Colorado Creative Industries Summit
There is quite a lot of lip service given to the idea that the arts help to build a sense of community, and while that is certainly true, most of us can think of plenty of examples of conflicts that have come up over artworks or artists that have threatened (or at least have tested) the sense of cohesion within a community or have pitted different communities against one another.
As I prepared for this round table discussion, there were 3 conflicts/controversies around art that I thought might be a good jumping point for this conversation in order to contextualize the topic of “Art, Community, and Conflict”. Each of these conflicts around art occurred in different cities/regions around the country (with one in Colorado) and illustrate the complex nature of how different communities have dealt with some of the inevitable struggles that occur around art. As we dive into this topic, I’d also like to consider the solutions to some of these conflicts (including the 3 conflicts outlined here as wells as some of your examples) as well as the longer term ramifications of those solutions. I’d specifically like to think about framing these particular conflicts in relation to our local communities and this region in particular. How do these conflicts around art resonate with communities here in Colorado? What other conflicts have you faced in your local communities, and how have they been resolved, or not?
The 3 art conflicts I’d like to highlight are (in chronological order):
- Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (1982)/ Frederick Hart’s The Three Servicemen (1983/84), Washington D.C.
- Christo’s proposal for Over the River (conceived in 1992, canceled in early 2017), Colorado
- Dana Schutz’s portrait of Emmett Till titled Open Casket (2017), New York
A brief background on each artwork and the conflict that surrounded them:
- Lin was a 21 year old architecture student at Yale when she won a national design competition for a Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial to be built on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
- The submissions were anonymous, so the jury decided based on design alone
- The monument immediately proved controversial, with congressmen and veterans’ groups decrying its minimal nature, its black material, and claiming that the gash into the Earth represented more of a protest against war than a memorial
- After a lot of political upheaval, Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who had the power to veto the entire project, allowed it to go forward, but only on condition that a compensatory statue be commissioned and situated nearby.
- Frederick Hart was then commissioned to create a figurative, traditional statue to commemorate the Vietnam Veterans.
- Hart said later, “I think this whole thing is an art war… The collision is the fact that Maya Lin’s design is elitist and mine is populist.”
- Interesting solution to this national conflict – essentially allowing the public to decide which monument they prefer and to visit according to their taste values.
- Since these initial outcries, Maya Lin’s monument is seen as one of the most powerful in D.C. today. As Michael Kammen states in Visual Shock, “Americans have voted with their feet, but more powerfully with their hearts and minds. Lin is a winner.”
Christo Over the River (Colorado, conceived in 1992, cancelled in early 2017):
- 25 years after conceiving their project (Christo with his late wife Jeanne-Claude), Christo canceled Over the River – their 14 day installation of shimmering fabric hung over the Arkansas River between Salida and Canyon City. Christo cited Trump’s presidency as the reason for canceling, because the project would take place on federal lands and he didn’t want to benefit the administration in any way.
- However, before Christo canceled it on his own terms, it had been held up in court and faced massive push back from local communities in Colorado
- Many Colorado environmental groups had argued strongly against the project, citing massive disruption in wildlife habitat along the route of the piece.
- This serves as an interesting example of local communities fighting a well-known artist and eventually halting a project via time taken in courts to battle it out.
- What was the impact of not having the project happen? While art groups and economists were disheartened by the decision, environmental groups rejoiced.
Dana Schutz’s Portrait of Emmett Till titled Open Casket (New York, 2017 / ongoing):
- This year’s Whitney Biennial includes a Dana Schutz painting based on the photo taken of Emmett Till’s open casket in 1955. At age 14, Till was lynched while visiting relatives in Mississippi. (His so-called crime was flirting with a white woman.) Till’s mother permitted the photo of Till’s beaten body to be printed in newspapers at the time, because she wanted to world to see the brutality to which her son had been subjected.
- A group of young artists of color wrote a letter asking that the painting be removed from the exhibition and destroyed based on the fact that Schutz is a white artist and the subject is a murdered black boy.
- In the letter, it is stated “The subject matter is not Schutz’s…White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.” Others accuse Schutz of aestheticizing the image, making the atrocity more palatable.
- This conflict between artist and peers, museum/institution and a small, but vocal portion of their audience is interesting for many reasons. But for me, at this particular moment in history, and for the sake of this conversation, I’m particularly interested in art conflicts and controversies that are symptomatic of larger social changes and dynamics.
- Thus far, the Whitney has kept the painting on display, but Schutz has reiterated that it will never be sold. The museum has allowed active protests to continue in the gallery. (“Black Death Spectacle”)
Do any of these conflicts resonate with you? Can we look at examples of short-term solutions and long-term views of these conflicts and relate them to our own communities? When does conflict threaten community? Can conflict be an opportunity to open up a dialogue and build community? So, with that, I’d like to open it up and hear what you all think about this topic.