A painting of a murdered black child, Emmett Till, hanging in the Whitney Biennial exhibition has stirred conversation on cultural appropriation, artistic ownership and Black bodies as a spectacle, culminating in a critical question:
Do white artists have the right to depict black pain?
A little history on the subject of the painting… on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. Ill, the mother of Emmett Till, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted that her son’s body be displayed in an open casket forcing the nation to see the brutality directed at blacks in the South at that time.
Flash forward to the Whitney Biennal in 2017, a survey of American Art that happens every two years in New York. A painting by Dana Schutz, Open Casket, reimagines the open casket photo and in a gruesome similarity to the original image, Schutz paints Till’s face in the abstract, reminding us that his face was left disfigured and unidentifiable.
This last week the painting sparked outrage and public protest among some Black artists, who have called for its removal and destruction and have physically blocked the piece in the gallery.
It has divided the art world and I have seen many posts with long threads about the controversy on both sides of the argument. Subjects like white violence, white privilege, black suffering, the value of art, who can speak for whom, and who can comment on whose experience have raged on for days. The art-world has lined up on opposing sides, some claiming an artist’s right to depict any subject they choose, and rail against what they call censorship; others point out that white privilege and the appropriation of black experience is as old as America itself, and inherently pernicious.
Berlin-based artist Hannah Black posted an open letter on Facebook to the Whitney Museum curators and staff,
“It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time. Contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution.“
Art critic Gary Indiana wrote on the subject and had this to say,
“At the risk of causing further pain, Black or otherwise, it seemed obvious to me, reading Black’s letter, that the author herself was ‘pretending to care’ about the emotional injury she claims Schutz’s innocuous painting inflicts on a black viewer. In reality, Schutz’s painting serves Black as an almost arbitrary pretext for a cliché-riddled, race-baiting demagoguery, calculated to ensure many seasons of earnestly pointless panel discussions, starring none other than Hannah Black.“
(If you care to read more of Indiana’s reasoned assessment of the controversy and his option on Hannah Black’s stance, you can go here.)
There was a faked letter circulating, not from Shutz, demanding that the painting be removed but since then, Schutz has responded saying the painting is,
“not a rendering of the photograph but is more an engagement with the loss. I understand the outrage. Till’s photograph was a sacred image of the Civil Rights movement and I am a white woman. I did not take making this painting lightly. I don’t object to people questioning the work or even my right to make it. There has to be an open discussion.“
She also says the painting
“was never and is not for sale.“
She says she made the painting in August of 2016 during a time which she calls “a state of emergency” that came about as a result of fatal officer involved shootings of unarmed Blacks. She believes the violence Till experienced coincides with violence and brutality innocent Black men face today.
"The photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous to the time, what was hidden was now revealed. I was struck by Mamie Till’s account of witnessing her son and her grief and rage. Her gesture of leaving the casket open was about visibility, sharing pain and witnessing. I wanted the painting to be intimate, not grotesque but I wanted to show the brutality.”
Art professor Dr. Lisa Whittington, a black artist who has created two paintings of Emmett Till, says she doesn’t have an issue with a white artist taking on the difficult subject matter, but questions Schutz’s perspective in making the painting.
“I would ask her, why she did not paint the Emmett Till Story from a white woman’s point of view? Is there nothing that as a white woman that she would want to say? Especially in recently knowing that the woman who accused Emmett Till has admitted that she lied. Where is the artwork that represents her lies?. The two men who lynched Emmett? Where is the artwork about them? Does she have nothing to say there?“
As artists—responsible artists—we are to speak and to document history. We are to tell about life from our point of view from where we stand.”
Parker Bright, New York-based interdisciplinary artist, curator, and co-founder of 4E Gallery in Chicago protested the depiction, physically blocked the painting for eight hours over two days.
Baruti Kopano, is an associate professor at Morgan State University and author of Soul Thieves: The Appropriation and Misrepresentation of African American Popular Culture. On WNYC’s The Takeaway, Kopano discussed the controversy surrounding the painting and Schutz’s response,
“At what point do Black people control the stories of Black bodies? I can appreciate the artist’s attempt to keep this memory alive. I can appreciate the artist’s attempt to engage us in dialogue – I’m not sure if she imagined this level of controversy.“
Despite public outcry from Black artists, the Whitney Biennial curators are standing by their decision to feature the work. Curators Mia Locks, Christopher Y. Lew, Nancy and Fred Poses released a joint statement to NBCBLK stating,
“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.“
The curators describe Schutz’s painting as an
“unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans.“
For me, another painting in the exhibit, Censorship Now, by Frances Stark, study for it above, totally sums up the argument, in black and white.
I understand both sides of this, I think, being a gay artist, belonging to a minority that has been abused and tortured by society in similar ways. But I’m white, and I’m not a parent. My only way in to understand this argument on a personal level, is to imagine a radical image that depicts some aspect of gay cultural by a straight artist. I think artists DO get a lot of leeway to express themselves, but I understand the personal, institutional and cultural aspects of the protests. I will say that no matter which side you are on, it’s opened a a platform to stand on and say what we think... and THAT is what art IS for. The question is, in our echo-chamber world, are we listening to each other?