Opinion and Forefront

MAHERN: Politics, art collide on the Cultural Trail

December 24, 2011

Louis MahernThe worlds of politics and art seldom mix happily. About every decade or so, Congress gets riled up about some National Endowment of the Arts-funded artist. In the late 1980s, Andres Serrano was condemned by Congress over his “sacrilegious” works.

You might recall that Serrano caused quite a stir when one of his photographs depicted a small plastic crucifix immersed in an amber liquid that the artist claimed to be his own urine.

Not my cup of tea. But if an artist says it is art, who are we to gainsay it?

Nonetheless, congressional hounds set to baying and endeavored to eliminate federal funding for the arts because they disagreed with the perceived message.

In the early stages of developing the new Indiana State Museum, architects originally commissioned to design the structure were paid nearly $1 million, consulted at length, and finally produced their drawings.

The state building commissioner then fired the architects and said of the design, “It isn’t who we are, meaning Hoosier.” New architects, suitably more Hoosier, were hired.

One of the principal reasons 10 years after the attacks of 9/11 that the redevelopment of Ground Zero is not finished has been the failure to satisfy the feelings of victims’ families unto the third degree of consanguinity in matters of design.

The latest manifestation of this political intersection with art comes on our very own Cultural Trail.

Conceived by Brian Payne, CEO of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, and partially funded by that organization, the trail connects various local spots of cultural importance and will feature privately funded public art.

One piece is patterned on the freed slave featured on Monument Circle. Sitting more upright than the original and without the shackles of slavery, the male African-American figure holds a pole from which is draped a mosaic flag composed of the flags of African nations symbolizing the African diaspora.

Three public meetings were held to discuss a digital version of the statue, the first in February 2009. The design met with general approval including the Cultural Trail Art Advisory Committee with two local African-American artists as members.

However, a year and a half after the design was unveiled, a high school history teacher and subsequent candidate for the City-County Council wrote a letter to the Indianapolis Recorder objecting that the statue looked “ape-ish.” He went on to compare the sculpture to a black lawn jockey.

Sensing blood, a talk-radio host and various African-American elected officials joined the chase. Opponents established a website and solicited signatures for an online petition.

About 400 individuals have signed the petition opposing the statue with several offering comments.

One commenter suggested that the statue should honor Crispus Attucks because, “He owned the ship the Boston Tea Party was held on.”

The most popular suggestion on the website and one echoed by more than one prominent African-American political figure is that the piece should honor among others Madame C.J. Walker, founder of an Indianapolis-based company that specialized in hair straightening and skin lightening products for African-Americans.

The sculptor, Fred Wilson, an African-American, and winner of a MacArthur Foundation (Genius) award and two-time representative of the United States in international exhibitions, has declared himself “blindsided and saddened” by the mostly political opposition.

Earlier this month, Brian Payne announced the withdrawal of the work, stating, “The biased, late-19th-century image of an African-American in no way honored the progress of African-Americans … ” He specifically absolved the artist of any blame for the “biased” work.

When the worlds of art and politics collide, art almost always loses.

The odd-looking duck-billed platypus has been described as having been designed by a committee.

In the search for a more acceptable piece of art, I’m afraid Payne’s committee has just gotten quite a bit bigger.

However, all is not lost. I understand that Thomas Kincaid is now doing sculpture.•

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Mahern has been an assistant to U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and served in the Indiana Senate. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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