The Denver Art Museum has on display a poorly executed but anthropologically interesting painting called, ‘The Cutting Scene, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony‘, by George Catlin:
Interior of a Mandan timber medicine lodge depicting the limp bodies of two young Native American males hoisted in the air with ropes attached to wooden splints inserted through the muscles in their shoulders and chest. Below tribe member seated around a small fire watch as the two young men adorned with shields, spears, and animal skulls slip into unconsciousness during the ceremony.
The Cutting Scene, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony, Art Inventories Catalog
You may have seen a film representation of the O-kee-pa ceremony in the 1970 movie, ‘A Man Called Horse‘. Richard Harris plays an aristocrat who is captured by Native Americans, eventually gaining the respect of his captors and tormentors and finally joining the tribe. As part of his initiation into tribal customs he undergoes the excruciatingly painful vertical suspension by hooks embedded in his chest.
Nobody, as far as I know, has objected to the ceremony’s depiction in , ‘A Man Called Horse‘; yet the Denver Art Museum claims Caitlin’s painting provokes controversy for its exploitation of the Native American religion; or because of its goggle-eyed sideshow approach to a sacred rite; or some other such reason.
In the American fashion of obeisance to all minority cultural and religious traditions, especially Native American ones, however silly or repugnant they may be, the Museum presents the work to visitors with an apology that labels it the most controversial painting in the collection and devotes adjacent wall space to an interactive display that gives the views of art lecturers, cultural historians and Native Americans, encouraging the public, especially schoolchildren, to contribute their own remarks, which are duly and unnecessarily apologetic for the imagined offence.
According to the Museum, the ‘the tribe feels it’s wrong for the sacred ceremony to be seen by outsiders’ – although, as the painter had been invited by the one of the tribe’s holy men to view the ritual, it seems that today’s tribal representatives (the last full-blooded Mandan died nearly forty years ago) are ignoring the wishes of other, long-dead inhabitants of North America, riding roughshod over their views of their religioun in an unhesitant act of cultural annexation. We all visit the past as foreigners: today’s 21st Centry Native Americans are barely connected to the 19th Century Mandan religious ceremonies or the 19th Century Mandans, or to the clearly expressed desire to share with Catlin this particular rite.
Further on in the gallery, a large canvas by a contemporary artist depicts a crucified naked woman. This reference to a sacred symbol of Western religion provokes from the Museum no similar, sensitive exposition of the meanings of the work, careful regard for the sensibilities of Christians, an acknowledgement of the possibility of giving offence, or interactive contrition for children. The accompanying blrub says,
Did Barbara Kruger make this image to offend? Possibly. Or it might be an ironic statement…to draw attention to our expectation that modern art is offensive
Like Serrano’s Piss Christ, the work is understood – as the postmodernists of the Denver Art Museum’s captioning team might have put it – as an articulation in the ongoing narrative of art and culture – against the background of a dying religion, clung to desperately – as Obama says – by hicks living in the flyover States. No need to apologise to them.