I arrived in Indianapolis on December 13 to participate in a panel on public relations in the cultural sector. That same day, the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) announced at a scheduled press conference that it would bow to community sentiment — expressed over many months in letters, petitions, and forums — and cancel a public art project it had commissioned from Fred Wilson.
The kind person who met me at the airport that day pointed out that Indianapolis is thought to be second only to Washington, D.C., in the number of its civic monuments. I imagine that this statistical source of civic pride was shared with Wilson, too, when he was invited to Indianapolis by CICF to formulate a design for the “Indianapolis Cultural Trail,” a program to create a continuous pedestrian pathway connecting the city’s sprawling neighborhoods. In any case, Wilson did observe that the sole black figure represented on all those many monuments is that of a freed slave — seated at the feet of his liberators and clutching his manacles in a raised right fist — included on the 284-foot-high Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the heart of downtown Indianapolis. Wilson proposed to replicate and “reimagine” the freed slave, replacing the manacles with a multicolored flag representing the African Diaspora, elevating the figure atop a tall angled base that would render the pose more assertive, and siting the new monument at the City-Country Building, the seat of local government. Like the figure, the work’s title — "E Pluribus Unum," Latin for “One out of many” — was appropriated, the motto of the new nation made of former colonies being claimed to describe the unity of a once enslaved and dispersed black people.
The opposition to Wilson’s design — largely but not exclusively voiced by the black community — appears to have been ignited by a September 16, 2010, letter to the editor published in the Indianapolis Recorder, the city’s black-owned daily, submitted by Leroy Robinson, a high school history teacher and, since the November 2011 elections, a city councilman. Robinson objected to the replication of a negative black image and particularly to the figure’s apelike facial features. (Raise your hands if you recall the derisive Obama sock monkey from the 2008 campaign.) He made an analogy between Wilson’s project and erecting a giant black lawn jockey, a remark that went viral and, for a time, fueled the belief that Wilson had proposed erecting just such a derogatory figure. During the ensuing months of protests and hearings, others pointed out that the City-County Building houses not just the powerful but also the powerless: the jail is located there. Given the incarceration rate of young black men across the country, it was argued, the monument’s figure might appear more impotent than defiant. Offers by CICF to re-site the work did not appease the opponents, nor did the fact that an information kiosk would be provided to explain (lengthily, no doubt) Wilson’s intentions and the work’s critical implications.
The decision to cancel the project elicited expressions of sadness and indignation from arts professionals — and a certain amount of grandstanding, too. Tyler Green, in his blog (hosted on ARTINFO), has been flogging Bryan Payne, CIFA’s president and CEO, for mishandling the process and for cowardice in backing away from support of Wilson’s project, as if the cancellation of a public art project — which is to say an outdoor work that is on view 24/7 — were as cut-and-dry an offense as yanking a David Wojnarowicz video from a temporary exhibition which viewers attend of their own volition. Green cites Christopher Knight of the L.A. Times as having issued the following judgment: “Not only is this one of the most provocative ideas he’s [Wilson’s] come up with, it’s one of the most compelling ideas for a public art project that I’ve encountered in a very long time.”
"E Pluribus Unum" may indeed be provocative and compelling for public art, but the strategies that propel the work are well established in critical artistic practice. One is reminded of Michael Asher’s 1979 transfer of a statue of George Washington, a weathered bronze cast of Houdon’s marble original, that stood at the entrance of the Art Institute of Chicago to the museum’s French decorative arts galleries, a transfer intended to highlight the ideological forces at play in the placement and evaluation of objects. More pointedly, the shackles-to-flag transformation of an abject stereotype into a figure of empowerment owes much to Betye Saar’s fundamental "The Liberation of Aunt Jemima" (1972), in which the mammy figure has ditched the white baby she typically holds in favor of a shotgun. Wilson’s practice has long centered on the exposure of institutionalized racism in art, a campaign that earned widespread attention in 1992 with his revelatory exhibition “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society. For one of the displays that dealt with the exclusion of blacks from state history as constructed by the museum, Wilson installed three empty pedestals for hypothetical busts of black Marylanders of accomplishment: Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman.
Returning to that incendiary letter to the Indianapolis Recorder, we find Robinson calling for "E Pluribus Unum" to be replaced by a monument that honors the accomplishments of a black resident of Indianapolis. He names some candidates, too, including Tuskegee Airman Walter Plamer and the beauty products entrepreneur and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker. His point — which was exactly Wilson’s point in 1992 — is well taken, and begs the question: Should Indianapolis welcome a public artwork that embodies a critique of past neglect, or should it commission a public work that actually corrects past neglect?
The next day, CICF’s decision was reported by the city’s mainstream newspaper, the Indianapolis Star (available in my hotel) under the blunt headline “Local groups pleased sculpture won’t be here.” The positive spin was that “Indianapolis is becoming more inclusive when it comes to shaping the city’s self-image.” The Indianapolis Recorder (not available in my hotel), which had published Robinson’s letter 15 months earlier, took a similar tack, but also looked ahead, reporting that “Toby Miller, director of the Race and Cultural Relations Leadership Network, a standing committee of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, and others involved in the discussions against Wilson’s project will be spearheading the community process for creating a new art piece.” To translate: A determined opposition has maneuvered from objecting to a specific artwork to cementing a mandate for there to be a specifically black public monument, the first in Indianapolis. CICF’s Payne has announced that, as a white man, he will play only a secondary role. In a brief conversation, Payne stated simply, “Race trumped art” in the final decision.
The cancellation of an honorable art project is never cause for celebration. Indianapolis may be the poorer for not having "E Pluribus Unum," and there is no guarantee that the subsequent project will display commensurate intelligence. Great subjects and great artists rarely coincide today in figural art: Take as Exhibit A Lei Yixin’s lifeless effigy of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the National Mall, a figure so robotic it makes Mount Rushmore’s dead presidents look warm-blooded. But the outcome in Indianapolis shouldn’t be deplored in an unconsidered defense of the absolute prerogative of “provocative” art, nor should local opposition to art that is broadly endorsed by the CCC (critics, curators, collectors) be reflexively rejected as unenlightened, uncomprehending, and conservative. It may be small consolation to Wilson that the insights he has conveyed regarding race and the control of representation have moved, in Indianapolis, from the arena of artistic practice to the world of real community action. On that basis — and with an awareness of the paradox — it’s not too far-fetched to argue that "E Pluribus Unum" has succeeded brilliantly, if unintentionally, as a temporary sculptural intervention that raised the consciousness of a community which had no prior agency in determining its public representation.
Will the original sculpture of the freed slave be seen — or, perhaps more precisely, ignored — as it was before the controversy, or has it been irrevocably transfigured? For the moment, all of the sculptures on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument are obscured by great drapes of Christmas lights. As it turned out, December 13 brought a different kind of press attention to the Indianapolis landmark: it was included on the Huffington Post’s list of Christmas trees worth visiting.
Marcia E. Vetrocq is an art historian and critic, and the senior editor of Art + Auction magazine.