The silly controversy over Shane Balkowitsch’s proposal to mount a 7-foot-high portrait of the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg on the outside wall of a downtown building in Bismarck comes just as we learn that Antarctica has experienced the two hottest days on historical record and just when an iceberg the size of Malta has broken free from the Pine Island Glacier in western Antarctica.
Fully 99 percent of the world’s scientists agree that the Earth’s climate is being seriously endangered by carbon emissions. Greta Thunberg, insisting on “the fierce urgency of now,” has become the poster child of a global children’s crusade on climate, while her counterparts, including survivors of the Parkland school shooting in Florida, are leading a children’s crusade to demand an end to gun violence, inhumane detention of immigrants and refugees, human trafficking, and obscene income inequality.
There is delicious irony in all of this — determined young people grabbing the world’s microphones to address existential problems that their elders have shown no willingness to address — while three 78-year-old white males vie for the title of Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States.
Why can’t we see Greta Thunberg for what she is — an idealistic young person from Europe who feels passionately that we are imperiling the planet with our industrial effluents and that if we don’t wake up (now!), it may be too late? Her youth, passion, articulateness and haunting Nordic visage have won her international attention. She has addressed the United Nations. She has been featured on the cover of Time magazine. She addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She has gotten under the skin of the president of the United States. Donald Trump’s response to her Cassandra-like call for immediate and urgent attention to the impending climate disaster?: “Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old-fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” There’s the American trajectory, from John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you …” to Donald Trump’s “Chill out, go to a movie.”
Shane Balkowitsch is a tremendously talented wet plate photographer (and successful businessman) who has dedicated much of his recent life to making glass plate photographs of Native Americans, some of whom travel across the country to sit for his remarkable portraits. Glass plate photography is a difficult art, now practiced by a few thousand individuals worldwide. Each image must be painstakingly crafted using technologies that date to the 1860s. To “take a picture,” a glass plate must be coated in a darkroom with a silver nitrate emulsion, transferred wet in a protective light-tight frame to the camera and then transferred back to the darkroom for processing after the image is exposed. Each exposure takes approximately eight seconds during which the subject must remain perfectly still. Wet plate photography is expensive, time-consuming and technically unforgiving. It occupies the far other end of the photographic spectrum from a smart phone casually held up to take an instant digital photograph. It’s an art form. Shane has mastered it. And he deserves deep artistic respect.
Balkowitsch’s detractors, the climate deniers of Bismarck, do not, I believe, constitute a majority of community opinion, but they are loud, angry, righteous, mean-spirited and, of course, “outraged.” They are certainly entitled to boycott businesses that offend their prickly sensibilities and to pressure property owners to reject Balkowitsch’s art. Boycotts are an important political tool, though why they would choose to punish the proprietors of Brick Oven Bakery, who merely rent space from the owner of the building, is hard to fathom. Logic is not one of their specialties.
Now that Balkowitsch has canceled his plans to inscribe Greta’s image in Bismarck’s downtown, the militant carbonistas will feel they have won a battle in the culture wars, but thanks to their protest, Shane’s superb portrait of Greta Thunberg will now grace buildings in Fargo (that haven of the left!) and other cities across America. The Library of Congress has requested the original glass plate, “Standing for Us All,” for its permanent photographic archives — a fabulous honor for Balkowitsch and one for which all North Dakotans should feel proud.
Thanks to the outcry, Shane’s artistry will gain increased and much-deserved national and international acclaim. That is good news for the brilliant portfolio of photographs Shane has taken of 394 Native Americans, whom he encourages to pose in whatever way most contributes to their sense of dignity and cultural tradition. Meanwhile, Greta’s prominence will, if anything, increase thanks to the Bismarck protest.
The angry irrationality of her detractors amplifies and augments the legitimacy of her environmental message because if a lone 17-year-old can get under their skin so easily, she must be on to something. Her global success frets their insecurity. The best thing they could have done to show their disagreement with her message is simply to ignore her. As North Dakota’s most prominent conservative blogger put it, “if you oppose Thunberg’s economically illiterate rhetorical stylings as much as I do, the last thing you should want is to lend her cause a veneer of false credibility by turning her into a martyr.”
The world is slowly but surely moving away from its near-total addiction to carbon.
Reasonable people are right to be skeptical about how soon and how completely we can transcend an energy paradigm that has helped feed the world, create great (if uneven) global prosperity, liberate billions from backbreaking labor, send humans to the Moon and give many hundreds of millions of people unprecedented comfort, mobility and security. But the simple truth is that the United States is going to be at least significantly post-carbon before North Dakota’s supply of carbon runs out. We need to begin thinking about that post-Bakken world now, not when the national and world economies walk away from the carbon treasury under our feet.
Even if you disagree with Greta Thunberg’s formula for the future, her clarion call to action and debate is worth considering seriously. Nobody understands the challenge and opportunity of North Dakota’s post-carbon future more than Gov. Doug Burgum. His capacity to envision a North Dakota that has not yet been born is precisely why he is an important leader for this time, for most of the rest of us are either smirking at our good fortune or wringing our hands about the environmental and social costs of fracking.
What is all the fuss really about? If someone put up a mural in downtown Bismarck of Sarah Palin saying, “Drill, Baby, Drill!” I certainly wouldn’t boycott the business that happened to be housed in that landlord’s building (how can that be fair?), and I wouldn’t protest the mural either. Free speech is one of the central principles of American life. How is my ox gored by a private property owner’s visual political statement?
There was for a long time a hand-painted sign in east Dickinson saying, “White Lives Matter.” Although I thought the statement moronic, I didn’t lose any sleep over it, any more than when I saw a sign in western Nebraska during the Obama years, saying, “Don’t blame me, I voted for the American.”
A robust democracy needs robust debate. Take some time to study the photograph. A solemn young woman stands on the Great Plains looking off camera. This is not exactly Andres Serrano’s infamous 1987 “Piss Christ” photo or Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s 1972 image of a naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack. It’s a beautiful photograph of a beautiful (and determined) child.
Those who feel strongly about it have the right to pressure Greta Thunberg’s image off a downtown wall, but what do they gain by inviting vandalism, by threatening Shane Balkowitsch and his family, by spewing forth hatred and intolerance, by name-calling? The group that is behind much of the controversy, subscribers to the MinuteManBlog, posted an attack on Balkowitsch on Feb. 15 under the headline “Bismarck Artist Celebrates Nazi War Figure?” Why? Because Balkowitsch drives a Porsche and was seen wearing a T-shirt with Ferdinand Porsche’s face on it. This is the standard of argument to which we have descended.
I’m with Voltaire and the principles of the Enlightenment, which gave birth to the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Voltaire is reported to have said, “Madam, I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” Why don’t the Greta detractors write op-ed pieces about the wrongness of her point of view, about the “myth” of climate change, about the importance of continued carbon extraction in North Dakota and beyond? Denouncing her as “a misled kid who is being used by the eco-terrorists” (Scott Hennen) is just throwing phrases rather than rational arguments at the climate issue.
Misled by whom? As Time magazine reported in its ample 2019 “Person of the Year” article, Greta Thunberg led herself to her climate strike, in defiance of the concerns of her parents, her school teachers and administrators, and the parliament of Sweden. That she has been embraced by the climate movement is hardly surprising, just as Ted Nugent and Charlton Heston have been embraced by the NRA. Is she “being used?” Perhaps. We should ask her before we decide.
The Bismarck controversy may seem to be about climate, but the real energy of the detractors is a lingering anger over the DAPL Pipeline crisis of 2017. If Greta had been photographed in Theodore Roosevelt National Park rather than at Standing Rock, it is unlikely that matters would have boiled over as they have done.
The DAPL affair revealed the deep gulf between the lives and outlooks of North Dakota’s two basic communities, Native Americans and white Americans, and although it was a great international victory for the Lakota, Standing Rock and Native Americans generally, it was, I believe, a setback for white-Indian relations here at home. If white people can still feel they were “terrorized” during a crisis in which an oil pipeline was sited precisely on the border of a sovereign Indian reservation, on lands still claimed by the Lakota (Sioux) under provisions of the 1868 Great Sioux Treaty, it is clear that we have not learned much about the Legacy of Conquest, as University of Colorado historian Patricia Limerick terms the Americanization of the continent.
To the extent that the Great mural controversy is about climate change, the Culture of Outrage can deny the truth, but it cannot make it go away. First, evidence of human-generated climate change is everywhere around us and things are getting worse not better. The great majority of nations accepts the truth. They look on the scientific illiteracy of the United States with sadness and bewilderment. Only in American can a United States senator hold up a snowball on the floor of the Senate and say, “There’s your climate change!”
Other nations and their governments are working with discipline to reduce their carbon footprint. Europeans have found that moving toward a greener society is highly profitable from a business point of view and leads to important breakthroughs in non-carbon technologies.
Second, although Greta Thunberg has become a somewhat improbable poster child for that global movement, presidential bullying and ad hominem attacks will not make her (or the movement) go away. Just the opposite: they are an indication of her credibility and the growing consensus, even in the United States, that global warming must not be ignored any longer.
“I want you to panic,” Greta has said. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
Third, art is sometimes disruptive, transgressive, edgy, provocative and uncomfortable. I can understand why many Americans were disturbed by the work of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, especially since he was partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, but for the life of me I cannot detect blasphemy, crypto-pornography or subversiveness in a photograph of a young woman standing quietly in front of a plains river.
From all I can tell, in his afternoon with Greta on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Shane Balkowitsch was not making a political statement but simply taking a photograph of a young person who has caught the world’s attention and who chose to visit a remote part of America where he practices his extraordinary art.
Any serious photographer would have wished to capture Greta’s image on the site of a recent worldwide environmental controversy. Greta is already a world figure of historical importance, Time magazine’s Person of the Year, and she chose to visit Standing Rock, which is now a worldwide symbol of protest against what climate advocates call the petroleum military industrial complex. Shane would have wanted to take that photograph irrespective of his personal politics. When a North Dakotan somehow winds up on “Jeopardy” or “Wheel of Fortune,” she or he gets a half-page story in the Bismarck Tribune. Greta’s appearance at Standing Rock was an event of international importance. Of course, Shane Balkowitsch answered that artistic call. He would have been a fool to duck it.
I want to congratulate Gary Adkisson, the publisher of the Bismarck Tribune for his spirited defense of artistic expression and his unambiguous denunciation of vandalism, hate speech and threats to Shane Balkowitsch or any other artist or citizen of North Dakota. What institution has more credibility in championing the First Amendment than a newspaper, including one trying to survive the digital revolution in a conservative state? It has taken real moral courage for Adkisson and the staff of the Tribune to speak out as they have done.
I agree with Rob Port: “Those who made threats over Balkowitsch’s initial idea for a mural should be ashamed of themselves (and held accountable under the law, where appropriate). Those who have subsequently vandalized some of Balkowitsch’s other work should also be held accountable.” Port believes in the free marketplace of ideas (not eggs and spray paint!).
Everyone who values art, freedom of expression, robust democracy, and the search for truth needs to speak out in this controversy as the Tribune’s Gary Adkisson has done. The majority of people who stand for good sense, tolerance and generosity of spirit and are unthreatened by serious democratic debate, need to take back North Dakota from those who would close our borders to refugees, punish the Lakota for asserting their rights and their legitimate environmental concerns and who would shout down or vandalize artists whose work they cannot be bothered to refute with rational argument.
We need to be Pro Art, Pro Speech, and Pro Shane.
For more from Clay Jenkinson, go to jeffersonhour.com.