Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dana Schutz's painting in the Whitney Museum Biennial, is based on a 1955 photo of 14-year-old Emmett Till's mutilated body, published in Jet Magazine and credited with inspiring support for the civil rights movement. Till, an African-American from Chicago, was killed in Mississippi by two white men who were acquitted, although later admitted to the crime. In 2008, at age 82, the woman who had accused him of making advances recanted her story.

What the current art world controversy around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till tells me, is that a preponderance of white artists, who think of themselves as liberal, have no awareness of their (overused term alert!) privilege and unconscious racism. Exclaiming in droves on Facebook and elsewhere that they know better how black people should respond, their righteous arrogance is mind-boggling—perhaps not a surprise to blacks, but to me, because these are people I know.  

This also happened a couple of years ago when issues about Kara Walker came up on my blog, with comments on Facebook. Walker, a black artist whose work is collected primarily by whites, often features blacks being abused by whites, as well as Jim Crow imagery, which many blacks find degrading. But when black artists and academics expressed this on my FB page, white artists had no qualms about telling them they were “ignorant” and “anti-art.” One even said that Michele Wallace, who had written a negative essay about Walker, “didn’t understand art”— obviously unaware that Wallace is the daughter of venerable black artist Faith Ringgold.

Now the black activists protesting the Schutz painting are being called “poseurs” and “panic merchants,” “a niche group” whose responses are “ridiculous” “nit-wit shit,” and “about some people assuming they have the exclusive right to certain aspects of American history.”

The most frequent cry from whites is that of “censorship”— a term I associate with attempts of authoritarian governments to control the masses, rather than the struggle of the downtrodden to keep their experience from being co-opted and mischaracterized by their oppressors.  One art editor on FB called it a “whiff of the Cultural Revolution,” while a socialist columnist, addressing the “foul attempt to censor and suppress” the painting, wrote, “The arguments being used are worthy of the Nazi officials who banned Jewish artists from playing or conducting classical music on the grounds of their ‘un-German’ spirit” – to which a commenter replied, “Bringing up Nazis in this issue is like a Nazi painting a picture of the camps and blaming the Jews for being too sensitive.”

I think of a friend who once worked in a dentist’s office that was decorated with pastoral prints. One showed a group of good ol' boys sitting under a tree, and hanging from one of the branches, barely perceptible, was a noose. The white patients who crowded the office never noticed it, nor did the white dentist who chose it, but it gave my black friend chills. At her request, the dentist took it down. Censorship? Political correctness? No, simply consideration for his employee. And a reminder that not only may we not see things as others do, we might not see them at all.

I once asked a white collector why he bought a Kara Walker work on paper. “I liked the way it was drawn,” he said. And the imagery? “Oh, I didn’t care about that.”  

Another white artist friend calls the controversy “trivial” because, he says, it has nothing to do with the day-to-day struggle of poor blacks. In fact, a number of white artists were maintaining that art is unimportant in the scheme of life, or in the face of our current political miasma—a curious stance for those who have devoted their lives to it. But when the protestors call for the destruction of the painting, they turn around and argue for its intrinsic value as if it were a sacred object.

While it’s true that many economically disadvantaged blacks, survival on their minds, may never know about this issue and, if they did, might not care what happens at the Whitney, the arts are important in shaping the culture and the perceptions of those who make decisions about our lives. Do we hold our judgment and listen? Or continue to send the message that the white establishment couldn't care less?

Beyond the question of the subject matter, a big problem with Open Casket, as Aruna D’Souza and Ann Landi have also pointed out, is that it’s not a great painting, and one wonders if the result would have been different if it were. Instead Open Casket is a Dana Schutz before anything else, with the result that it trivializes and makes a decorative cartoon of a horrific event. As one commenter said, “I'm not sure that 'rubber stamping' a style on a loaded subject is a good strategy for a successful painting”.

Adding insult to injury is Schutz’s statement that she was empathizing as a mother, if not a black mother, which indicates she must have missed the conversation around the distinction between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” at the top of the news the last several years.

If I were King of the Whitney, I’d leave the painting up and make the dialogue around it part of the exhibition, posting the dissenting remarks and holding symposia with an eye to giving black voices a platform—because, in the end, the conversation is much more consequential than the painting.


LXV said...

Well, Carol, I think you nailed it. My initial reaction was one of disgust. I think Schutz is a good enough painter at what she does and god knows she's had plenty of attention in the New York scene of these past few years, but this painting is a travesty of poor execution, bad taste and a total misfire. It should have stayed in the studio. Perhaps it was a private catharsis of some value to her in her struggle to reconcile her relation to the horrors that white America has visited on its black population. Mrs. Till's choice of showing her son's mutilation was brave, bold and angry. In my opinion, photography was THE medium for this display. It was not an art piece. It was a protest, a prayer and a slap in the face of callous indifference. When I saw the Schutz painting, I did not recognize any of the gruesome violence that shocked me when I first saw the photo, quite a few years ago. It is a "zombie-formalist" rehash of some white girl's guilt (there, I said it.) It SHOULD have stayed in the studio. I fault the curators and the institution for this obscene gaffe.

That said, if it was useful to raise the consciousness of those ignorant of this particular history, then, that's all to the good. But, it's lousy painting and the Whitney should be ashamed for pandering in this way.

CultureShockArt said...

Thanks for this post. I've been sitting on thoughts about Schutz for weeks now struggling with the lack of dialog taking place around her work at the Whitney and her solo show at the ICA Boston (with the exception of the Whitney town hall with C. Rankine where Schutz wasn't present). I couldn't help but think of Walker as well. What's missing from both scenarios is a dialog with the artists. Walker made her point quite clear in her manifesto/press release that she's not a role model/spokesperson and she's tired of taking up that mantle, yet I never saw or thought of her in that way to begin with. They both left these time bombs of trauma that we either have to detonate or disarm. What do we do with this discomfort? And as you noted, specifically who is feeling it? That collector you mentioned surely didn't.