Despite being hailed as the most “diverse” Whitney Biennal yet, the most famous works to captivate the nation’s attention managed to continue to be white artists and their struggle. We’re speaking, of course, about Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence (2017) and Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016)–two shocking portrayals of sensationalized violence that centralized white suffering in their own *ahem* special ways. Although Wolfson tried really hard to provoke viewers with his bludgeoning VR installation, Schutz has undoubtedly won the shock battle, even making onto that illustrious art critic roundtable The View.
Of course, the biennial opened swimmingly to very little criticism–that is, until word got out about Dana’s Open Casket. While it pains us to rehash all the avalanche of think pieces, opinions and fake news about the painting, we guess it must be done. So here are some of the highlights: Schutz, a white lady, decided to paint a picture of Emmett Till (Do I have to explain who Emmett was? No? Good) in his coffin, citing, after the outrage, that she did so because she felt some affinity for his mother Mamie Till Mobley’s grief and her decision to show her son’s battered body to the world (“I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. But I do know what it is like to be a mother.” Sheesh…). But rather than painting, say, a picture of Mamie or of Emmett alive, Dana precisely measured the right amount of paint to represent a bludgeoned dead black child’s face. This appropriation of black tragedy was made even more egregious since it came out this year that Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who sparked Till’s lynching, admitted to lying about the entire thing (we all knew she was a scammer, anyway). Find your place in this story, Dana.
Normally, this atrocity of a painting would hopefully be a dud, staying locked away in Schutz’s studio for eternity. But instead, the Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, as well as their curatorial support staff at the Whitney Museum, saw no problem with the painting, putting it in one of the most well-regarded contemporary art survey shows. Now, after the press previews, VIP previews and public openings, there were some rumblings on social media about the painting. Then, on Friday, March 17, peaceful protesters, including artists Parker Bright and Pastishe Lumumba, stood in front of the painting, blocking it from view while wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Black Death Spectacle.” Meanwhile, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black wrote an open letter, which she has since deleted, calling for the painting not only to be taken down, but to be destroyed so that it never enters the art market. In the petition, signed by around 30 highly regarded black arts workers, Black articulated:
“Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.”
Of course, Schutz and the curators felt compelled to answer…in a way that defended Schutz and their curatorial decision: “Many artists in the exhibition push in on these issues, seeking empathetic connections in an especially divisive time.” In subsequent interviews, curator Christopher Y. Lew seemed to yearn for a time when America was great again and we didn’t have these divisive conversations, explaining to Artnet’s Andrew Goldstein: “this is a history that is an American history. Certainly people of different races have different experiences, but this historic and contemporary violence is something that we all have to grapple with and confront. It is deeply painful and traumatic—more so for some than others, in unequal terms—but it is something that we all have to deal with, and I think if we don’t confront it, if we don’t have these kind of conversations, then we’re not getting anywhere.”
So who became the main villain in this story? Oh right…Hannah Black. Because who in the art world would want to address institutional racism that allowed this low rent work to be shown in the first place? In that case, it might all come crumbling down like a house of cards. So instead, a significant amount of art critics and other artists, from Roberta Smith to Coco Fusco, rallied around the white lady’s painting, crowing about censorship that didn’t actually occur while willfully ignoring the real issues. Effective.
Well, then, enter us, dearest Filthy Dreams readers. We’re here to dismantle the flimsy, howling arguments from our critic peers who, in their refusal to engage with the actual content of Black’s letter or the painting itself, perhaps inadvertently or, more cynically, purposefully, bolstered white supremacy.
We’ve read almost everything that can be read about #Schutzgate (with stiff drinks in our clenched fists), and dismantled the most recurrent arguments in published criticism (we’ve decided to avoid social media posts). Below are some of the most common responses to the controversy, and how we answer them. This will provide you with the perfect key for alienating friends, enemies and strangers at your next cocktail party (nothing says fun-loving like critical theory!)
It goes without saying that black thought should always be centered in these conversations, and we look forward to future critical analysis of this situation by black writers. As non-black writers, we aimed to do the labor of aggregating existing black theory as a way to provide resources for those non-black thinkers who do not want to form wild, uninformed opinions.
Isn’t it a good thing that at least these important discussions are happening because of the painting? How are we supposed to talk about these divisive issues without the painting?
Translation: I never left my comfort zone before I saw the Dana Schutz painting and was provoked into questioning my naive assumptions by the free labor of black protesters (NOT the Whitney Biennial or the curators–a majority non-black institution that I paid with the price of admission). I’m not willing to put in the labor to go resource-digging for all the existing well-researched literature written by black scholars, and especially will not support or empathize with black protest.
First, the rhetoric that the painting should have the right to exist simply because it sparks discussion is dangerously reminiscent of alt-right conservatives like Tomi Lahren or Confederate flag-wielders. And second, the argument that the Whitney provides a space for education, in which the topic of white supremacy and empathy across racial lines could be discussed with some responsibility, was disproven when the curators responded to the controversy with this dismissive PR stunt that, again, spoke on behalf of the black community without being accountable to them: “Dana Schutz’s painting, Open Casket (2016), is an unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans. For many African Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance.”
As curator, writer, and artist Aria Dean writes in “The Demand Remains“: “This part made me laugh. Because calling the effect that this image has–or has the capacity to have–on a black viewer ‘emotional resonance’ is just laughable…As a black child with a black brother, black cousins, and so on, this image was terrifying and an explicit warning. It was a warning of all that had happened before us and would or could happen after us, God forbid. Emmett Till’s corpse is not something that, as the curators write, ‘We all have to confront, regardless of race.’”
Bottom line, you can provoke a discussion about white supremacy without the exploitation of black bodies.
It’s a good painting.
“A posthumous icon of the Civil Rights Movement, his image — and this painting — now reads as totally pertinent in the context of Black Lives Matter.” –Jennifer Samat, Hyperallergic
“The painting in question is a marvel to look at and currently on view at the Whitney Biennial. Schutz layers and builds paint in such a way that it appears economical even though she’s literally built a swollen lip out of paint.” –Paddy Johnson, Art F City
“It looks to me (and, granted, I’m only judging from images on the screen) more like a badly smashed coconut or a carelessly trampled chocolate truffle.” –Ann Landi, Vasari 21
Don’t make me queasy. While beauty is often in the eye of the beholder, this one is easy to shut down. Does the painting successfully fulfill its intent to empathize with the black community? Clearly not. And everything else is subjective.
The public is invited to gaze upon the battered, traumatized black body of Emmett Till–the many brushstrokes and pigments that compose the abused flesh–inviting non-black audiences to possibly conclude that they would have been different during that time, coaxing viewers into a dreamy, idealized form of violence that feels very far-away. Some, like Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye, have argued that the abstraction of the picture, goes against its original intentions by being equivalent to closing the casket, writing, “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. Where the photographs stood for a plain and universal photographic truth, Schutz has blurred the reality of Till’s death, infusing it with subjectivity. The angle of the painting’s view is directly over the body as if Schutz is looming in her imagination. The colors are pretty. Looking at it is like stepping inside a dream that Schutz had about Emmett Till in his coffin. Since this case is one so importantly defined by visual legacy and competing narratives, an artist seeking to paint him ought literally to know better.”
The National Museum of Women in the Arts suggests, “Schutz’s narratives are her imaginative responses to riddles, conundrums, and perplexing contemporary events.” But, there is nothing perplexing or goofy about the history of how black lives have suffered under white supremacy.
Meanwhile, white supremacy remains underexamined, abstract, and a distant enemy. The irony is that, even over sixty years later, a white woman’s word is more protected and agreed with than the well-reasoned critiques of a black community. When challenged, whiteness is offended at being challenged at all.
Art should never be censored. This infringes upon the freedom of speech. Censorship reminds me of Nazi book burnings.
“The Nazis said, ‘get rid of art that we don’t like’…In the real world, everybody needs everybody to get our stories out. It’s just the way it is. And no artist should be told, your art’s not ok.” –Whoopi Goldberg, The View
“We all encounter art we don’t like, that upsets and infuriates us…does such aversion mean that an artwork must be removed from view — or, worse, destroyed?” –Roberta Smith, New York Times
“The program of ethnic or racial particularism in art and culture, which insists that the various peoples and nationalities are incapable of communicating with and understanding one another, is thoroughly repugnant. It is part of the ‘anti-Enlightenment’ tradition, which rejects rationalism, democracy, egalitarianism and universality.” –David Walsh, WSWS
The most misguided, inappropriate, and ill-informed comparison of the demand for the painting to go is to Nazi book-burnings, and conservative movements such as the censorship of explicit nudity and homosexuality in Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment at the Corcoran Gallery.
Probably the most well-known and definitely the most shared article coming out against censorship has been “Censorship, Not the Painting Must Go” by Coco Fusco, who was featured in the Whitney’s 1993 Biennial with The Couple in the Cage: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West. This piece, which saw Coco on display in a cage with her collaborator Guillermo Gómez-Peña as faux primitives, often inciting abhorrent behavior from the audience of white folks. The piece was heavily criticized for reasserting racist stereotypes (which was sort of the point) and therefore, Coco, apparently, is now the self-appointed head of the anti-censorship brigade.
In her article, Fusco argues, “Hannah Black and company are placing themselves on the wrong side of history, together with Phalangists who burned books, authoritarian regimes that censor culture and imprison artists, and religious fundamentalists who ban artworks in the name of their god…I suspect that many of those endorsing the call have either forgotten or are unfamiliar with the ways Republicans, Christian Evangelicals, and black conservatives exploit the argument that audience offense justifies censorship in order to terminate public funding for art altogether and to perpetuate heterosexist values in black communities.”
Coco, and the other anti-censorship critics, need to slow their roll and reevaluate what censorship, in this case, means. A suggestion that something be taken down and, even destroyed, but hasn’t, isn’t censorship. Show me what’s been censored, Coco. Oh right, nothing. The examples Fusco cites are all active: book burning, imprisonment, banishment, revoking arts funding, etc. The Corcoran’s removal of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was censorship, just like the National Portrait Gallery’s removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly. What happened in this case, though? A black artist wrote a letter. And everyone lost their goddamn minds.
Free speech doesn’t mean freedom to say, do or paint anything without consequences. You’re allowed to. But nobody has to like it or see it, and insensitivity shouldn’t be validated in one of the most respected institutions of contemporary art in America. Fusco, and others, haven’t apparently been paying too much attention in the last couples years as the alt-righters, Trumpers and other conservative wingnuts have taken up the flag of free speech and anti-censorship. The Republicans and Christian Evangelicals she cites are the ones that, at least in recent years, have come down in favor for free speech as long as it supports their hate-filled rhetoric. Anti-Islam, transphobia, homophobia and other violent rhetoric can all be given a pass as long as the righties shout about free speech. This is the class that Fusco and the other anti-censorship critics have aligned themselves with–a defense of free speech at all cost and in all cases.
And anyway, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the power dynamics at play and the reasoning behind requesting that an image be withheld. To compare an educated grass roots black movement to Nazi ethnic cleansing or bible-wielding conservatives is ludicrous and shortsighted at best. The demand to withdraw one’s own body from a dominant power’s control and gaze is a form of autonomy and subjectivity. To offer a comparison, read up on the law was recently passed for individual’s “right to be forgotten” –a right to have one’s own images erased from the internet and to censor one’s own image.
As Eunsong Kim and Maya Mackrandilal noted, the dominant white capitalist patriarchy’s struggle for ‘freedom’ is of entirely different motivation. It argues for the right to destroy and exploit entire communities for profit, entertainment, and nourishment to continue the white capitalist patriarchy: “The truest expression of freedom is the freedom to hunt, torture, kill, and then to represent your enemies.” A call to protect the painting from destruction protects the higher order. The outrage against censorship, while ignoring the larger problems at play that caused this painting to exist and provoke black protest, is a solid defense against white supremacy.
As Christine Sharpe, professor of English at Tufts University, put it in an interview with Siddartha Mitter, “I reject the idea that somehow the central question is that the artist needs protecting, as opposed to the issue that Hannah is centering, which is how images of Black suffering circulate for a certain kind of enjoyment and profit. We’ve seen that circulation over and over, in the history of the Whitney Biennial and the history of this country.” What opponents of censorship and calls for the painting to be removed are essentially protecting is the white gaze–the right to pervertedly gaze upon whatever they desire, even the dead, ravaged, and beaten bodies of the conquered.
At the core of this debate is the right to own black bodies–stories, narratives, histories, who gets to tell them, and images as extensions of the corporeal–the very core of identity which black people are clearly continuing to have to struggle and argue that they deserve the right to own and control. And as Antwaun Sargent further offers, “The controversy surrounding this work is, at its core, about the failure of the art world to truly represent black humanity, despite its recent insistence on “diversity.” The issue is deeply rooted in the American experience, and the failure of our institutions—governmental, cultural, and so on—to correct this country’s original sin and the discrimination and violence against black Americans that continues today.” Although we exist in a post-segregation era where most can acknowledge that what was done to Till was a crime and that it was brutal, many refuse to see and confront how the creation and presentation of this painting is indicative of systemic racism and anti-blackness.
bell hooks (emphasis my own), explains it more theoretically: “Few white intellectuals call attention to the way in which the contemporary obsession with white consumption of the dark Other has served as a catalyst for the resurgence of essentialist based racial and ethnic nationalism, Black nationalism, with its emphasis on black separatism, is resurging as a response to the assumption that white cultural imperialism and white yearning to possess the Other are invading black life, appropriating and violating black culture. As a survival strategy, black nationalism surfaces most strongly when white cultural appropriation of black culture threatens to decontextualize and thereby erase knowledge of the speciﬁc historical and social context of black experience from which cultural productions and distinct black styles emerge.”
In a time where white women are taking back their bodies from a long history of objectivity under the white patriarchal gaze, the same people (Hello…we see you) are hypocritically refusing to let black people reclaim their own bodies under the white gaze.
White artists have promoted anti-racism in their art before. How else will we promote “empathetic connections” other than staring at the spectacle of black death?
“My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” –Dana Schutz
“When Schutz made that choice, she decided that her own feelings of empathy for Mobley as a mother mattered more than Mobley’s relationship with her dead son or the way that she chose to represent him in death.” –Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye, New Republic
In an interview with Artnet, Christopher Y. Lew doubled down on the strength of Dana’s painting as a possible vehicle for empathy. He said, “If we do not see the humanity in one another, that’s when we end up with divisions and barriers. In many ways, it goes back to when we could only see 3/5 of a person. That’s what has led us down this path to where we can no longer empathize or even speak to each other. To police these barriers takes us down a dangerous path, moving us away from the very ideals of what this country can be.” Schutz echoed Lew in an interview with Randy Kennedy of the New York Times: “Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.”
Empathy, well, is problematic to say the least. If art critics did some required critical reading to stay relevant, they would have confronted Saidiya Hartman’s take-down of empathy in her chapter “Innocent Amusements” in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in the 19th Century that was published literally 20 years ago (Stay with it). Hartman delves into the white male John Rankin’s abolitionist writing, which attempted to “reenact […] The grotesqueries enumerated in documenting the injustice of slavery and intended to shock and to disrupt the comfortable remove of the reader/spectator,” in order to, “rouse the sensibility of those indifferent to slavery” (22-23). Sound familiar?
Apparently Rankin was “so intent and determined…to establish that slaves possess the same nature and feelings as himself” that he created a narrative that he and his family were enslaved. Awkward. But, what this shows, according to Hartman, is “the difficulty and slipperiness of empathy” (18). As Hartman writes, “Yet empathy in important respects confounds Rankin’s efforts to identity with the enslaved because in making the slave’s suffering his own, Rankin begins to feel for himself rather than for whom this exercise in imagination is presumably designed to reach. Moreover, by exploiting the vulnerability of the captive body as a vessel for the uses, thoughts, and feelings of others, the humanity extended to the slave inadvertently confirms the expectations and desires definitive of the relations of chattel slavery. In other words, the ease of Rankin’s empathetic identification is as much due to his good intentions and heartfelt opposition to slavery as to the fungibility of the captive body” (19).
A similar phenomenon happens with Dana, as well as the curators and critics defense of the empathetic connections made by Open Casket. The painting, by essentially transforming the battered black body’s pain into a tool for largely white viewers or “a vessel for the uses, thoughts and feelings of others” as Hartman would describe, doesn’t make the Whitney Museum some post-racial paradise in which everyone understands each other and gets along. Instead, it just confirms the malleability of the black body for the white gaze, making the black body into an object–a “sentimental resource” (21).
As Hartman later writes and could perfectly describe the place of Schutz’s painting, it “fails to expand the space of the other but merely places the self in its stead” (20). Dana, in her misappropriated affinity for Mamie’s motherhood, seemed to place herself in the position of Mamie, deciding, once again, to show Emmett’s body. But in this decision, she only turned it into a spectacle. As Hartman writes, there’s a “thin line between witness and spectator” (19).
But, I would like to show my empathy to the black community. How do I do so if black subjects and stories are off-limits?
“What is most troubling about the call to remove Schutz’s painting is not the censoriousness, but the implicit disavowal that acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification, are possible across racial lines.” – Adam Schatz, London Review of Books
Antwaun Sargent offered a few options: “Where are the images of Till’s murderers? Why aren’t their names and faces etched into the soul of this nation? Why didn’t Schutz paint Carolyn Bryant in order to interrogate race in America? Or the 53 percent of white women who voted for white supremacy?”
M Neelika Jayawardane, Al Jazeera, offers, “I wondered why Schutz did not attempt…Carolyn Bryant–the valourisation of whose sexual honour set Till’s torture and death into motion; why the two men who killed him, the jury who acquitted them after an hour of deliberation, or the Mississippi town’s ordinary white inhabitants were not a part of her painting’s narrative. Yes, they are present, in their absence. But as with so many depictions of violence done to black persons, removing the explicit presence of white perpetrators diminishes the virulence of white supremacy and community complicity.”
Mistakes happen, as Hannah Black concluded in her letter, “through effort the more important thing could be how we move to make amends for them and what we learn in the process.” If there was any possibility to reconcile with the mistakes made, which would be a true display of empathy with the outraged/oppressed, they vanished after the curators released a passive statement that failed to address any of concerns outlined in Black’s letter. It reaffirms the suspicions that the institution and all its characters, which claims to empathize with the black community by breaching one of its most sensitive topics, is unconcerned with the voices and livelihoods of real living and breathing black folk.
The pain of the black community is again misunderstood to be something that we “all” have encountered at some point, at comparable magnitudes. The argument that Emmett Till’s story is “an American story” rather than a black one is true to the extent that all Americans should confront their inner socialized racists, but not claim that the image or the boy’s story belongs to them. The claim over his body is all too evocative of slavery and the auction block, which should send immediate red flags. The way in which Till’s image resonates within the viewer is dependent upon the viewer’s own identity. For his mother, Mamie Till, the image served as a warning to black viewers about the dangers of white supremacy. For non-black viewers, her labor and generosity of releasing her son’s image to the public should be accepted without further violating and reinterpreting her efforts. Critics that argue otherwise are so guilty of whitesplaining that you’d think we didn’t just go over these arguments on a national level.
Outspoken activists against censorship must confront why they are more protective of the art object than they are of black lives, more ready to talk about free speech than about structural racism, more proactive about non-black voices who defend the painting than black feminist scholars who are vocal critics. What would it mean for the art museum to finally submit to the people it claims to serve? Who would it harm, other than the power of the white patriarchal institution, to own up to the concerns raised and admit a mistake?
For a show that the curators have boldly claimed, “brings to light many facets of the human experience, including conditions that are painful or difficult to confront such as violence, racism, and death [emphasis our own],” the Biennal fails to decentralize our concerns, interrogate the violence of our gazes, and change who ultimately governs our lives.
Not all black people want the painting removed or feel like it is offensive or feel that white artists should not depict black subjects.
“The only black, or Black, people who have mobilized around this outrage are Hannah Black and cohorts of hers who happen not to have been included in this edition of the Whitney Biennial” – Gary Indiana, Affidavit
Racism and anti-blackness are not subjective terms that are up for democratic vote. Although, I’m sure if we took one, the majority of black voters would, like the 2016 election results, be very telling.
Right now, if the topic up for debate is a black mother and her son, we should center the opinions of black feminist scholars and black theory, especially those who do not have vested personal interest in the art world. These include many who have either signed Hannah Black’s petition or publicly rejected the painting’s right to exist: Doreen St. Felix, Jessica Lynne, Kimberly Drew, Aria Dean, Christina Sharpe, etc.
At the end of the day, too, can we keep our goals in check? If our mission is to, as Adam Weinberg writes in the exhibition’s catalogue, “show that artists can envision a future that is different,” then, give a platform to marginalized voices and confront the most challenging, topical issues of today with some new logic, empathy, and righteousness, that involves bending the moral arc of justice, so to speak, in a way that dismantles white supremacy. Do you believe that white supremacy exists and its destruction is fundamental to a more equal and just society for all? Great, let’s move toward that together.
Some further recommended black opinion:
- Michael Harriot, The Root
- Taylor Aldridge, ArtNews, “Black Bodies, White Cubes: The Problem With Contemporary Art’s Appropriation of Race.”
- “Schutz and involved parties, THIS does not offer healing to the hyper racial tensions that existed more than 60 years ago nor that exist today.” – Ebony
- bell hooks, “Eating the other: Desire and resistance.”