Sam Durant  Scaffold, vue d’installation | installation view, documenta (13), Karlsaue Park, Kassel, 2012.Photo : Rosa Maria Ruehling, © Sam Durant, permission de | courtesy of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, Galerie Praz-Delavallade, Paris & Sadie Coles HQ, London, U.K.

To Empathize is the Question

Jennifer Griffiths
Perhaps no one in the annals of art history inspires less empathy than the figure of Pablo Picasso who apparently told Françoise Gilot, “As far as I’m concerned, other people are like those little grains of dust floating in the sunlight. It takes only a push of the broom and out they go.”1 1 - Françoise Gilot, Life with Picasso (New York: First Anchor Books, 1989), 84.The artist cum “rey” of the Cubist revolution felt that an apple could be as revolutionary as a man with a gun. Yet the heroic figure of Europe’s formalist revolution was nevertheless capable of creating one of the most emotionally charged and heart-rending condemnations of man’s inhumanity to man ever made. Guernica’s fragmented and colourless forms evoke a profound sense of sorrow for the Spanish civilians whose lives were ended by a faceless Fascist enemy on April 26, 1937. How is it that a skilled narcissist is so capable of harnessing the power of empathy while a well-intentioned individual can fail to do so?

Sam Durant has spent his professional life making art that seeks to empathize with others. He makes art that engages the problematic narratives of American social history. Nevertheless his attempt to address “the difficult histories of the racial dimension of the criminal justice system in the United States” was not successful in May 2017 when the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota attempted to install Scaffold (2012) as part of their sculpture garden.2 2 - Sam Durant, “Artist Statement Regarding Scaffold at the Walker Art Center.” Artist Website, May 29, 2017, Accessed September 26, 2018. One of the seven historic gallows that the artist reproduced for this piece was the one built to execute thirty-eight Sioux people on December 26, 1862 in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Durant’s intention to “create a learning space for people like me, white people”3 3 - Ibid. was noble enough, but the work of art instead caused profound offence to the native Dakota people who failed to see or understand the redemptive possibilities in having the site of a traumatic cultural injustice become leisure space.

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This article also appears in the issue 95 - Empathy

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