By Roberta Smith / New York Times News Service
NEW YORK—We all encounter art we don’t like, that upsets and infuriates us. This doesn’t deserve to be exhibited, our brains yell; it should not be allowed to exist. Still, does such aversion mean that an artwork must be removed from view—or, worse, destroyed?
This question has been at the heart of the controversy that has split the art world since the Whitney Biennial opened recently. The turmoil, which has been excruciating for many people in different ways, centers on Open Casket, a painting in the exhibition by Dana Schutz. The work is based partly on photographs of the horrifically mutilated face of Emmett Till lying in his coffin in 1955, about 10 days after that African-American 14-year-old was brutally killed by two white men in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white store clerk. The artist is white, and her use of the images has struck many in the art world as an inappropriate appropriation that, they argue, should be removed.
The first protest was solo: The day the exhibition opened an African-American artist, Parker Bright, stood in front of it wearing a T-shirt with “Black Death Spectacle” handwritten on its back, sometimes partly blocking the view, sometimes engaging others in conversation. A photograph of Bright at the Whitney was posted on Twitter.
Objections to the painting went viral with an open letter from Hannah Black, a British-born writer and artist who lives in Berlin, cosigned by others, charging that the Till image was “black subject matter”, off-limits to a white artist. Black belittled the Schutz painting as exploiting black suffering “for profit and fun” and demanded that it be not only removed from the exhibition but also destroyed.
For me, as for others, the ground kept shifting with the eruption of opinion pieces, interviews, blog and Facebook posts, and e-mails with friends. The discussion was upsetting, bracing, ultimately beneficial. Is the censorship, much less the destruction of art, abhorrent? Yes. Should people offended or outraged by an artwork or an exhibition mount protests? Absolutely. And might a museum have the foresight to frame a possibly controversial work of art through labels or programming? Yes, that, too.
Inside the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, Till’s coffin occupies a sanctuary that has become a shrine.
Lonnie G. Bunch III, that museum’s founding director, has said its placement “almost gives people a catharsis on all of the violence that the community has experienced over time”.
Many people found themselves in the messy middle ground, seeing both sides, grasping for precedents. What came to my mind are earlier works of art by those who crossed ethnic lines in their depiction of social trauma. The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931-32), a series by Ben Shahn, a white Jewish artist, was a stinging commentary on the trial of the immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts during the 1920s—a politically charged case that mirrored issues surrounding ethnicity, class and corruption in the justice system.
In the same vein, it was a white Jewish schoolteacher and songwriter, Abel Meeropol, who wrote the wrenchingly beautiful “Strange Fruit”, an antilynching ballad made famous by Billie Holiday that in 1939 “tackled racial hatred head on”, as David Margolick wrote in Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights.
Schutz’s painting is not the only work of art inspired by the lynching of Till: There’s a ballad that Bob Dylan wrote, and performed in 1962, titled “The Death of Emmett Till”, released belatedly in 2010.
Some crossovers have been met with historic hostility. Among the most intense was the condemnation of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner 50 years ago by African-American writers. In William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, the contributors charged that Styron furthered numerous racial myths, stereotypes and clichés. Since then, Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the debate it unleashed have come to be seen as an important turning point for writers of black history, and the confrontation, as The New York Times Book Review wrote in 2008, “helped shatter the idea that there can or should be one version of ‘how slavery was’.” Those who call for the removal of Schutz’s painting today seem to align themselves with black artists who in 1997 started a letter-writing campaign against what they considered the negative stereotypes of blacks in the early work of Kara Walker, the African-American artist known for her mercilessly Swiftian portrayals of antebellum plantation life. They also appear to side with Roman Catholics who in 1999, led by then Mayor Rudy Giuliani, protested a painting at the Brooklyn Museum by the British artist Chris Ofili. It depicted the Madonna and Child as black on a surface embellished with small cutouts from pornographic magazines and a few pieces of tennis-ball-size elephant dung, heavily varnished and decorated with beads.
Over time, artists have periodically depicted or evoked lynchings, but the injured black body is a subject or image that black artists and writers have increasingly sought to protect from misuse, especially by those who are not black. This debate flared up in 2015, when, in a reading at Brown University, the poet and performance artist Kenneth Goldsmith—most of whose work is based on appropriation, sometimes of violent deaths—read as a poem a slightly rearranged version of the autopsy report of Michael Brown, the black 18-year-old shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Goldsmith was reviled on Twitter, accused of exploiting this material.
For a moment, Black’s letter about the Schutz painting created the impression that African-American opinion on this issue was monolithic. It is not. Antwaun Sargent posted a balanced editorial on artsy.com that linked to a short, blunt Facebook statement by the artist Clifford Owens. It read in part: “I don’t know anything about Hannah Black, or the artists who’ve cosigned her breezy and bitter letter, but I’m not down with artists who censor artists.”
Once released into the public sphere, images proceed under their own power and, in a free society, they will be used by anyone drawn to them, in ways that will be judged effective, inconsequential or egregious. But artists don’t ask permission.
Schutz has said she painted Open Casket out of sympathy for the pain endured by Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and the label at the Whitney has been adjusted to take this into account. In an e-mail on Monday, Schutz wrote: “The photograph of him in his casket is almost impossible to look at. In making the painting, I relied more on listening to Mamie Till’s verbal account of seeing her son, which oscillates between memory and observation.”
Themes of race and violence figure in art throughout this Biennial, including a painting by the black artist Henry Taylor, The Times Thay Aint a Changing Fast Enough! It depicts the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile. But perhaps most important, the paintings by Taylor and Schutz share an all-too-American subject, that of hateful, corrosive white racism. Who owns that?
The Schutz painting and the debate around it are already a historical unit, one that seems new to the art world, and one that will change things. Unlike the Styron controversy, it has unfolded on the Internet at warp speed with thousands of people arguing about it almost in real time. Unlike Goldsmith’s poem, the cause of the furor is not ephemeral; the painting has a kind of equal weight with the debate. They are each in their own way extremely present, for people to consider going forward. Open Casket will not be destroyed but by now it is also beyond destruction.
Image credits: Benjamin Norman/The New York Times