Not that painting again…


The ICA Boston

A follow-up to the Dana Schutz story, which I first wrote about here, with notes for protestors. To recap:

Schutz’s painting Open Casket depicts the dead body of Emmett Till, who was murdered in a race-based attack in 1955. Schutz has said that she did so because she identified with Till’s mother – admirable as far as it goes, but not much when many African-Americans felt that she was co-opting their pain for her own purposes. There were minor protests around the painting when it was shown at the Whitney Biennial, and some discussion on the issues involved.

On July 26, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, opened a Dana Schutz show. Open Casket is not in the show. Protestors had been in discussion with the museum about the show, and went public with their objections once the show opened. Since then, another group, including artist Kara Walker, Ed Ruscha, and Cindy Sherman, have come out in support of the museum.

Now you can debate the issues until the sun goes dark, but I want to make a point about the nature of protests around museum shows.

First, exhibitions are planned years in advance, so to accuse the ICA of endorsing Schutz or her views is disingenuous. The show was arranged before Schutz painted Open Casket.

Second, The hours and dollars invested in a show make any sudden change of plan unlikely. By the time the show opened, the protestors had lost. Already the ICA was committed, and was hardly going to ditch its promotional and educational material, much less the hours spent installing the works and preparing gallery space. If you have objections to material, speak up and speak publicly before the show opens. In essence, the ICA protestors backed themselves into a corner with little or no hope of substantive change.

By all means, if there are concerns, they should be voiced, preferably in dialogue with museum officials or others whose opinion carries some weight. If the museum won’t participate, rent a venue and hold an event of your own. Write an essay or op-ed. The exchange of ideas is vital to the life of art, and, while not all your points might end up swaying hearts and minds, even one good idea deserves airing.

I find myself in an odd situation, as I consider Open Casket to be the worst Schutz painting I’ve ever seen, for artistic reasons. Her tone-deaf approach, not unlike Sam Durant’s, which I wrote about here, does her no credit, but hardly merits some sort of punitive action. The ICA protestors speak of “accountability,” but what does that mean? Accountable for being clueless? Is one poorly thought-out painting worth it, for either party?


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