One morning last May a controversial sculpture displayed at the University of Wyoming was destroyed and replaced with a patchwork of ordinary sod. That sod has itself became a form of art symbolizing censorship.
Governments have long exhibited an uneasy relationship with artistic expression. Before UW sanctioned and then destroyed Carbon Sink, the Athenians, Romans, and the medieval Catholic Church financed projects they later censored. Most recently the Taliban banned most art for fear of its potential to incite rebellion.
In a democracy a university doesn’t normally censor artistic expression as a matter of principle. That explains UW’s early defense of this art. But principle quickly gave way to the political and economic pressure brought by energy companies, donors and legislators who aren’t so excited about free expression.
Once the controversy arose, memories differed. The contract for loaning the sculpture to UW is silent on the issue. The artist is certain the sculpture was to remain until natural deterioration returned it “to the earth.” A collection of logs interspersed with coal shaped in a vortex, Carbon Sink symbolized the impact of climate change on Rocky Mountain forests. An “ashes-to-ashes” demise would have best made that point.
Under great pressure, UW Art Museum Director Susan Moldenhauer offered evolving explanations starting with, “It is also true that when the work was installed and during the controversy of its installation last year there were both no plans to desintall...” As political pressure mounted, the public record evidences efforts to ameliorate critics by assuring them the sculpture was only temporary. When Peabody Energy said the sculpture might cost UW its 2 million dollar donation, they were told, “The specific timeline has not been established, though the timelines discussed have been on the order of 1 to 3 years.”
A lot had happened since Buchanan initially said, “The University has and will promote a robust marketplace of ideas.” By the spring of 2012 he had tired of the fight, which cost UW a 2 million dollar art appropriation recommended by the governor and denied by the Appropriations Committee as a penalty for displaying the sculpture. On April 10th, Buchanan emailed Moldenhauer, “It’s about time the fire pit…disappeared. What’s the time schedule?”
She replied that Carbon Sink’s removal was scheduled for the summer of 2013. President Buchanan wasn’t willing to endure the threats and critics for another year. “Given the controversy that it has generated, it would be best for UW if the fire pit (I’ve forgotten the name of the work) could be considered part of the Prexy’s removal during the summer of 2012.”
So last May, less than a year after it was installed, it was destroyed in a way that sent a message. An email describing the removal said, “Some of the larger logs were kept in our bone yard on Gibbon Street; the smaller ones were disposed. The coal was taken to our Central Energy Plant and used in the boilers to produce heat.”
Lessons learned? UW learned the perils of tangling with the energy scions and their legislators, confirmed in this email to critics from Richards who, shortly before, was named chair of UW’s art committee, “The recent comments by policymakers, donors, and industry have opened the eyes of the faculty and staff to (and in some cases reinforced) the contributions of Wyoming’s energy industry, employees and contribution to the tax base.”
Rep. Lubnau walked away believing the legislature, not artists, should make decisions about art at the University. Lubnau told Public Radio, “I think that everybody who has a stake at the University of Wyoming should have the opportunity to have a say in what that university looks like for our citizens. And what better body than the mirror of the people of the state of Wyoming through the 90 people who are elected by the people of the state of Wyoming to have input?”
“The mirror of the people.” That phrase itself is a work of art with meaning made clear by this unfortunate episode.