As a conservative living in the shadows in Minneapolis, I don’t generally look to the Walker (no relation) Art Center for hope and inspiration. But a recent story out of the Walker has given me a little hope. And boy, I can use it.
Minnesota Public Radio reports in this article on a small crisis the museum experienced last month. The museum hosts a sculpture garden (probably most famous for Claes and Coosje van Bruggen Oldenburg’s whimsical yet monumental “Spoonbridge and Cherry”). The garden is scheduled to re-open this summer after a renovation, and one of its new offerings was to be a wooden structure entitled “Scaffold,” by artist Sam Durant. The installation, modeled after a gallows, was meant to raise awareness of capital punishment, evoking in particular the mass execution of 38 Lakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, in the aftermath of the 1862 Lakota War.
The Mankato execution is discussed a lot nowadays. I read about it as a boy too, though the narrative was different back then. In those days, we used to concentrate on President Lincoln’s clemency in pardoning fully 264 Lakota men convicted of murder and rape. The role of Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple of Faribault, who traveled to Washington to plead with Lincoln for mercy, was especially admired. Nowadays the emphasis tends to be placed on the fact that it was the largest mass execution in American history. (Though that ranking suggests to me, personally, that as murderous, genocidal regimes go, the U.S. is in a pretty minor league.)
Apparently it never occurred to anyone involved with the Scaffold sculpture, in the throes of their virtue signaling, to consult the leadership of the Lakota tribes about the matter. It turns out the Lakota didn’t care to see a huge scaffold erected in their honor. The first time, apparently, was plenty. The re-opening had to be delayed while the sculpture was dismantled (probably to be burned).
It was a kind of perfect storm of political correctness. White intellectuals and esthetes blissfully bringing to the oppressed a gift that the oppressed didn’t at all want. And then scrambling to find a way to apologize while avoiding actually learning any lessons.
What delights me most about this story is the massive cognitive dissonance. Here is American liberalism in full White Savior mode, suddenly forced to do an about face and burn a work of art, like… well, choose the art-burning simile you like.
Looking on as a conservative, the story comes as no surprise. The caring liberal looks at the victim of oppression and sees, not a complex fellow human being, but a blank screen onto which he can project his own preconceptions, his Rousseauan vision of the “noble savage.” Garrison Keillor is a lefty, but he described such people perceptively in his history of Lake Woebegone, which was, he tells us, originally settled by Unitarian missionaries intent on converting the heathen through interpretive dance. The liberal means well when he brings the Noble Savage a gift box which, he promises, contains a wonderful present. But when the victim of his idealism actually opens the box, he finds it contains a top hat or a coffee press.
It may be that the Lakota leaders sensed that Minnesota liberals would have really preferred all 302 of the warriors to have been executed in 1862. It would have given them a greater sin to repent on somebody else’s behalf. There are few more exquisite spiritual pleasures than confessing the transgressions of other people to whom you feel superior.
Is this a harbinger of things to come? The first crack in the “scaffolding” of the great, ungainly, top-heavy structure of modern progressivism, founded on sand? Are the victims of liberal largesse beginning to suspect that the left doesn’t actually see them as human beings, but as pieces of equipment on which moral exercises can be performed?
I’ve been fairly depressed recently. An election won does not mean a cultural victory. I’ve been haunted by a premonition that the great American conservative project may be fatally ruptured – the old cultural ideals of the Shining City on a Hill being left behind in favor of amoral utilitarianism.
But maybe we won’t be the ones to fall. Maybe the left will fall first. It’s possible that their conceptual contradictions are greater – and more resistant to repair – than ours. Their scaffold is high, and it was designed on intuitive rather than practical principles. I have an idea it’s tottering. I have an idea that people who actually live in the real world are getting tired of having their money confiscated in order to build higher scaffolds.
I can remember when the great Soviet Union, which had been around all my life and looked likely to survive longer than I would, collapsed like a Five Year Plan apartment block. I didn’t expect it. Almost nobody expected it. Ronald Reagan intuited the true weakness of our adversary, and gave the behemoth a push.
Maybe the left is about to get a push.