Free speech: White artist paints Emmett Till, black artists protest

Artist Parker Bright protesting Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, 2016. Photo: Scott W. H. Young, @hei_scott. (via ArtForum)

Contributed by Sharon Butler / In 1955, two white men brutally lynched  Emmet Till, a black 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in their Mississippi town. The men were arrested, tried, and unjustly, outrageously, acquitted of all charges. At the time, horrifying photographs of Till’s mutilated face, taken as he lay in an open casket with his mother looking on, were published in Jet Magazine and are widely acknowledged to have helped change the course of race relations in America. Time Magazine included one on a recent list of the 100 Most Influential Photographs in the World, and artist Dana Schutz used it as the source image for “Open Casket,” a 2016 painting  that has been included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. This week, black artists and writers are protesting not only the painting’s inclusion in the Biennial, but the painting’s very existence; a black British-born artist has even suggested that Schutz’s painting be destroyed.

According to the protesters, Schutz, because she is white, has no right to use these images as source material for paintings and the Whitney should not have included her canvas in the Biennial because the paintings of the images of the battered boy are unbearably offensive. According to a report in the NYTimes:

An African-American artist, Parker Bright, has conducted peaceful protests in front of the painting since Friday, positioning himself, sometimes with a few other protesters, in front of the work to partly block its view. He has engaged museum visitors in discussions about the painting while wearing a T-shirt with the words “Black Death Spectacle” on the back. Another protester, Hannah Black, a British-born black artist and writer working in Berlin, has written a letter to the biennial’s curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, urging that the painting be not only removed from the show but also destroyed.

“The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” Ms. Black wrote in a Facebook message that has been signed by more than 30 other artists she identifies as nonwhite. “White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.” She added that “contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends.”

Black’s letter also stated that:

Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material.

Schutz responded that she was drawn to the image as a mother:

I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother . . . Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.

The Whitney Biennial curators responded to the protests with the following statement (via artnet News):

The 2017 Whitney Biennial brings to light many facets of the human experience, including conditions that are painful or difficult to confront such as violence, racism, and death. Many artists in the exhibition push in on these issues, seeking empathetic connections in an especially divisive time. Dana Schutz’s painting, Open Casket (2016), is an unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans. For many African Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance. By exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history and the history of race relations in this country. As curators of this exhibition we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.

Through their actions, the protestors have raised awareness of white privilege, the tragic (and ongoing) violence against young black men, and black artists’ exclusion from white-centric art institutions. Parker Bright created a powerful, informative protest (should we consider it a performance piece?) in front of Shutz’s painting. I appreciate Bright’s response and maybe Schutz does, too, because (among other things) it reveals how complex and meaningful images can be. Art can precipitate dialogue and help us see the world differently, think about things in ways we haven’t thought about them before, feel the way other people do, and understand politics and issues from different points of view. Many people are weighing in on social media.

But do the artists and writers who signed Hannah Black’s letter really believe that censoring artists and creating a precedent for limiting the type of work institutions can display is the best outcome? As artists, both black and non-black, living in a decidedly anti-art, anti-intellectual country, don’t we all have more in common with one other than not? Shouldn’t artists (within reason — I’m not condoning hate speech) have the freedom to explore all the subject matter and content that they find compelling? If Schutz is guilty of anything, it seems to be naiveté. Can’t we agree to continue having challenging discussions about the work without demanding that it be taken it off the wall and destroyed?

The 2017 Whitney Biennial,” Whitney Museum of American Art, West Village, New York, NY. Through June 11, 2017.

Related posts:
New subjectivity: Figurative painting at Pratt Manhattan Gallery
Artists under duress: Max Beckmann
Art and Film: War and art’s uneasy survival

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7 thoughts on “Free speech: White artist paints Emmett Till, black artists protest”

  1. Agreed, we can have the discussion without demanding the work be removed and destroyed, a demand which should be an obvious red flag indicating overarching rhetoric. But the discussion needs to be much more nuanced and balanced than educating white people on indentity politics, which becomes the equivalent of shutting down a Bernie Sanders rally under the guise of fighting “white supremacy”. This extreme rhetoric drives a lot of people to conservatism, and is part of why we have a Trump presidency. The alt-right has argued that radical leftists groups have been by far their greatest recruiting weapon.

    I wrote an article analyzing the problem of this sort of attack on an artist, which I dare say is much more dangerous and divisive than the painting itself, which, I agree, is probably most guilty of naivete. See my article here: https://artofericwayne.com/2017/03/22/should-this-painting-be-destroyed-in-defense-of-dana-schutz/

  2. I saw the painting at the preview before the protest. I was not familiar with the artist or the painting before I saw it. I did not know whether the artist was white or black. The painting shocked me with its power and I walked away profoundly saddened by this senseless violent killing and moved by Emmitt Till’s mother’s decision to have an open casket. The painting stayed with me for a long time. Reading about the controversy now I feel the artist portrayed the complexity of this tragedy strongly and effectively. Getting viewers to feel something or anything about a work of art is not easy. Getting them to feel outrage, sadness, and despair when looking at a work of art is even harder. Dana Schutz succeeded, at least with me. I would think that is what the black community would want to evoke in a piece of art on this subject no matter who painted it.

    1. I’m a painter and the mother of a recently dead child. Addressing the painting part: aside, for the moment, from any presumed political or self-promotional motivations, Ms. Shutz’ choice of this particular photo as source material strikes me as a sort of stylistic opportunism. I can’t help noticing an equivalence between the distortions of Mr. Till’s features, as photographed, and the distortions in Ms. Shutz’ paintings. I don’t intend to imply that Ms. Shutz literally paints what she sees, but I wonder if, consciously or not, she was attracted to this photo because its subject was pre-ravaged? In this context, the fact that she did NOT render Mr. Till’s individuality as it appears in the photo, but rather increased the distortions literally beyond recognition, can be seen as promoting her painterly mannerism over his suffering. [Google “Emmett Till painting” to see the work of other (far less well-known) artists who have treated the same photo rather differently in their work.] Such a choice could be seen as a logical extension of Ms. Shutz’ explorations of violence, which have traversed from, say, fantasy depictions of figures cannibalizing themselves (“Self Eaters”) to imagining a well-known person in extremity (“Autopsy of Michael Jackson”) to using publicized images of an actual event as source material (“Fight in an Elevator”). The fact that the subjects of “Autopsy,” “Elevator,” and “Casket” are all African-American warrants further discussion and perhaps a fresh examination of Ms. Shutz’ oeuvre. The picture of Mr. Till in his casket is in the public domain; Ms. Shutz’ right to use it should not be in question. Why she chose it, however, and what she hoped to achieve in her painting of it are entirely appropriate questions. This leads to addressing the mother part: Ms. Shutz’ statement claiming empathy with Mr. Till’s mother sounds an awful lot like spin, especially because she contradicts herself. If “anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension,” then “their pain” – Ms. Till Mobley’s pain, my pain, any bereaved parent’s pain – is most emphatically NOT your pain, Ms. Shutz. Unless you engage with your critics more courageously than you have to date, appropriating Mr. Till’s image will seem callow, insulting, and calculated for your personal gain. At best, your claim of empathy with Mr. Till’s mother sounds appallingly obtuse. Mr. Till’s mother and his memory deserve better.

  3. Instead of removing or destroying the work, perhaps we would be well served if the curators/museum would invite a responding work from the protestor(s)….this could become unwieldy, of course, but we’re in such an unusual time this would be a rare, high-profile moment for a dialogue. I heard a 1st amendment expert who had lived through the Holocaust talk about the only real response to free speech/expression you object to must be more free speech. That’s challenging but I’d like to think its true.

  4. Jerry Saltz, in his infomercial style, noted Schutz’ work in his Whitney review. Given her flagging career I couldn’t help feeling there was some collusion between Saltz, the curators, dealers and collectors: why was her work even in the show? After her initial success out of the privileged university utopia of Columbia, she has been treading water. And living in a bubble, popped by running into something that has real teeth, namely race. She seems clueless about it and the essentialist ‘ I’m a Mom. ‘ empathy seems like damage control. She reminds me of the clueless sorority sister who shows up at a Halloween party dressed in black face and mammy clothes to show black slavery awareness or a pocahontas outfit to show support for the plight of the Native American. It seems immature. Maybe some Nazi atrocity paintings done in German X style are next? The free speech argument seems like parallel play. Moreover, since so much of her past work involved parody, it is hard to know if she intended this as a joke?

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