“It’s Only Art”: How Art Controversy over Cultural Appropriation and Historical Trauma Can Move Toward a More Ethical Public Humanities

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN, served as the last exhibition space for Sam Durant’s Scaffold before the structure was surrendered to the Dakota people and buried at an undisclosed location. Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune / Zuma Press
May 3, 2021

Alyssa Manansala is a PhD student in the department of American Studies at Brown University. Her research interests include Asian American poetry and hybrid literary forms, Filipinx studies, postcolonial theory, performance theory, and visual/media culture. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the California Institute of the Arts, where she was awarded the 2018/2019 Teaching Fellowship and the 2019 REEF Artist Residency.

LA-based artist Sam Durant made headline news in the summer of 2017 when his piece, Scaffold (2017), was exhibited at the Walker Art Center’s sculpture park in Minneapolis, Minnesota and was subsequently protested by the Dakota community as a crime of historical violence and racial traumatization. Scaffold was originally installed in 2012 in Kassel, Germany, and at the time, Durant described the piece as a meditation on capital punishment in America, listing gallows used in various executions in American history. Not included were the gallows used in 1862 to hang 38 Dakota men convicted of participating in the Dakota War.[1] This constituted the largest mass execution in American history, taking place in Mankato, Minneapolis, not far from Scaffold’s installation site at the Walker.

Before re-exhibiting the piece, Durant made no attempt to communicate his plans with the local Dakota people, who protested the work, garnering global media attention. Protesters plastered the gates surrounding Walker’s art garden with posters reading “TAKE IT DOWN. GENOCIDE IS NOT ART,” “Feels like 1862,” “Not in my ancestors’ names,” “NO RESPECT,” “Relatives of the Dakota 38 live here,” “$200,000 REWARD FOR SCALP OF ARTIST” (the amount commissioned to Durant for Scaffold), and “NOT YOUR STORY”.[2] This combination of assertions, posted not directly onto the piece but from a privatized distance from it, point to an ongoing debate in the art world about white artists’ appropriation or cooptation of minoritarian historical and cultural objects.

Durant would go on to publicly apologize to the Dakota community in Minnesota, and upon their counsel, dismantled Scaffold and placed it in their possession. They then buried the piece at an undisclosed location. Early in the fall of 2017, I was an MFA student at the California Institute of the Arts where Durant teaches. While Scaffold had been laid to rest, conversations about Scaffold and the Dakota community’s protests continued throughout that semester, with and without Durant present. During one such conversation hosted by faculty, a high-ranking administrator defended Durant against the charge of the historical traumatization that Scaffold unleashed onto the Dakota people: “We are not talking about historical trauma. We are talking about art.”

I helped organize a student-led town hall entitled “Communal Care: A Conversation.” As practicing artists and curators, having witnessed Durant’s failure to engage the audience most directly affected by his work, and how the arts institution that employed him shielded him from student critique, we students asked of ourselves and our own creative practices a series of questions: Who gets to tell which stories? What constitutes art? At what point does art about historical violence reinstate that violence? How accountable is an artist to communities who serve as their intended and unintended audiences? What frameworks or guiding principles can practitioners of public humanities follow to be respectful of the difficult and often painful feelings that can arise from artwork and reaction to it, and to not only acknowledge the historical trauma of specific communities, but ensure equity around artwork that deals with that historical trauma?

In Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art, art critic Jennifer Doyle focuses on the art controversy as a significant form of a public’s unraveling, wherein difficulty and emotion summoned by controversial artworks serve as means to “take up the questions of who is being dispossessed of what, who is being unraveled, how and why.”[3] Where Doyle’s emphasis is on the level of personal feeling as a framework to understand the political forces at play during an art controversy, I want to expand that definition of the audience’s affective or emotional response to an artwork to the level of historical trauma—an emotional or affective response on a communal, social level that moves beyond individual pathology and toward a structural framework for understanding intergenerational inheritance contained and expressed in artwork. In the case of the Scaffold controversy, Durant, a cisgendered white man fairly unlike the minoritarian artists of Doyle’s study, unwittingly exploited the historical and social trauma of the Dakota community to advance his work and notoriety within the art world. His failure to address that community in the planning and re-exhibitions of Scaffold reflected the positionality from which he and the artworld understood the work and how it would be defended against critique. That positionality is a privileged and ubiquitous one which attempts to depersonalize, decontextualize, and depoliticize art, toward largely politically hierarchical ends. The statement from one of Durant’s defenders, “We are not talking about historical trauma. We are talking about art,” is indicative of that positionality. Further, Doyle asserts that divorcing art from its political stakes, claiming “It’s only art,” “has derailed us into declaring that their work has no real-world impact.”[4] “It’s only art” to defend minoritarian artists and the assertion that art is not about historical trauma to defend Durant’s piece reveal a startling truth about the art industry: While it can recognize historical trauma, it is willing to forgive and rehabilitate certain artists through their works’ depoliticization. It is also willing to neglect the harm and traumatization of certain audiences, whose political stakes in an artwork are erased by the claim that art does not have political stakes.

Scaffold has also raised questions about creative freedom, with some defenders of the work claiming that any artist has the right to make art about any subject they wish. Arne de Boever takes up the Scaffold controversy in a chapter entitled “Democratic Exceptionalisms (On Sam Durant’s Scaffold)” in Against Aesthetic Exceptionalism, in which he argues against “artistic sovereignty” in favor of “artistic autonomy.” While de Boever recognizes the right of the Dakota people to protest Scaffold for how it provoked a historical trauma for their community, calling their contestation an Indigenous sovereignty or a “democratic, agonistic countersovereignty,”[5] he nonetheless remains critical of the concept of sovereignty as an uncontestable claim to total power and rule both in art and politics. He goes as far as to suggest that the Dakota people might refuse the label of “sovereign” for their protests of Scaffold, as it would “inscribe them within a political history of Western power that they may very well want to refuse.”[6] While there are indeed strains of Indigenous studies and activism that critique sovereignty as a replication of a European humanist project, de Boever fails to truly consider what artistic and political sovereignty might mean for Indigenous audiences and artists, for whom the right to author and narrate their own histories constitutes redefinitions of political and artistic sovereignty that evades the gaze of non-Indigenous audiences.

If the Dakota community’s protests of Scaffold were an exercise in sovereignty, it is a redistributive sovereignty, insofar as creative freedom has always been inequitable within the arts institution (i.e., only certain artists, typically white, are ever allowed to wield it). In “Welcoming Sovereignty,” Indigenous Canadian scholar Dylan Robinson of the Stó:lō nation describes Indigenous sovereignty as “constituted through gestures of welcome that take place in spaces of transit and gathering.”[7] Robinson couples the right to welcome non-Indigenous people into these spaces with the right to un-welcome, or exclude from performance and tradition spaces, in order to guard Indigenous intellectual and cultural production from non-Indigenous gaze, and allow Indigenous people the “sovereign control over the rules of the space and the authority under which such rules are enforced.”[8] By enacting gestures of un-welcome, Robinson aims to correct the non-Indigenous assumption of always being welcome into Indigenous spaces as an uninvited guest. We might consider the Dakota community’s protest of Scaffold as a gesture of un-welcome, sovereignty that breaks from ideologies of multiculturalism and reconciliation, recognizes the historical and structural processes (capitalism and settler colonialism) that have inhibited Indigenous communities from presenting their own histories, and allows them to define decolonization on their own terms.

If we as practitioners of the public humanities attempt to understand audience reception and historical trauma in terms of a structural framework that recognizes intergenerational inheritance, we might also orient ourselves toward questions of capital. This turn to capital is a gesture toward the material gains, losses, and injuries that are at stake when we talk about emotional and affective responses to art. To connect capital, both economic and cultural, to the discourse of feeling and emotionality that art can embody or elicit is also an attempt to explore the public humanities’ potential to address issues of the redistribution of equity through the curation and support of minoritarian artists and community audiences. By conceptualizing emotional or affective audience responses to artwork through a lens of historical trauma and capital, practitioners of the public humanities can not only situate artworks and audiences within historical, geographic, and cultural contexts, but also establish artistic and curatorial processes that redistribute resources equitably across class, racial, and gender lines. If there is an ethics to be had around artistic practice and commission-based projects oriented toward community in the public humanities, perhaps it is this: to remain open to our own unraveling via community critique and how it might radically change our vision, not only of the histories contained in and elicited by art objects, but also the future of politics and art and our own stakes in them.



[1] Eldred, Sheila. “Walker Art Center’s Reckoning With ‘Scaffold’ Isn’t Over Yet.” New York Times, September 13, 2017. < https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/13/arts/design/walker-art-center-scaffold.html >

[2] Eckardt, Stephanie. “Here’s One Way to Deal with Problematic Artworks, Like Sam Durant’s Scaffold: Burn Them.” W Magazine, June 1, 2017. < https://www.wmagazine.com/story/sam-durant-scaffold-artwork-walker-minneapolis-controversy >

[3] Doyle, Jennifer. Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. Duke University press, 2013, p. xiv.

[4] Ibid, xvi.

[5] De Boever, Arne. Against Aesthetic Exceptionalism. University of Minnesota Press, 2019, p. 38.

[6] Ibid, 40.

[7] Robinson, Dylan. “Welcoming Sovereignty,” Performing Indigeneity: Global Histories and Contemporary Experiences. University of Nebraska Press, 2014, p. 5.

[8] Ibid, 16.

Main image source: Minneapolis Star Tribune / Zuma Press (via The New Yorker)