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.