The Controversy around Dana Schutz and Open Casket
In last week’s post, I mentioned painter Dana Schutz. I have a special spot in my heart for Dana. She visited my university to give a series of talks and specifically came to my Intro to Oil Painting class as a sort of guest professor. She gave us an assignment – paint a self-portrait as a dog – and then returned a few weeks later to do a critique with us.
That assignment was actually my first oil painting.
It was a fun, quirky assignment that seems fairly representative of Dana Schutz and her art. In short, I like her work and associate her with positive feelings.
So imagine my surprise when a Google search on Dana Schutz turned up article after article on a controversial painting. On race.
Rather than devouring articles in a way that feels like Internet gossip, I decided to devour these articles and report back to you. This race painting controversy is now a few months old now, but here’s what happened:
Race has become a popular topic in America again, brought back into the public consciousness during the Michael Brown/Ferguson case. I was in South Korea at the time but was still deeply affected – social media keeps you in the loop like that.
The string of black men murdered by black police only continued, but now they were made very public. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. And then the Emanuel AME church shooting. If you weren’t thinking about race before, you certainly were now, after a self-professed white supremacist was welcomed into an African-American church’s Wednesday night Bible study and proceeded to shoot the church members down.
It’s safe to say Dana Schutz was thinking about race then too. Actually, I know she was, since New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins conducted a series of interviews with Schutz, who expressed her desire to create a painting about race but was struggling with how to execute it.
In 2016, Dana Schutz created the painting she’d been struggling to conceptualize. Open Casket is based on a real-life photo of Emmett Till’s mutilated face in an open casket. The photo is a significant image in American history, and Schutz’s decision to choose Emmett as her subject isn’t a surprise since many were comparing Michael Brown’s 2014 death to Emmett Till’s in 1955.
Although the painting is based on a real-life photo, it is abstracted and the subject matter isn’t immediately clear. Emmett Till’s mutilated face is a mass of unrecognizable shapes and shades, which, upon recognizing the suit, casket lining, and finally entire subject, is grotesque. It’s easy to understand the source of offense. But more on that later.
Schutz showed Open Casket at an art show in Berlin. Her work was well-received and no one said a word about this particular painting. She sold all of the pieces at that show except for Open Casket and one other.
Where the Controversy Began
The next place Schutz showed Open Casket was at this year’s Whitney Biennial, which opened on March 17. This painting was shown along with two others, Elevator and Shame. Elevator is the only painting that remains on the Whitney Biennial website.
Here’s where the Open Casket controversy began. During the biennial’s opening, attendee and artist Parker Bright stood in front of the painting for hours, blocking others from clearly viewing it. Bright wore a T-shirt that read “Black Death Spectacle” and “Lynch Mob” with line drawn through it. Silent protesters joined him for varying amounts of time.
You can see a bit of Parker Bright ‘s protest in his Facebook Live video. Later that day, artist Hannah Black took the lead in voicing her concerns.
An Open Letter
In an open letter to curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, Hannah Black called for the removal, destruction, and exclusion of Open Casket from any other museums or art markets. Initially, 30 people signed the letter before it was posted on Facebook to a wider audience.
Here are some highlights from Black’s letter:
- “…it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.”
- ” 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.”
- “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.”
- “We all make terrible mistakes sometimes, but through effort the more important thing could be how we move to make amends for them and what we learn in the process.”
Dana Schutz later had a solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston which began this past July. Protesters wrote another letter to the Boston curators. But I’ll stick to a discussion of the original letter in this post. You can read more on the Boston letter in this New York Times article.
Responses to Hannah Black’s Letter
Hannah Black’s letter is angry and raw. It speaks a lot of truths, but not in a way that sounds friendly to the mainstream white reader. I see easily how it can seem alienating, raising the defensive hackles of I’m-not-racist whites. But I also see why Hannah Black couldn’t be bothered to make the topic more palatable to a white audience. White guilt isn’t the issue here. Black death and pain and suffering are.
The painting and open letter sparked fierce debate on both sides. While some agreed with Black, many took issue with her call to destroy the painting, equating it to book burning. Others spoke out against the letter as encouraging censorship. Yet others locked onto the idea of topic ownership, in Hannah Black’s phrase “The subject matter is not Schutz’s.”
Then there was Dana’s response:
“I did not know if I could make this painting, ethically or emotionally,” she said. “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. But I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her. In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”
To me, Dana just adds more fuel to the fire. To reduce Emmett Till’s murder to a mother’s pain at losing her son misses the point entirely.
A Note on Author Identity
Before we go any further it seems important to note where I’m coming from. I am not black, nor am I quite white. My light skin and Korean-white racial identity grant me a certain level of white privilege, naturally. I am also frequently asked “What are you?”, called exotic, and occasionally had things like “ching chang chong!” shouted in my direction. So the commentary to follow comes from the view of a non-black POC (person of color).
This issue is a little more complex than most race controversies. I too question the idea of topic ownership – can we really say Emmett Till’s photo belongs only to Black Americans? What’s certain is that the photo of a dead child should be treated carefully and with respect. It’s too easy to view the photo as history, to forget that this was a member of a real family, lost too soon. I’m guilty of forgetting.
I also take issue with Hannah Black’s call to destroy the painting. I can’t get behind a call to destroy artwork. It feels like an extremist point of view. But that’s where my disagreement ends. I think many dissenters made the mistake of becoming fixated on ownership and censorship, at the expense of the rest of Hannah Black’s critical message.
There’s so much to address on this topic, but I’ve settled on three main points:
Hannah Black’s response is legitimate.
I realize that to pass judgment on another person’s emotions is pretentious. I’m not needed to say Hannah Black’s emotions are legitimate. But apparently, not everyone believes this. Sometimes as a POC, an event or remark makes you deeply uncomfortable, sick to your stomach even, before you’ve even recognized that it was the racist intent behind the remark that caused your unease. And then there’s the matter of articulating it so others understand.
Hannah Black didn’t have this problem. She points out a clear legacy of black pain used for entertainment. And if you don’t think public lynching was really considered entertainment, ask yourself why so many people gathered to watch them. Or read up on the grotesque carnival game of African Dodger, guaranteed to make you sick.
White people should think carefully about how they’re portraying black people, black lives, and especially black trauma.
For Dana, the practice of really considering Emmett Till might be new. Really looking at the photo and really thinking about the implications of this event. But for black people, it’s not new. It’s overdone. Overcapitalized. Bringing up Till’s dead body brings up unnecessary pain and historical trauma. I’m not saying anything new here, just what protesters have already pointed out.
What I did is this exercise: Think of a deeply painful event. Now imagine that someone who never experienced this event decides to bring it up. This person shoves the event in your face without any regard for your distress. Then that person is celebrated for doing so. How do you feel now?
Of course, none of this hurt was Dana’s intention. But her response is what I feel becomes problematic.
Dana didn’t apologize. And that’s not okay.
Dana Schutz responded to the open letter and controversy around Open Casket. But she didn’t do it well. She defended her work and said she was trying to relate as a mother. That’s nice, but Schutz really missed the mark here.
This topic is NOT about a mother and son bond. It’s not about loss of life. This is about race. And in this rare moment, everyone knows and agrees it’s about race. That doesn’t happen often.
For Dana Schutz to explain her rationale is fine. If she was interacting with the topic primarily as a mother, good for her. But not to acknowledge her mistake, or at the very least the hurt she caused, doesn’t make sense.
In an interview with Artnet, Dana says, “It’s a problematic painting and I knew that getting into it. I do think that it is better to try to engage something extremely uncomfortable, maybe impossible, and fail, than to not respond at all.”
What this says to me is that even knowing that her work is problematic, she choose to do nothing. To say something along the lines of, “I knew that would happen, but I did it anyway” just sounds bad. Didn’t she think that a response like that might make people even angrier?
Schutz has said that the painting is not and will never be up for sale, addressing protesters’ concerns about profiting from the image. But why doesn’t she acknowledge their hurt? Perhaps she’s not sorry for creating the painting. Perhaps she would do it all over again. Even still, a misstep on this level requires a response.
We’re living in a time when people’s sensibilities about race have been heightened, and they no longer feel the need to suppress or suffer racial mistreatment silently. It’s not that people are more sensitive today, as conservative white Americans bemoan, but that POC no longer stand for the injustices they’ve experienced since the founding of this country. We have the vocabulary and we have the community.
I’m not going to denounce Dana Schutz as a terrible racist or boycott all her work.
She made a mistake and I’m sure she’s learned something from the experience. But I am disappointed in her response. Of course, I can’t see behind the scenes and know what Dana Schutz is really thinking, feeling, or doing. Maybe she’s making real efforts to learn; maybe she’s been scared off from making art about race ever again.
But I hope not.
I hope she has compassionate friends to talk with about this whole incident who also understand why the painting is hurtful. And while it’s easier for me to say this than it is for her to do it, I hope Dana Schutz continues to try, fail, and succeed.
Further Reading on Dana Schutz and Open Casket:
New Yorker Profile of Dana Schutz (Interviews)
Open Letter from Hannah Black
Dana Schutz Responds to the Controversy (Interview)
The Case Against Dana Schutz
Opposing Viewpoint by Artist Coco Fusco