About Dana Schutz

Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016)

Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016)

I have been thinking about the Dana Schutz painting Open Casket at the 2017 Whitney Biennal for a few days. Luckily I was able to get out of thinking mode and actually express myself on the subject yesterday, while discussing with Louise Déry at the Culture Montréal 15-anniversary party. Although I see (from tweets and screenshots) that my fellow Black cultural workers (mostly in the States) are asked their opinion on matters like this, it must be the first time I was asked a for my opinion. 

I thought a lot about the painting, because I've been thinking a lot about Emmett Till* recently. As I am not an American, I learn about Black American history and Civil rights much later in my life. I've learned the story of Till during my undergrad at Concordia, in the FFAR 250 course (fellow Fine Arts Concordian will no doubt know about this course). Robert Gifford (one of the best teachers ever) was giving a lecture on racism and used this case as a one of the issues that ignite the Civil Rights movement in the States. We saw a short documentary, and the open casket, after an advisory.

I have to say that yes, I am used to seeing the Black body violated, murdered, bruised etc. In movies, documentaries, historical reports, all they tell is a history of Blackness related to pain and suffering. But seeing Emmett Till's open casket, and why her mother did it, really shook me, and a political seed germed in me.

Years later (fast forward to the last few months), I've heard the news of a documentary on Till, as well as the news that Carolyn Bryant, the woman who was supposedly whistled at, said false proclamations. 

I believe that Dana Schutz' painting is profiting from Till being back in public conversation. I believe Schutz' painting was insensitive. I believe she is not at all transparent with her intentions, since her usual artistic practice is not one that would usually discuss issues of race. I do not believe that this painting was made in order to generate a conversation about race, but rather to generate controversy. Black Americans (not only them, but we are going to focus on that for now) are still being killed by White Supremacy in the United States currently. What is this painting contributing to other whites' relation to White Supremacy? 

Photo by Scott W. H. Young, via Twitter.

Photo by Scott W. H. Young, via Twitter.

Parker Bright has done a peaceful protest, standing in front of the painting and blocking it from viewers, wearing a simple "BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE" shirt. He also engaged conversation about race with museum visitors. Hannah Black wrote a letter to the Biennal's curators Mia Lock and Christopher Y. Lew, urging them to remove and destroy the painting. Part of her letter reads “White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. [C]ontemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends.” I could not agree with Hannah Black more.

I am, of course, against censorship, but I think it is understand for the Whitney and other art institutions in general that leaving such painting on display for the duration of the event / exhibition really signify the position they wish to take. "Free speech" is unfortunately not a position.

*in case you don't know by now, Emmett Till is a Black 14-year old boy tortured and lynched by two white men in Mississippi, for apparently flirting with a white woman.


Things I've read: 

  • https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-unpacking-firestorm-whitney-biennials-black-death-spectacle
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/arts/design/painting-of-emmett-till-at-whitney-biennial-draws-protests.html
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/us/emmett-till-lynching-carolyn-bryant-donham.html