Thursday, August 11, 2011

Public Art Controversy - E Pluribus Unum Edition

Plan for E Pluribus Unum by Fred Wilson. Image courtesy of
Last week I covered two public art controversies from decades past. It might be easy to think that public art administrators, funders, and the public have come a ways since these contretemps of yore, but that simply isn't true. In the midst of my summer public art series, a brand-new public art controversy has sprung up afresh, this time in Indianapolis. Read on to find out why the above sculpture by Fred Wilson is causing heated discussion in the Hoosier State.

Reclaiming the Slave Image
     This controversy surrounds Fred Wilson's proposed sculpture titled E Pluribus Unum. Wilson is known for re-purposing or reclaiming racially fraught historical images and objects, imbuing them with powerful meaning; Unum follows in this tradition. The sculpture, which was commissioned by the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, utilizes the figure of a slave from another Indianapolis public art work, the enormous Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial. Wilson's sculpture isolates the figure, removing signifiers of slavery present on the original figure, and places a flag celebrating the African Diaspora in his hands instead. Wilson selected a place for Unum in front of the City County Building, in close proximity to the 284-foot tall Soliders’ and Sailors’ Memorial creating a direct comparison between the two figures—one enslaved, one freed.  
     E Pluribus Unum has received high praise from the art world. ArtInfo blogger and journalist Tyler Green has been writing about the sculpture since last October. LA Times journalist Christopher Knight called Unum “one of the most compelling ideas for a public art project that I’ve encountered in a very long time.” But some Indianapolis residents are not so keen on Wilson’s plan for Unum. A group called Citizens Against the Slave Image has been particularly vocal in their anti-Wilson criticism. They feel that Indianapolis should not erect a second slave sculpture, and that replicating the slave figure puts forth an image of nameless African Americans that is humiliating and negative. They would like to see a sculpture of a recognized, prominent, successful African American, rather than another nameless slave.
     Citizens Against the Slave Image also finds the intended site for E Pluribus Unum—in front of the City County Building, on public land—to be particularly problematic. “..for the sake of our children who need real heroes, let's honor a real person who made both sacrifices and major contributions,” Unum opponent Clete Ladd wrote in a Letter to the Editor to the Indianapolis Star.

Small Protest...Big Impact
      On July 29, Citizens Against the Slave Image staged a protest against E Pluribus Unum calling for its relocation. The project’s funder, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, was skittish enough to quickly agree to move the sculpture off the public land to another location on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail. Indeed, CICF was so nervous that they agreed to relocate E Pluribus Unum before the protest even occurred. And Green points out that there was only a turnout of about fifty people at the anti-Unum rally--not exactly a resounding and unanimous cry against the work.
     Though Wilson has not backed out of the project yet, a relocation will most likely weaken the power of Wilson’s original plan by removing it out of proximity of the original monument, effectively cutting off the strong side by side comparison inherent in the original plan. As Tyler Green writes, “If you unilaterally eliminate the site for a site-specific work, you are left merely hoping the artist will stick around to work with you on another project.”

"A Meaningful Source of Discussion"
      So how does the Unum controversy compare to Tilted Arc and the Bronx Bronzes? Have we learned any lessons since these notorious controversies of decades past? On the one hand, perhaps public art administrators have learned from the past mistakes we saw with those two public art debacles. There has been little to no secrecy involved in planning this project; even the project’s official website is a place for dialogue both for and against E Pluribus Unum. As I discussed last week, greater transparency and community outreach prior to the installation of both the Serra and Ahearn pieces could have resulted in a better outcome. Had E Pluribus Unum been installed with less insight into the design and process, there could have been an even bigger fracas.
      But on the other hand, this added transparency could end up sounding the death knell for Unum. CICF is so nervous about the controversy that they agreed to move the sculpture off public land before the protest even occurred, and as Green updated this morning, their director is still on the defense. Even if Unum is completed in another location, its original meaning will be undeniably compromised.
     This raises a myriad of questions, but a couple really stick out in my mind. Is it possible to reconcile what the public wants with what the artist wants? And why commission an artist to create a work for the public if a small segment of the public has the ability to derail the project, stripping it of its original meaning?     
     Consider Indiana Museum of Art Director Max Anderson's answers to these questions, as spelled out in an op-ed for the Indianapolis Star. Anderson says that good public art is “a meaningful source of discussion…about issues of common, public concern.” Whether or not this sculpture is installed, it has certainly sparked a discussion about race in Indianapolis, and in America, through op-eds and the web. He cites Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington as an originally controversial public art work that has now become a national treasure, and a source of rich dialogue.

What do you think about E Pluribus Unum? Is it a meaningful source of dialogue or an offensive representation of a painful segment of America’s history? And does everyone have to love public art for it to be successful? Tell me about it in the comments!

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