Controversial crop art at the Minnesota State Fair: Who decides what's OK to display?


Journalist David Brauer was walking through the crop art exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday when he tweeted, "BREAKING: It appears partisan #cropart has been completely excised from #mnfair."

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[jump] Mark Dahlager checked with others to make sure his artwork was still hanging, and it was: a mosaic of amaranth, clover, and poppy seeds that formed the hooded figure of Trayvon Martin.

The confusion was with Brauer's use of the word "excised."

"It was kind of a poor choice of verbs," Brauer conceded Friday when reached by phone. "I just meant that there wasn't much (partisan art) up on the walls."

Even if his message was lost in translation, Brauer had a point. Why isn't there more political crop art at this year's state fair?

That's a question for Ron Kelsey. For the last 14 years, he has been responsible for choosing the crop art to display in the fair's crop building. Asked why there aren't more political messages at this year's fair, he replies simply, "It's not a big election year."

The wall dedicated to crop art, which features 123 pieces -- about 15 more than last year, Kelsey said -- is a cross pollination of the folky and the nerdy. It features mostly animals and movie characters: a tropical parrot at the base, the electrifying Bride of Frankenstein near the ceiling.

Crop art is not necessarily a political medium. However, some of the most eye-catching pieces of years past have been almost outlandishly partisan. In 2010, one could find the wry-mouthed floating head of Dick Cheney suspended above the words "THE ROOT of EVIL."

During Kelsey's time, only two pieces have been weeded out of competition, neither for political reasons. One depicted a woman's breast -- "We considered that to be obscene," Kelsey said -- and one depicted Jerry Garcia with the seeds of a crop not grown legally in Minnesota: hemp.

"I knew I would be disqualified," says the hemp art's creator, Mark Dahlager, the same artist who submitted the Trayvon Martin image this year.

Kelsey is careful to judge a piece of art based on its marriage between form and content while leaving his own political beliefs at home.

But not everyone is so forgiving. Kelsey says he got calls from "conservative, Christian-type people" even after last year's fair ended. They didn't like that some of the crop art had taken an overt favorable stance on gay marriage.

In 2009, the same types questioned Kelsey as to why he hadn't included the crop art image of a Republican leader alongside the one of President Obama. His response was simple: No one had submitted one.

"It's entirely up to the people what they want to do," Kelsey says.

This year's top prize, as chosen by a three-person panel that Kelsey selected, went to Laura Melnick. She re-spun the classic cover of "Charlotte's Web," putting five guns into the hands of the title character and blasting the sky with a variation on the popular NRA slogan that Charlton Heston famously thundered, "From my cold dead hands!"

"Gun control isn't necessarily a partisan issue," says Melnick, whose husband is Mark Dahlager.

This year's lack of overtly political art notwithstanding, there was one example of unmistakable partisanship in the crop building: a Michele Bachmann scarecrow with the sign "No Longer eating crow (on a stick)."

-- Email Jesse Marx at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @marxjesse