Dana Schutz’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Sparks Protest
“It’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” says artist Hannah Black.
The 2017 Whitney Biennial—the first one to take place at museum’s new headquarters—has been widely praised as being uplifting, well-balanced, and as artnet News’s Ben Davis pointed out in his review, as having successfully learned from the bitter controversies over race and representation that haunted the previous iteration.
Not quite. UK-born, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black has launched a campaign demanding the Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket from the show, and calling for its destruction.
In addition, a small-scale protest, organized by the artist Parker Bright, took place last Friday—when the Biennial first opened to the public—with a group of five or six people standing in front of Schutz’s painting for hours, blocking it from view until the museum closed for the day.
The painting is based on a photograph of the funeral of Emmett Till, an African American boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of 14 after he had been falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. Till’s mother insisted on having an open casket funeral so people could see the brutality of the lynching, exposing the horrific extent of American racism. The press images of Till’s mutilated body, along with the fact that his murderers were subsequently acquitted, are often credited as having galvanized the Civil Rights movement in the US.
Schutz’s painting is a medium-sized canvas depicting Till’s face and chest, as he lies in his coffin. artnet News’ Christian Viveros-Fauné was impressed with the work, calling it a “powerful painterly reaction to the infamous 1955 funeral photograph of a disfigured Emmett Till,” adding that “the canvas makes material the deep cuts and lacerations portrayed in the original photo by means of cardboard relief.”
For Black and many others, however, the painting is so exploitative that it requires not only to be removed, but also destroyed, so it can’t circulate in the art market or be displayed in other institutions. “It’s not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” Black argues.
Here’s her open letter to the Biennial curators in full:
To the curators and staff of the Whitney Biennial:
I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.
As you know, this painting depicts the dead body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the open casket that his mother chose, saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” That even the disfigured corpse of a child was not sufficient to move the white gaze from its habitual cold calculation is evident daily and in a myriad of ways, not least the fact that this painting exists at all. In brief: The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because 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.
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. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.
Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a white woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture: The evidence of their collective lack of understanding is that Black people go on dying at the hands of white supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs, that Black children are still denied childhood. Even if Schutz has not been gifted with any real sensitivity to history, if Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.
Ongoing debates on the appropriation of Black culture by non-Black artists have highlighted the relation of these appropriations to the systematic oppression of Black communities in the US and worldwide, and, in a wider historical view, to the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people with which our present era began. Meanwhile, a similarly high-stakes conversation has been going on about the willingness of a largely non-Black media to share images and footage of Black people in torment and distress or even at the moment of death, evoking deeply shameful white American traditions such as public lynching. Although derided by many white and white-affiliated critics as trivial and naive, discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humor, and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded. I see no more important foundational consideration for art than this question, which otherwise dissolves into empty formalism or irony, into a pastime or a therapy.
The curators of the Whitney Biennial surely agree, because they have staged a show in which Black life and anti-Black violence feature as themes, and been approvingly reviewed in major publications for doing so. Although it is possible that this inclusion means no more than that blackness is hot right now, driven into non-Black consciousness by prominent Black uprisings and struggles across the US and elsewhere, I choose to assume as much capacity for insight and sincerity in the biennial curators as I do in myself. Which is to say—we all make terrible mistakes sometimes, but through effort the more important thing could be how we move to make amends for them and what we learn in the process. The painting must go.
Thank you for reading,
Whitney Independent Studies Program 2013–14
The letter has been signed by over 30 people, although the initial iteration, published yesterday on Facebook, included more signatories of all colors.
However, a few hours after publishing, Black updated her post, saying: “In response to some helpful criticism, I’m now only including Black co-signs. Non-Black people super very welcome to help get painting destroyed tho in other ways.”
artnet News has asked Hannah Black and the Whitney Museum for comment, as well as Dana Schutz via her Berlin gallery CFA. We will update the piece accordingly.
Whitney Biennial curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, sent the following statement to 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.
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