Written by Maxwell L. Anderson
Public art at its best and most meaningful is a source of discussion -- discussion about issues of common, public concern. Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C., a figurative scar in the earth, was reviled by many at its 1982 dedication, because it lacked positive attributes about the soldiers who gave their lives. Today it is among the most acclaimed war memorials in the world -- in particular by veterans and their families.
Our city has a large number of war memorials. Fred Wilson's proposal of the sculpture "E Pluribus Unum" for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail addresses one such memorial, and in the process has aroused strong feelings. It was meant to do so. But it has another dividend. Unlike public art that is merely decorative or celebratory, it operates on multiple levels at the same time.
One of these is that a slave, or more accurately a freed one, has been an unnoticed component of the central symbol of our city in Monument Circle for over a century. It took Fred Wilson's artistic act to get us to notice it. Wilson has proposed to free the slave from the monument, and thereby point to the absence of other monuments to African-Americans. But he has also forced a valuable discussion about race in our city for the first time in recent memory.
And that is why all citizens should be proud to bring their loved ones to see Wilson's artwork. Because it is a powerful demonstration of the intelligence, bravery and leadership of one of this century's most celebrated and important African-American artists, who is making a compelling work for this place, at this time.
Arguments about the sculpture that have had the most visibility illustrate how much we need it -- to help our city address the absence of other, future monuments to the many African-Americans who have changed our lives for the better. Let's get "E Pluribus Unum" fabricated and installed. It has the promise to become the most important work of public art in our city -- and among the most important and talked-about of our generation. It also has the potential to improve the quality of racial dialogue throughout our fractured country, much in the way that Maya Lin's memorial deepened our thinking about another divisive issue and showed us a way forward. We can foster a meaningful dialogue about race through a single, very important sculpture.
Anderson is The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.