The painting has caused outrage ever since the exhibit opened at the Whitney in New York City on Friday. A protester named Parker Bright stood in front of the painting with the shirt “black death spectacle,” and a black artist from London named Hannah Black published a scathing letter online, saying that it had to be destroyed.
So what’s the issue with the painting? It was created by a white American artist named Dana Schultz.
In her letter, Black makes a passionate argument that Till — who was lynched by a group of white men after a white woman lied and said Till whistled at her — is off limits for white people. She also included the signature of a number of black artists. Here is a portion of the letter:
To the curators and staff of the Whitney biennial:
I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.
As you know, this painting depicts the dead body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the open casket that his mother chose, saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” That even the disfigured corpse of a child was not sufficient to move the white gaze from its habitual cold calculation is evident daily and in a myriad of ways, not least the fact that this painting exists at all. In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.
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.
Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a white woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture: the evidence of their collective lack of understanding is that Black people go on dying at the hands of white supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs, that Black children are still denied childhood. Even if Schutz has not been gifted with any real sensitivity to history, if Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.
The whole letter is fascinating and definitely deserves to be read.
Shultz, who said that the painting wouldn’t be for sale, had this to say in response:
“We were aware that this was sensitive work on some level. The horrific murder of Till is something we all have to confront, regardless of race… It is easy for artists to self-censor, to convince yourself to not make something before you even try. There were many reasons why I could not, should not, make this painting … [but] art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection.”
It will be interesting to see how Whitney responds as this story gathers more steam.
H/T: Art News