The protest by artist Parker Bright in front of Schutz’s painting, Open Casket, was for many the first hint of the controversy that was to follow, and was widely shared on social media. But it’s the open letter by the Berlin-based British artist Hannah Black, calling for the work to be removed and destroyed, that has galvanised and outraged opinion in equal measure.
The issue of whether it is appropriate for a white artist to “treat Black pain as raw material” – as Black describes Schutz’s abstract rendering of the photograph of the disfigured Till lying in his coffin – has even seeped into America’s mainstream media.
Discussing the controversy on the daytime chat show The View, the comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg defended Schutz, saying of Black’s stance: “If you are an artist, young lady, you should be ashamed of yourself. Because if somebody decides they don’t like your art, then what?”
Seen through the prism of contemporary America, where black males in particular are regularly killed by the police – the Biennial also features Henry Taylor‘s painting of the shooting of Philando Castile, a black man killed by a Minnesota police officer in 2016 – the rage and vitriol prompted by Schutz’s work is perhaps unsurprising.
Many responses to the controversy surrounding the work have understandably pounced on Black’s suggestion that Open Casket should be destroyed, evoking Nazi book burning, religious intolerance and other such cultural atrocities. But constructing a more nuanced commentary on Schutz’s painting, the responses it has provoked, and the issue of censorship, is anything but straightforward. The divergence in views on the matter is total.
At the Whitney, a protest against Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmett Till: “She has nothing to say to the Black community about Black trauma.” pic.twitter.com/C6x1JcbwRa
— Scott W. H. Young (@hei_scott) March 17, 2017
Writing at length on Hyperallergic, the artist, curator and academic Coco Fusco presents a particularly compelling defence of Schutz’s right to create and exhibit the work. Stating that “I would never stand in the way of protest, particularly an informed one aimed at raising awareness of the politics of racial representation”, she rejects the idea of censoring or destroying any artwork, however offensive it may be.
For many artists, whatever their ethnicity or view on the appropriateness of Schutz’s painting, this is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Protest and debate, passionate argument and discussion are all to the good. But destroying and censoring artworks is an action that seeks to close down and limit debate. It is not a response you’d usually expect from anyone involved in the messy, complicated and, yes, sometimes wrongheaded business of making art.
As Fusco asserts: “A reasoned conversation about how artists and curators of all backgrounds represent collective traumas and racial injustice would, in an ideal world, be a regular occurrence in art museums and schools.” Clearly, as Fusco acknowledges, that’s wishful thinking. But while much of the noise around the issue so far – particularly on social media – has been anything but a ‘reasoned conversation’, some of it certainly has.
Writing in The New Republic, Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye highlight what they consider to be the problematic abstract nature of Schutz’s painting, which is based on the photograph Till’s mother released at the time of her 14-year-old son’s funeral. The original black and white photograph shows his grotesquely disfigured face – the true face of the bigoted, racist violence that was inflicted on him by two white men who objected to Till’s interaction with a white woman.
Livingstone and Gyarkye write: “In her painting, Schutz has smeared Till’s face and made it unrecognizable, again. The streaks of paint crossing the canvas read like an aggressive rejoinder to Mamie Till Mobley’s insistence that he be photographed. Mobley wanted those photographs to bear witness to the racist brutality inflicted on her son; instead Schutz has disrespected that act of dignity, by defacing them with her own creative way of seeing.”
Turning to Black’s open letter, they conclude: “When Hannah Black and her co-signers call for the destruction of this painting, try not to interpret them as book-burners doing the work of censorship. Instead, hear their open letter as a call for silence inside a church. How will you hear the dead boy’s voice, if you keep speaking over him?”
In Art Review, the critic JJ Charlesworth makes a strident point about judging any artwork on the identity of the artist who has created it, rather than on the work itself – a point which is at the heart of Black’s objection to Schutz’s painting.
Charlesworth states: “If artworks become no more than tokens of their makers’ identity, there’s little chance of them communicating anything to anyone else. At a time where progressive politics needs to think hard about how to form new solidarities, new common identifications, the politics of identity can only continue to turn artworks into totems of division.”
Of course the divisions between black and white in America – and elsewhere in the world – are real and tangible. They are divisions that the controversy around Schutz’s “clumsy attempt” (as Charlesworth describes it) to use painting to engage with race politics has been exposed in the full glare of the largely white, largely privileged art world.
Whatever your view on Schutz’s painting, and on her treatment of such an historic and emotive symbol of black suffering and white racism, the issues raised by the Whitney protest, Black’s letter and the many responses to it, are real and important.
In their own response to the open letter, the Whitney Biennial’s curators stated that “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.”
While the level of controversy and calls for the work to be destroyed were clearly not expected or desired by the curators, Open Casket has certainly done that.
The Whitney Biennial continues until 11 June 2017. whitney.org