May 2017

by Mark W. Scala/ Chief Curator
Frist Center for the Visual Arts

Dana Schutz, Open Casket, 2016, Oil on canvas, 39” × 53”, Collection of the artist; Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

There have been strident disputes about the 2017 Whitney Biennial’s inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, which portrays lynching victim Emmett Till lying in a coffin, his mutilated remains exposed to the world. The source of the painting is a grisly photograph, published in Jet magazine soon after the murder in 1955 at the request of his mother, who wanted the evidence of her son’s suffering and death to be registered in the public’s consciousness.

Schutz has taken this image and, with paint, expressionistically distorted it so that it is difficult to read as more than demolished flesh. A white woman, Schutz says that she sought to convey empathy toward Till’s own mother, who suffered such a terrible loss, while pointing out parallels in recent killings of unarmed black men by police. Yet, the painting has triggered protests and calls for its removal and destruction. Her critics argue that Schutz is exploiting and even profiting from a crime that has traumatized black Americans in a way that a white artist could not begin to understand. She has made a spectacle of suffering without saying anything insightful about racism in America, past or present. By translating a disturbing photograph into a near abstraction, she has undermined its power as a sacred icon of martyrdom and an inspiration to the civil rights movement in the late 1950s.

The work and this response lead one to ask if being horrified by this murder or, for that matter, any atrocity, doesn’t make an artistic representation of it any more than a helpless echo of a feeling that is widely shared in a civilized society. It may be enough to establish this common accord, but in the view of some of the respondents, a work of art that treads into this arena should at least add to our understanding, widen the field of grief, perhaps even lead to an opening of a heretofore closed mind (all of which are admittedly difficult goals to quantify).

To look at this in another way, can white artists address America’s great stain in a way that shows empathy while acknowledging that the artist will never fully understand the pain of racism? When Jack Levine painted police brutality in Birmingham during street demonstrations after the 1963 church bombing, when William Kentridge portrayed the traumatic realities of South African apartheid in his gut-wrenching videos, and when Alice Neel painted loving portraits of her friends of color who lived in her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, were they being opportunistic appropriators of black experience? Or were they showing, as I believe they were, a deeply humanistic connection with people whose experience was not theirs? These artists and many others spend their lives personalizing—that is, “de-abstracting”—social issues, putting forth the idea that the path to justice—racial, political, and economic—is through a strong assertion of individual responsibility. Any change a single work of art may affect is immeasurable, but it nevertheless has importance as a part of a collective tide that may eventually influence public discourse.

“In today’s deconstructive analytical environment, which often takes place in the anything-goes and depersonalized space of the Internet, it is not uncommon to voice one’s suspicions of hidden motivations and biases in the hearts of others.”

Jack Levine, Birmingham ’63, 1963, Oil on canvas, 71” x 75” Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Dr. Leland A. Barber and Gladys K. Barber Fund, American Art Trust Fund and Mildred Anna Williams Collection, by exchange, 1996.69

Many people have expressed doubts about Schutz’s sincerity and her level of commitment to civil rights. And even if her empathy is genuine, the perception of insensitivity is less a matter of her original intentions in making the work than of how she might best respond to her audience’s sense of offense, which is based on an interpretation that is inflected with its own experiences and expectations. An important lesson for all artists is that once a work is out in the world, it has a life of its own. It is difficult for any creative person to predict how her effort to step into another’s shoes will be received.

I would hate to see artists (and by this I also mean authors, poets, songwriters, the whole range of people who put their thoughts and feelings out into the world) become unwilling to convey solidarity with people whose experiences have not been their own, whether in terms of race, sexuality, class, or any of the other categorical descriptors that are paradoxically becoming both blurred and increasingly divisive in society. This would set a poor example indeed for those who seek to build community by finding common ground in multiplicity.

But I also think that the most compelling socially engaged art is more than a mirror of individual feelings. It is an expression of empathy not just toward immediate victims of injustice, but toward an audience for whom these victims signify something bigger and more profound than an individual reflection of hurt.

For me, the best part of this entire incident is the discussion around it. In leaving the painting on view, the Whitney is affirming the important role that museums play—to be safe places in which social meanings can be formulated, presented, and argued. The Whitney Biennial’s co-curator Christopher Lew eloquently speaks for all museums when he says that they are “some of the last few physical places where people can convene to wrestle with ideas.” Without such forums, we face an increasingly bifurcated understanding of the world— people talking only to those with whom they are in absolute agreement, refusing to imagine an orbit outside of their own. If there is no room for nuance, ambiguity, or even negative interpretation, art risks losing its capacity to provoke. It becomes doctrinaire, mono-dimensional, or worse, predictable.

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