Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket is, at the moment, the defining controversy of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. It is an oddly blank, quasi-expressionist painting based on the photographs of Emmett Till’s body that were published in Jet in 1955. A community of artists, scholars and concerned people have asked that the painting be removed from the exhibit — some have suggested that it be destroyed. Below are some thoughts about this.
The Schutz painting is controversial — offensive — for a lot of reasons. A section of Hold It Against Me centers on Carrie Mae Weems’s work (“From Here I Saw What Happened…And I Cried”) — there I take up how Weems navigates just this overdetermined terrain — making anti-racist work about emotion/affect, sentiment and racism. That section was hard to write because Weems’s work is challenging. If I have anything to say about Open Casket, it’s because I spent a lot of time thinking with “From Here I Saw…”
A white woman artist made work which reproduces the photograph of the brutalized face of a black boy who was murdered in a lynching provoked by a white woman’s false accusation. Right out of the gate, the scenario is overdetermined. Black artists’ work is read all the time as “about” blackness — all the time. And often by critics who are not equipped to say anything on that topic at all. (Thinking of NYT art critic Ken Johnson, for example. Jerry Saltz is no better.) Reading a work as “about” race, racism, racial difference is no easy thing — what is that word “about” about? What is blackness is this work? How does the artist’s identity and location matter? In the art world, presenting work as “about” race is often done in such crude terms — this is powerfully true when that presentation unfolds in an art space in which there is not enough expertise re (for example) the 300+ years of debate regarding aesthetics and politics where anti-racist forms of representations are concerned. Debate staged within communities of abolitionist thinkers and artists, debate staged within black communities in, say, the 19th C. In my experience, a lot of people in positions of power and authority in the art world know next to nothing about that body of knowledge. (You can see this changing in at least leadership of some LA institutions. Oddly, I think museums are maybe “getting it” faster than Art History and Art departments?) Artists of colors are routinely put in such intense representative positions vis a vis race/ethnicity. White artists are not. White artists are rarely held to account for the place and function of whiteness in their work. Open Casket is absolutely about whiteness — it is a perfect expression of the relationship of white authorship to black suffering. In this painting, in the artist and museum discourse about it, a very white sentimental formation takes shape around the dead body of a black boy murdered by white men in the name of protecting a white woman. It’s in the zone of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A modernist, painterly version of what Baldwin called a catalogue of violence (“Everybody’s Protest Novel” — helpful reading for “getting” this particular debate.) It is actually right that a white woman artist take up this subject, but taking up the subject alone is not enough. Doing so meaningfully takes an active commitment and a lot of expertise. Working with that particular image archive — the photographs of Till’s body — comes with a lot of responsibility — a responsibility to the history, and to a canon of artworks and performances by mostly (but not only) black artists. Billie Holiday, Charles Chesnutt, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Leon Golub, Carrie Mae Weems, William Pope L., Aaron Douglas, Bettye Saar…the list goes on and on. Making anti-racist work requires fluency. There is a large, meaningful and important bibliography of criticism on this subject — Stuart Hall, Saidiya Hartmann, Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Alexander, Lauren Berlant, Eric Lott, Kobena Mercer, Hortense Spillers, Angela Davis, Fred Moten — that list goes on and on. Almost none of these artists and writers figure into the education of BFA/MFA tracked artists; almost none of these writers have figured into the curriculum of art historians, critics and curators. I mean, what art historians not working in African American Art History read The Souls of Black Folk — or Langston Hughes’s essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”? What art historians not working in African American Studies know Baldwin’s essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son? Outside of the communities of artists of color and art-workers of color, there are too few people who can do a studio visit with Schutz and break down where a painting like that goes off the rails.
A lot of racism goes into the creating the conditions of possibility in which people can’t see what’s wrong with the painting until it’s too late.