Here follows a discussion of the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket” (2016), shown above, which is currently part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial in New York City.
DISCLOSURE: I have yet to see Schutz’s painting in person, so my comments on its surface are naturally limited and open to question.
The painting shows the disfigured corpse of Emmet Till, a 14-year old boy who was brutally murdered by two white men, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, in 1955. Bryant’s wife lied about an interaction with Till, (and did not recant the story until decades later), which led to the murder. At his mother’s request, Till’s casket was left open, to show the severity of his injuries. Today, when violence against black men is at the forefront of discussions on human rights and race relations, painting the scene was bound to attract attention.
The controversy is well summed up in the first sentence of an essay by Josephine Livingstone AND Lovia Gyarkye in The New Republic: “Is Dana Schutz allowed to paint Emmett Till in his coffin?”
To which I reply, “Who grants permission in this case? Who, outside of the artist, is allowed that sort of power?”
DISCLOSURE: In general, I dislike Schutz’s work. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Samuel Johnson, “”Your painting is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” Her work to me is more style than substance, and ill-suited to such a topic. Schutz’s debt to Picasso is clear: look at the flattened triangles of Till’s shirtfront in the painting, how it oddly adds an element of Cubism to an otherwise heavily worked surface. Another debt is to Francis Bacon: the distortion of Till’s face reminded me immediately of Bacon’s portraits, such as this triptych below:
Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Portrait of Henrietta Moraes, 1963,
Museum of Modern Art, New York
The William S. Paley Collection
Copyright © 2017 Estate of Francis Bacon / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London. Image from Wikipedia
The strongest voice against Open Casket comes from artist and writer Hannah Black, who wrote an open letter to the Whitney – you can read it as part of this Artnews article. She starts by asking the Whitney “…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.”
Naturally, I would never endorse the destruction of art.
She continues, “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.”
The overall sentiment I will leave for others to debate. “Profit and fun” is an odd pairing; Schutz has already announced that Open Casket will not be for sale, but fun? Even fans of her painting must find it hard to label such a work “fun.”
Whitney Biennial curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks issued a statement about the controversy. They wrote, “For many African Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance.”
Well, yes, which is why they had to write this statement in the first place – or was that not the emotional resonance they meant?
“By exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history and the history of race relations in this country. As curators of this exhibition we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.”
All well and good, but as defense of curatorial decision-making this is a trite, boilerplate effort.
The thought that an artist should be barred from addressing certain subjects because of the color of her skin is a troubling one. No one, in my estimation, is qualified to do such a thing. This allows the artist to make whatever choices she wishes, even bad ones.
Having said this, if I were a curator, I would not have selected Open Casket for the show, not only from my opinion on Shutz’s work in general, but on its own mediocre merits.
POSTSCRIPT: How did I miss the chance to call this “When the Schutz hits the fan?”