More Things
Ordinary People (www.nydailynews.com).
by Steve Timmer
Jun 4, 2017, 8:00 PM

Far be it from me . . .

to quarrel with Judith Guest

Author and homie Judith Guest had a letter in the Strib on Sunday, June 4th:

Let’s be clear about this: Great art is not about pretty pictures. The power of great art lies in its ability to provoke, unnerve, make us think. What a chance missed here by Walker! Art is not made by committee, or by consultation; it’s forged in the heart and the imagination of the artist. In this country we profess to believe in freedom of expression: love it, hate it or be indifferent — that’s your right. But if we’re going to start burning art, at least let’s be honest about what it is we’re doing. This is censorship at its worst, done in the name of political correctness. While we’re at it, why not throw a few books onto the pile? Only the ones we object to, of course, on the grounds that they are offensive to some people. That makes it OK, right?

Judith Guest, Edina

Ms. Guest’s novel, made into a film that gave Mary Tyler Moore a chance to show her dramatic acting chops, demonstrates the truth of the first sentence of her letter. But I think she veers off course after that.

For a variety of reasons, I have an interest in and passing knowledge of the history of the Dakota people from the time of the Traverse des Sioux treaty in 1851 to the Dakota uprising in 1862. It is a tale of privation and treachery against the Dakota people.

The Serbs remember the Plain of the Blackbirds in 1389; you can hardly fault the Dakota for remembering the execution of 38 of their braves for revolting against the starvation of their people in 1862. For some reason, I doubt that Ms. Guest is familiar with that history.

One of my favorite books about the era is a novel by the great Minnesota author, Fredrick Manfred, entitled Scarlet Plume.

I will be direct: calling a jungle gym for children modeled after the scaffold for the largest mass execution in United States history, which sat among a big blue chicken and a giant spoon with a cherry on it, “art,” would be laughable, if it wasn’t so disgusting, ahistorical, and just plain tone deaf.

There is a place to stand on a scaffold and think of all the people staring up at you and relishing your death, but next to the big blue chicken isn’t it.

When the scaffold is disassembled, Ms. Guest, it isn’t “art;” it’s lumber. And burning that lumber is an act of exorcism; since I am not Dakota, I don’t claim to understand that entirely, but I appreciate it.

Equating it to a book burning was, I think, a regrettable remark.

Some further thoughts: That art is intended to offend or make people uncomfortable is true, or sometimes true. Parenthetically, I am not sure that idea was behind the big blue chicken.

Art should raise our consciousness and make us think, the critics say, and Ms. Guest does, too.

Here though, the people who were most offended by the Walker sculpture don’t need their consciousness about it raised; it’s plenty raised already.

If the Walker were to hang a noose from the spoon, or erect an eternally-burning cross on the lawn, we wouldn’t call it consciousness raising for white people; we’d call it hate.

Thanks for your feedback. If we like what you have to say, it may appear in a future post of reader reactions.