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Since 1923, a painting by Anton Gag titled “Attack on New Ulm” has been on display at the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul. The painting depicts an incident in the 1862 Dakota war:
The painting is superb and historically accurate, but has become controversial in recent years because of its subject matter. Now, the Minnesota Historical Society has decided that it will not be returned to the Capitol upon completion of the current renovation:
Gag’s depiction of combating Native America warriors and white settlers has been removed from the walls of the State Capitol for the building’s renovation and will not be returned for display.
The Minnesota Historical Society executive council’s decision was made this week after considering a recommendation by an ad hoc committee that had considered the importance of artworks in the Capitol and their effects on viewers.
The same decision was made with respect to a painting by Carl Boeckmann. Why?
“Neither painting is original to the Capitol design and both are painful reminders of our shared history. The ‘Attack on New Ulm’ portrays one incident during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which not all Dakota supported. This painting should not be the primary portrayal of American Indians who lived in Minnesota for more than 10,000 years,” MHS Director D. Stephen Elliott said in a press release.
Not all Southerners supported the Civil War, either, but that war–like the Dakota conflict–is an important part of Minnesota’s history, and is reflected in the paintings on display at the Capitol. Further explanation came from a member of the Historical Society’s committee:
Gwen Westerman of Mankato, a Minnesota State University professor of Dakota descent who served on the ad hoc committee reviewing the artwork, described her thought process while five pieces depicting Native Americans were under review.
“The power of art to influence perception of the history of our state is real. From my observations, it appears that what creates ‘controversy’ here is a perception that a white interpretation of this complex and multi-faceted history is the only ‘truthful’ representation, and that there is no room for other perspectives,” Westerman said in a written statement.
This reasoning is incomprehensible. The painting depicts an actual episode in the 1862 conflict. The Dakota did, in fact, attack the town of New Ulm–it has been described as “the largest battle over a US town since 1776”–and the painting could just as easily be seen as depicting the battle from the Native American perspective. I don’t know how Gag’s painting could reasonably give rise to an inference that it is “a white interpretation,” or still less that “there is no room for other perspectives.”
Be that as it may, the Historical Society’s decision has been made, and the Gag painting will be put in storage or exiled to a lesser venue. Thus do the organs that control our cultural life steadily impose their vision of how American history should be viewed.