Many in the “art world” are thinking a lot about the controversy at the Whitney Biennial surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket. Bear with me while I take my turn at it. (See below for links to other readings).
Does she have the right to make that painting and to show it? Yes. If we ever seriously start saying who does and does not own certain subjects we will be sliding down a step slope.
Should it be taken down? I don’t think so. Should it have been included to begin with? I don’t know –
I feel conflicted.
I feel my whiteness in this and I don’t want to lie to myself about what this is or how it works …
I am tempted to be silent rather than prove myself naïve or ignorant … but that seems contrary to my deepest ideals. I don’t want to be a coward.
For me, in strange ways, the controversy reinforces the mechanisms of privilege and power. The attention to Open Casket drowns out and distracts from the work of lesser-known artists who are also in the Biennial. Their biennial moment is being occluded, washed away. It grabs the media – the public eye – and moves it away from what else might be thoughtful, meaningful, or potent in the show …
It is an unfortunate side effect of people caring about things that matter.
But maybe this moment could be used as a magnifying glass to turn attention to the full roster of the show’s artists? Maybe it could be used as a megaphone so that conversations that don’t usually happen – happen? –
How do we talk about things that really matter?
Whitney Biennial 2017
This is an art show – an art show – an art show – it mediates and objectifies. Sometimes this gives us the distance or the emotional armor to approach real things – and sometimes it numbs and aestheticizes –
The original photograph gives us neither armor nor beauty.
Emmett Till’s murder is an example of the horror that grows from one person’s ability to dehumanize another person. It was a murder committed from an assumption that one human, because of the circumstances into which they are born, inherently deserves hate, violence and contempt. It is a piercing example of a kind of depravity that is unable to consider the value of human life that is somehow other than its own.
It is a symptom of a kind of social psychopathy that is still with us.
His mother’s grief and rage held up a mirror to those who would dismiss and diminish his suffering and her gapping loss.
However this moment came again to our attention, it is a reminder of something that is radically prescient. We can pray that we steel ourselves against those thoughts and feelings that tempt us away from a commitment to shared humanity but any ideology that reduces human beings to something “other” only propagates a living nightmare. Such ideologies assure future horrors.
I think a lot about the “they” some speak of – the confidence that those speaking have that “they” are evil. This capacity to believe that there is a “they” is terrifying.
It’s important to know where our empathy goes first.
Maybe the painting does us a favor of reminding us of its source – maybe.
And maybe Till’s murder still has some power to awaken in our social consciousness an understanding that more recent events have somehow failed to do - maybe. We can use all the help we can get.
Other Readings on this subject:
"On Dana Schutz's Open Casket: A Masterful Yet Imperfect Painting" by Paddy Johnson, Artfcity
"The Violence of the 2017 Whitney Biennial" by Hrag Vartanian, Hyperallergic
"Black Artists Are Calling For An Emmett Till Painting To Be Destroyed" by Jordan Danville, Fader
"Dana Schutz’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Sparks Protest" by Lorena Muñoz-Alonso, Artnet
Added on March 29, 2017
"Censorship, not the Painting, Must Go" by Coco Fusco, Hyperallergic