Midwest Voices

KC’s latest art controversy gets people talking, but misses chance at real dialogue

Updated: 2013-10-02T23:21:48Z

By Kelly Luck

Special to The Star

The word went out today that “The Scout” has been taken down. Not the statue, mind — that still stands where I went to visit it this weekend, at the end of a short trail just past some tennis courts and a skate park.

No, this was the billboard, the one A. Bitterman put up near 19th and Baltimore, showing the artist atop a scaffolding, aiming a gun at the Kansas City icon.

It is easy to understand the outrage. This is a deliberately provocative piece, and at first glance it does seem to be what many have called it: a racist attack on Indian people and culture. But any really provocative piece of art comes in layers, of which the initial sensory experience — what you see, hear, etc — is only the first, and most superficial. With Bitterman's photo set, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

In the multiple statements he has released since this brouhaha began, he has tried to recast the context of the image in terms of the Scout statue itself. The statue, he argues, is itself an attack of sorts on the Indian, in that it is a romanticized retelling, a “safe” narrative sanitized and bowdlerized for the guilt-free consumption of the dominant culture. By posing with the gun, he states, he is taking aim against what he calls an “expired narrative” (and not incidentally, I might add, reminding us of the means by which the west was — you should pardon the expression — won).

Now, yours truly cannot truthfully call herself an artist, but I do have the good fortune to come from a family of them. So I got in touch with my father, who has spent a lifetime as both an artist and teacher of artists, and sought his opinion. He reckons that Bitterman has made a good job of explaining himself, but isn’t all that certain the average person on the street is prepared to look deep enough to see the message-within-the-message, so to speak. If anything, he felt the Missouri Bank came out worst for dropping its support for a project the moment it turned controversial.

And I can understand that. Corporate art sponsorship is always a bit tricky. There’s the push-pull of wanting to underwrite new and thought-provoking forms of expression, but nothing that won’t adversely impact the ol’ bottom line. I've always felt that one of the main arguments for public funding of arts is that patronage tends to severely limit the scope of what artists can create. It is one thing to reject a work out of hand, but to initially approve it, and then yank back one’s support while the picture is literally at the printers, is a whole other thing.

So. Is this work actually racist? Well, it depends on who you ask. Personally, I think I see where Bitterman is coming from, but then as a member of the majority culture I am not being (overtly) targeted by it. In these kinds of situations, generally it’s the targetee (so to speak) who sets the tone, decides what is and is not acceptable. This is the same reason gentiles don’t get to decide which portrayals of Jews aren’t offensive, or straight people don’t get to decide which gay jokes are okay. It’s not political correctness; it is simply courtesy and respect. The guy holding the gun may have nothing to fear, but the guy in the crosshairs will likely feel quite differently.

Certainly Moses Brings Plenty, local Indian activist (and darned fine musician, incidentally) will be glad to see the back of the thing. He has been quoted numerous times decrying the work, calling it out as racist. I don’t know how he feels about the statue itself, but I can certainly understand where he’s coming from. If someone had depicted themselves pointing a gun at a statue of me, I daresay I would have been thoroughly peeved too, deeper context be damned.

Unfortunately, I think part of the problem here is that the superficial “top” player of the work — that is, the image of the man pointing the gun — was so striking and emotionally ugly that it sabotaged itself. People were repelled by that first glance, and it never got a chance to explain itself. You might almost say the same of “Accept or Reject”, the Yu Chang sculpture of a topless women taking a picture of herself currently residing in the Overland Park Arboretum. Certainly the anti-everything American Family Association having yet another crack at it is proof enough of that. Though frankly, I must say the long and quite ugly history of America as regards its indigenous peoples is rather more complex than, say, the fact that nipples exist.

Ultimately, I think that Bitterman got his wish. Certainly he got people talking, and if some of the things being said aren’t particularly welcome, that’s just how it goes sometimes. In his response to Brings Plenty’s statements, Bitterman’s tone takes on a patronizing note, chiding him like an errant child, and for his own career portraying Indians in various movies and TV shows. This is not dialogue. Dialogue is when you listen to the other person, take on board what they are saying, and treat their opinions with the respect due another human being, even if you don't agree with them. That is what art, when it is at its best, can do. Unfortunately, this time around it doesn’t look like that happened, and that’s a shame.

Kelly Luck works in information technology. She lives in Kansas City. To reach her, send email to oped@kcstar.com or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.

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