who said it. Are we at a point where supposedly white privileged artists should not speak of the experiences and histories of those who are not white and privileged? I think we are.

Meanwhile, in The New Yorker, editor Andrea K. Scott wrapped up an otherwise agreeable piece like so: “Should he now destroy every project about others’ histories? I, for one, would hate to see a bonfire piled high with copies of Durant’s book on the posters of the Black Panther Emory Douglas.”

These statements may seem fairly innocuous, but all of them are harmful because they misread what’s happened in Minneapolis in a big way — namely, they misrepresent the power dynamics of the situation.

Sam Durant isn’t a “supposedly white privileged artist” (emphasis mine); he simply is one, and a man, at that. I say this not as a value judgment but as a fact, one I suspect he’d be quick to admit. Compared to the Dakota Nation, Durant and the Walker, a largely white contemporary art institution, hold the vast majority of the power here — in Minneapolis, in the art world, and in the country at large. They agreed to enter into mediation with the Dakota, but they didn’t have to; they could just have easily ignored the outcry and left “Scaffold” in place, or paid lip service to the protests without doing anything. What seems to be getting lost is the essential point that no one forced them to dismantle the sculpture. Protest isn’t the same as censorship: The former is done by those who lack the power to change a situation, the latter by those who have it.

If the Walker has set any kind of precedent for museums, it’s not a “difficult” but an obvious one — that they should be in meaningful dialogue with the communities around them, especially marginalized ones. A refusal to engage with protesters was one of the biggest criticisms leveled at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis when the Kelley Walker controversy erupted.

What’s more, as far as I’ve heard and read, no one is calling for Durant to go destroy his other artworks. To suggest that as a possible next step is more than just a lazy rhetorical move — it irresponsibly paints Durant as a victim of the Dakota people, as if they had the power to force his hand. It’s an invocation of the right-wing specter of political correctness, which posits that the freedom of privileged white people, usually men, is impinged upon by anyone else who dares to fight for the recognition of their own humanity.

The oddest thing about these defenses of Durant is that they’re at odds with his own reaction to the situation. Unlike Dana Schutz, the white artist whose painting of Emmett Till in the Whitney Biennial sparked protests, Durant was open to criticism; he willingly decided to cede some of his power to the Dakota, by giving the nation the rights to the sculpture and allowing them to decide its fate. “It’s just wood and metal — nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people,” Durant told Viso. If he can accept that, as well as the possibility of “Scaffold” going up in flames, we should too.

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