Open Casket Controversy at the Whitney
Recent controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, showing at the Whitney Biennial, has sparked debate over censorship, artist responsibility, and identity in the art world. The painting in question depicts a disfigured Emmett Till who was lynched in Mississippi by two white men in 1955. Issues like this become multifaceted and complex when put into context, and it’s hard to take a hard stance on the matter where crucial details are confused in an online game of telephone.
Emmett Till was murdered at age 14 on August 28, 1955. His killers were acquitted by an all-white jury and protected by the double jeopardy clause—part of the Fifth Amendment. They admitted to the murder in a magazine article a year later. Motivated by the claims by a white woman that Till flirted with her at the grocery store she worked at. In 2008 she admitted her story was completely fabricated, but by then statute of limitations laws protected her against prosecution; and this has only become publicly known as recently as this year.
Till’s story has had a long history in the consciousness of this country, and is considered one of the most important civil rights cases in American history.
It also has an important role in America’s visual culture because Till’s mother chose to have an open casket funeral, displaying his mutilated beyond recognition visage to the world. Whereas lynching has historically been used as a public spectacle to promote fear within black communities, Mamie Till used her son’s death as a way to hold up a mirror to the state of racism in the country and failed systems that prop up American democracy.
Schutz’s painting comes from an interesting place. For a white woman to take on the breadth of the aforementioned events in the form of a painting seems ridiculous at first—especially when you consider the role a white woman played in his case. Her words held weight over a voiceless Till. But in an interview by art critic Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker, the painter expresses how tentative she was about engaging with such a subject, and why it was something she was struggling with.
Schutz, who’s recently become a mother herself said that Mamie Till’s experience had been on her mind. The painting comes from a place of empathizing with a mother who has violently lost a child. That is not to say that Schutz could fully understand the position of a black woman in 1955. But the sentiment of real empathy is there. “I don’t know if it has the right emotionality,” Schutz said about her painting. “It’s a real event, and it’s violence. But it has to be tender, and also about how it’s been for his mother.”
The debacle over the painting is happening mostly online where (at worst,) emotionally-charged cries for the painting to be burned are being made. There was even a fake letter circulating online that claimed to be written by Schutz and states, “the artists and writers generously critiquing Open Casket have made plain to me that I have benefited from the very systems of racism I aimed to critique.”
All of this internet buzz isn’t contributing to the debate in a meaningful way; it’s just having a Streisand effect on Schutz—probably the opposite of what most of those protesting actually want.
However, effective contributions to the debate are happening within the Whitney where silent protests are taking place. Parker Bright, an African-American artist, has been standing in front of the painting wearing a shirt saying “Black Death Spectacle” on it. The Whitney temporarily closed down the gallery where Schutz’ painting was hung, due to water damage—yet this was only temporary.
In an interview, Cincinnati-based artist Tina Tammaro, (who, like Schutz, is also white) has said the reaction to her most recent paintings, which are also about the black experience in America and institutional racism, has generally been very positive. Whether contemplative responses or encouragement, many viewers felt compelled to share their own experiences with the artist—a testament to art’s ability to foster empathy when handled correctly. And though Tammaro doesn’t feel that Schutz was “trying to tell black people how to feel or think about this,” she does believe that the painter “honestly felt empathy.”
It is important to note that the Whitney chose this painting after it had already appeared in Berlin and post-facto changed the artist statement to include the fact that the painting would never be sold for profit. Tommarro also had an interesting perspective on this point: “John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Beyonce made and are making plenty of money from protest songs. Do they make them to make money? Is it wrong to make money from a work of art that is about social justice?” The issue is clearly complex, and it is interesting to see what kind of work (and who is making it) that gets flack for crossing lines.
There is no doubt Schutz is benefiting from the painting but most of the exposure is coming from its detractors. The conversation should not be one of censorship, but of artist responsibility and racial identity. It should be about why Emmett Till’s story is still relevant enough for such a contemporary American painter to make a painting about. If anything, Schutz has used her practice to reflect these things to the country and the art world in particular, the publicity, particularly online, proves that.
In the spirit of the impactful decisions Mamie Till said of her decision to share the image of her son’s mutilated body with the world, “The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”
Written by Ryan Kerr