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Fred Wilson's "E Pluribus Unum": Art worth arguing about 

Sometimes good news comes wrapped in an unexpected package. Take, for example, "E Pluribus Unum," a privately-funded sculpture by Fred Wilson that's been proposed for installation on the plaza in front of the City-County building.

The proposed sculpture, whose title translates as "out of many, one," echoes an image you can find at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the Circle. There, amongst a cluster of dramatically posed limestone figures, is the depiction of a freed slave, sitting on the statue's plinth, holding up his broken shackles in tribute to Lady Liberty.

Wilson, who is African-American and based in New York City, is known for creating works that borrow from existing objects. When he was commissioned to do a piece that would be in view of downtown's Cultural Trail, he began by exploring the public sculptures that were already here, especially our war memorials. The freed slave at the Monument was the only African-American image he was able to find. He decided to make that character his subject.

What Wilson wants to do is recreate the figure of the freed slave in his original limestone proportions, but in a completely different context. In Wilson's version, the figure is solitary, leaning forward and supporting a flag symbolizing all the countries represented in the African diaspora. Instead of recumbent, he is cutting edge.

Controversy has ensued.

When images of the proposed sculpture were made public, it became clear what Wilson had in mind wasn't everyone's cup of tea. Leroy Robinson, a history teacher at Pike High School, wrote a letter to the Indianapolis Recorder in which he said Wilson's idea reminded him of "a black lawn jockey." He criticized the concept for not being sufficiently positive, empowering or uplifting. Since then, others have come forward to say they are troubled by an image that recalls American slavery.

Wilson, along with representatives from the Central Indiana Community Foundation (CICF) and the Cultural Trail committee got an earful at a public forum held at the Madame Walker Theatre a couple of weeks ago. "This is supposed to be for us," protested State Rep. Bill Crawford. "You're not asking us what we want. You're telling us."

After the meeting, Wilson told reporters he felt "blindsided" and "saddened." Brian Payne of the CICF said that work on the project would be postponed so that more dialogue could take place.

And I say this is all good news.

Indianapolis finally has people talking about public art. While I don't envy the heat Fred Wilson and Brian Payne are feeling over this project, I congratulate them for finally providing the city with a work of sufficient seriousness to serve as a fuse.

Over the past few years, the city has made gestures showing that it appreciates the value art brings to public life. But gestures, by their very nature, tend to be innocuous. With a few exceptions, like Julian Opie's effervescent "Ann Dancing," most of the art Indianapolis has added to its streetscape has become virtually invisible as soon as it's been installed.

That's not likely with "E Pluribus Unum."

The Cultural Trail website says Wilson's "artistic practice raises questions and spurs dialogue about heated issues such as race in a smart and sensitive way. This dialogue can be both cathartic and revolutionary for his audience." It also says that Wilson's method is "to illuminate that curatorial practice and interpretive acts such as museum labeling are subjective and open to critical examination."

You can say that the Cultural Trail curatorial team may have been a tad too clever in selecting an artist as concerned with the head games of art politics as Wilson seems to be. But there's no denying his idea has provoked exactly the sort of response promised.

For the first time in memory, a work of art is making news in this town. Television crews were in force at the Walker gathering. Dennis Ryerson, the editor-in-chief at The Indianapolis Star, chose to make his weekly column about what happened there. Amos Brown has people calling in to talk about art on his radio show.

People thinking, talking and, yes, arguing about art is a good thing. It's a welcome change from the usual gripes about the proper use of instant replay.

What's important now is follow-through. Wilson was honest to tell people at the Walker, "Making art is not a collaborative process" and that his piece has already been "birthed." Further dialogue is fine, but let's keep a few things in mind: Complaints notwithstanding, it appears so far that most people who see it are favorably impressed by Wilson's idea. Also, it is the nature of public sculpture to grow on you. Chicagoans hated their Picasso when it was first unveiled at the Civic Center; now it's an icon.

Most important, think about how bold it is to place an African-American image in front of our city hall. At one time, that could never have happened here. Now it can. That's the best news of all.

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