Dana Schutz Responds to the Uproar Over Her Emmett Till Painting at the Whitney Biennial

"The painting is very different from the photograph."

Painter Dana Schutz.
Painter Dana Schutz. image courtesy of Tom Powel Imaging. https://vimeo.com/tompowelimaging/8americansdanaschutz

Since the opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, Dana Schutz’s painting of the body of the murdered Emmett Till, titled Open Casket, has triggered not just debate, but protests. These have included both attempts to prevent visitors to the galleries from seeing the work unobstructed, and a widely shared call that the canvas should be removed from the show and destroyed. The central contention is that it is offensive that the painter, a white woman, would depict black suffering—and potentially profit from it. (She has said the work will not be sold.)

artnet News reached out to Schutz for her response to the controversy. Below, a brief Q&A with the artist.

What was the genesis of the painting? How did you decide to tackle this subject in particular, and what meaning do you think you add to the subject with this work? 
I made this painting in August of 2016 after a summer that felt like a state of emergency—there were constant mass shootings, racist rallies filled with hate speech, and an escalating number of camera-phone videos of innocent black men being shot by police. The photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous to the time: what was hidden was now revealed.

The painting is very different from the photograph. I could never render the photograph ethically or emotionally.

I always had issues with making this painting, everything about it. And it is still uncertain for me.

You’ve said, in the Times, that you approached the painting as a mother, and as a way to explore a mother’s pain. Would there have been no way to address the subject without, as your critics would have it, appropriating black experience?

It was the feeling of understanding and sharing the pain, the horror. I could never, ever know her experience, but I know what it is to love your child. I don’t know if there would be a way to address the subject without some way of approaching it on a personal level.

Could you have foreseen that you were stepping on a third rail by treating this explosive subject? If so, what made it necessary to paint Emmett Till specifically?
Yes, for many reasons. The anger surrounding this painting is real and I understand that. It’s a problematic painting and I knew that getting into it. I do think that it is better to try to engage something extremely uncomfortable, maybe impossible, and fail, than to not respond at all.

Will the reaction to the painting change anything about your practice in the future?
I’m sure it has to.


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