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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Ugly Art of Politics

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Most political controversies over art are just silly: low-rent politicians pretending to represent ordinary folks by loudly objecting to any public art that bothers anyone who doesn't understand it.

From the moment Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office, however, he seems to have intentionally stirred far darker political controversies.

A Walker art controversy is no exception.

The art Walker finds objectionable is the exact opposite of all that disturbing abstract expressionism.

It is a beautifully uplifting painting in the photo-realistic style of Wisconsin artist David Lenz showing three city children—black, Latino and white—playing with bubbles in a Milwaukee neighborhood.

Lenz's work, Wishes in the Wind, was commissioned by the foundation that maintains the Governor's Mansion and placed prominently over a mantel in the first-floor public area in November.

When Walker and his family moved into the mansion in January, they removed the painting and replaced it with a picture of a bald eagle.

Lenz, who lives in Shorewood, is one of Wisconsin's most honored artists.

In 2006, Lenz's portrait of his son, Sam and the Perfect World won first place in the national competition of the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.

The prize included a commission for Lenz to paint a prominent American to become part of the National Gallery's permanent collection.

He chose Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics. Sam, who has Down syndrome, loves the Special Olympics and wrote a personal letter thanking Shriver and asking her to let his dad paint her portrait.

The result, a stunning portrait of Shriver and a multiracial group of five Special Olympics athletes on a Cape Cod beach at sunrise, is worth a trip to Washington, D.C. Sam and the Perfect World is now a prominent part of the Milwaukee Art Museum collection.

(Consider this full disclosure or just bragging: We're proud to own a signed print of Peace in Our Neighborhood, another in Lenz's series showing multiracial children interacting positively on Milwaukee streets, sold to benefit the Holton Youth Center.)

Lenz began the Madison commission shortly after completing the Shriver portrait. He was selected because most of the Wisconsin art in the executive residence consisted of landscapes and wildlife.

Lenz welcomed the opportunity to remind future governors and those around them of the hopes and dreams of children in the inner city.

Lenz admits intentionally selecting the children in the painting to make some political points. The irony is Walker was not the target. Former Gov. Jim Doyle was.

The young white boy had a father and older brother who were killed by a drunken driver. Lenz earlier had lost a brother in an accident caused by a drunken driver. Lenz personally lobbied Doyle and the Democrats then controlling the Legislature for stronger drunken-driving laws.

One of the benefits of the commission was that Doyle met not only with Lenz, but also the children and their families to hear their stories.

Lenz chose the Latina girl as someone benefiting from programs of the Boys & Girls Club he supports. The African-American girl had been homeless and lived for three months with her mother in the Milwaukee Rescue Mission, a private nonprofit that receives no government funding.

To the extent Lenz thought at all about Walker, who was running for governor, he thought showcasing someone benefiting from private assistance would appeal to Walker ideologically.

"The homeless, central-city children and victims of drunk drivers normally do not have a voice in politics," Lenz said. "This painting was an opportunity for future governors to look these three children in the eye and, I hope, contemplate how their public policies might affect them and other children like them."

Politically Significant

The haste with which Walker removed the portrait to put those children out of sight and out of mind is politically significant, Lenz said.

The governor then immediately proposed reducing tax credits for the working poor and gutting state funding for public education and cities.

But it's the governor's house, right? Shouldn't Walker have the right to decorate his own home any way he wants?

Not really. The governor's residence is a 34-room mansion, with 13 bathrooms, owned by the state of Wisconsin. The private living quarters are on the upper floors.

The first floor is a public area used for meetings and receptions. Lenz liked the idea of school tours going through seeing children just like them.

Since Walker rejected the commissioned portrait, Mayor Tom Barrett, a strong supporter, welcomes hanging it in the Milwaukee Central Library or anywhere else Lenz wants, saying: "Madison's loss is Milwaukee's gain."

Lenz appreciates that, but says Milwaukee already knows the faces of children living in the inner city. Policy-makers in Madison are the ones who need to be reminded.

"It's too easy to forget about those children 90 miles away."