LA Artist Sam Durant on the Limits of Creativity & His Controversial Art Piece 'Scaffold'
By: Gary Duff
Artist Sam Durant, who will be honored at this year's 39th Venice Family Clinic's Art Walk & Auctions this Sunday, chatted with us about his own experience with the clinic, his controversial art piece "Scaffold," and the debate over the limits of creativity.
In addition to being honored this weekend by the Venice Family Clinic, you've created a new piece entitled, “Everyone Deserves Healthcare,” to benefit the organization. Tell me about what the recognition means to you.
SAM DURANT: As you may know, the Venice Family Clinic was a place I first found out about as a young, struggling, broke artist in Los Angeles needing healthcare. I remember asking around where I should go to the doctor and someone said, "Hey, try Venice Family Clinic." So it's great to give back to that organization and support it, especially nowadays as healthcare becomes one of our most difficult issues to face as a society.
The clinic asked me to create an addition to benefit the organization so I thought, "Why not do something relevant?" So I started looking around. I've worked with images and reproductions of protest signs for almost 20 years. It seemed natural to look through some of the healthcare demonstrations that have been happening over the last few years for inspiration.
I imagine that the period you grew up in, the Vietnam war, must have shaped your fascination and work with protest signs, no?
SD: It's partially the time that I grew up in, and the time and place that I grew up, and the affect that that had on me. Growing up as many artists do, we feel like outsiders to mainstream society and we often wonder where we fit in. And I suppose that sense of looking at it from that perspective, combined with my upbringing—music was such a big part of the political movements of the time: anti-Vietnam war movement and civil rights movement—and seeing artists, particularly musicians, dedicate their creative energy to political struggle was sort of natural to me, not unusual, and something that so many people did at the time.
Several writers have told me that the distance of being an outsider—unbothered by certain distractions, such as social media—gave them the creativity that pressure would have otherwise taken away from them. Do you feel the same way when you create?
SD: Absolutely. I'm not on social media, so I don't have that pressure, but I feel you often need a space away from the daily stuff of life to work.
I certainly respect people who use social media as a platform to do great things with it. I don't have any moral issues with it. But for me, it doesn't work. I need the combination of things: alone time, to reflect and think, but also to have time with people, especially with the public projects I do, one-on-one in person that needs to be about some kind of a genuine communication and connection. I find social media actually gets in the way of that. It polarizes people and I think we need to spend time together within proximity of each other with as few preconceived ideas and prejudices as possible.
I wanted to ask you whether you felt, given the experiences you've had with some people protesting your work—that the contemporary artist doesn't quite have the luxury of a safe space anymore.
SD: I think this goes to some of the issues, for instance for minority writers, artists, musicians, and women, they've never really had a safe space within mainstream society, but I think, one thing I learned with my experience with "Scaffold," that social media has in some senses, given the white artist, the one who never really had to deal with these things, a taste of that. I felt like, "Wow, this is what artists of color and women deal with all the time." It's tough. It's not that I didn't know that before, I just didn't have personal experience being categorized and described by people who don't know me, my history, or who I am, and don't care. That was a real eye-opener on a personal level. Like I said, I was aware of that intellectually on a cognitive basis as whites can in a racist society be aware of these thing, but certainly we don't have the actual experience of discrimination.
That was a piece that was shown in the U.K., Germany, and Scotland. In my recollection, it wasn't as controversial there as it was here in America.
SD: It was very well received in Germany, where over a million people saw it, including many native American artists and curators, and many of them expressed their admiration of the work. It was up an entire year in the Hague, in relation to the ICC and so forth, and again it was well received. I think I've mentioned this in other interviews, where I think it has to do with our history in the United States and the fact that we haven't dealt with our history, and certainly going to Minneapolis, the place itself, where so many Dakota people live. That was the circumstance.
Let me ask you that cliche question every artist gets asked, do you think creativity should have a limit?
SD: I think it's a great question that I think we have to keep asking. The answer for me is yes and no [laughs]. The theory of freedom of expression and freedom of speech, is probably one of the most important ideas. In terms of the freedom to become the best people that we can and create the best society that we can, it varies depending on the time and the place. I always say, I feel free, and I think any artist should feel free, to say anything about anything. I think that's a pretty fair baseline. Now the question is, how do we say it? Had I been able to connect with the Dakota community in Minneapolis at the time, I might have altered that work. It would have had the same message, which is about capital punishment and our history in the United States, but it wouldn't have offended and traumatized the Dakota people. I still feel I could make a work about that, I would just do it differently.