Every two years since 1973 the Whitney Museum has mounted its biennial exhibition, an attempt to take the temperature of the nation through its art.
The Whitney Biennial is almost always controversial: When you have an exhibition that claims to present a snapshot of the American art scene, who gets included — and more importantly, who gets left out — something is bound to raise hackles.
In recent years, many black artists have started referring to it as “the White-ny” to reflect its poor track record when it comes to including artists of color. The 2014 Biennial included, out of about 118 artists, only nine black artists, and only about a third of the artists were women.
That same year, the participation of “Donelle Woolford” — a “black woman artist” who turned out to be the alter ego of a white man, Joe Scanlan — left a bad taste in the mouths of many, including the Yams Collective, which withdrew their work in protest because they felt the museum hadn’t done enough to address concerns around the piece.
This time around, the museum made a laudable effort to confront this criticism head on. The two curators commissioned for the Biennial, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, are Asian-American, and the artists they’ve chosen represent a range of ethnicities, region and identities.
The exhibition itself reveals a version of America that is diverse, political and willing to engage tough issues. But among the many challenging works on view that address themes of racism and violence, one work in particular has generated intense controversy, including calls for the piece to be removed or destroyed.
Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” is based on the heartbreaking and horrifying 1955 photograph of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s lynched body, an image published in Jet magazine and largely credited with galvanizing widespread support for the civil rights movement. Till, an African-American teenager from Chicago, was killed by two white men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant (they were acquitted, but in 1956 admitted to committing the crime), after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi.
The photograph of his open casket made many white Americans aware for the first time of the horrors of racist violence.
It was a deeply political and brave gesture on Mamie Till Bradley’s part, to have her son’s body photographed in this way, so that nothing should obscure the reality of the racist violence that destroyed a child. “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see,” she said.
But by rendering Emmett Till’s face in energetic, slashing brushstrokes, and slashing and manipulating the canvas so that it becomes unrecognizable as anything but an abstract painting, Schutz obscures what the boy’s mother wanted to remain visible and untouched.
Critics and other artists who object to the painting point to our equally painful present, when children like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice are subject to fatal brutality. Others claim that a white artist should not take up a subject that was so central to black experience — they see “Open Casket” as a form of appropriation.
While Schutz has represented iconic or anonymous black figures in previous paintings, she is not known for engaging with issues of race explicitly. For this reason, her painting has been seen by some as opportunistic, as if she is exploiting the spectacle of black death to prove she is “woke” — as a way to project her empathy, her outrage, and her grief, without thinking about how her act might be perceived by black viewers.
Rumblings about the Schutz painting began brewing on social media almost immediately after the show opened on March 15, and came to a boil after the UK-born, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black circulated an open letter co-signed by 30 or so other black artists and writers. The letter called not only for the painting’s removal from the show but for its destruction, so that no one would profit from exploiting black pain.
Schutz, according to The New York Times, has said she isn’t going to sell the painting, though arguably the museum is benefiting from its inclusion in the show.
Another artist, Parker Bright, has conducted peaceful protests in front of the painting, standing alone and sometimes with a few others, to partly obscure the viewer’s ability to see it. He has also had conversations with visitors while wearing a shirt with the words “Black Death Spectacle” on it.
By all reports, Schutz is a thoughtful artist who was sincerely engaging with her subject with the best of intentions. That is perhaps why, when the Huffington Post and other publications published a letter on March 23 allegedly from Schutz claiming that she was asking the biennial curators to remove the painting from view, many of us believed what we were seeing.
Shortly afterward — a matter of minutes, really — the Whitney Museum’s office of communications sent out a notification that the letter was fake. It was not sent by Schutz at all.
This puts her, and the museum, in an awkward position: In the short time the letter circulated, the artist was widely praised for having the wisdom and humility to admit to the hurt that she had caused, to understand the reasons she was being criticized, and to act based not on her pride but on her sense of what was right. To be, in other words, a real ally in the fight against racism.
While there has been much criticism of the painting, a majority of those weighing in on the controversy — including many African-American writers and artists — have strongly rejected any suggestion that it should be destroyed, as Hannah Black’s letter demands. That, they say, would be a form of censorship that has no place in the art world.
On March 21, Schutz released a statement — an attempt to clarify her intentions in painting the picture. “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,” she wrote. “Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”
Schutz empathized with Mamie Till Bradley on the basis of their shared motherhood. But there’s an important reality we have to confront here, too: While many parents may in fact have moments where they think “Tamir Rice was my child’s age” and feel a pang of empathy and outrage, the fact is that for most Americans, the possibility that our children might be killed in the street because of the color of their skin is an abstraction. For black mothers (and fathers), it is a legitimate, daily fear.
In the end, while I believe that artists should be able to tackle any subject that moves them, no matter their race or identity, they have the responsibility to that subject matter. By rendering Emmett Till’s face in the way she did, Schutz did not fully grapple with the the political, historical and emotional implications of her photographic source. Any image of Emmett Till is about more than a single artist’s empathy.
Schutz’s painting didn’t live up to the responsibility that her subject matter required — and now it’s up to the artist, the curators and the museum to figure out how to respond.