“I did not know if I could make this painting, ethically or emotionally,… 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.”
These are the words of Dana Schutz regarding her painting of a deceased Emmett Till called “Open Casket”. Here’s the painting itself:
When I was in graduate school I had this friend named Amir. Amir was a brilliant and subtle artist in school. I often found myself wishing I had some deeper internal aesthetic sensibility to understand his work. Amir and I had many conversations about art and the direction our work was going in. I was a newly minted abstract artist and Amir was experimenting in video. We made fun of black or ethnic art mostly on the grounds that the art often seemed subservient to a message or cause. Additionally we or at least I felt annoyed that I was expected to create black work or have a sophisticated commentary about black and ethnic art.
When an artist makes a work they can never be quite sure of who their audience is. I believe every artist has an obligation to tell the truth of their experience. The truth in Dana Schutz’s case was that she happened to be alarmed at police violence against black and brown people and she felt the urge to speak out through her work. The idea of an artist needing to get permission from a community before they create strikes me an antithetical to the spirit of art. It’s an affront against the muse. However in this politically charged environment artist need to own their work and acknowledge their privilege. Schutz is said to have known that the work was controversial. Given the crucible of the Whitney Biannual, the most reviled show of the year, she and the curators should have anticipated the response. Better PR could have saved Schutz from accusations that she is culturally insensitive.
As a black artist, who sometimes makes work about race class and sexuality, I have to say that the avenues for greater visibility in the art world are narrow for a person of color. And as an artist who mostly makes abstract work I find it annoying that the black artists who gain that rare exposure mostly do work rooted in race class and sexuality. How many prominent black abstract artists do you know? But if you know art you know who Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, and Glenn Ligon are.
It strikes me as somewhat old school black thought to raise your heckles over this painting. America is a racist country, why can’t a white woman acknowledge that truth in her work? Maybe the abstracted depiction of Emmet Till disturbed the black community. Maybe if Schutz depicted Till in a more representational fashion there would be less uproar. A point Roberta Smith made about the Schutz controversy in an excellent article a couple weeks ago, see here.
Space seems to be what this controversy boils down to and how little is devoted to black and brown people at cultural institutions. I think it’s okay for Dana Schutz to speak her truth on race, but perhaps the Whitney – knowing that this work would be controversial – could have paired it with work from a black artist to put the work in context and spark a healthier conversation about race.
I’ve only scene reproductions of “Open Casket” but hope to see it next month. Apparently the painting has been taken down because of a leak at the Whitney. Perhaps this is an excuse to save face for the museum. I hope they put it back up because the controversy it caused made people think about its inspiration, which although clumsily executed, seems to have been the point.
Something happens to folks when they reach a certain age with there music tastes. I think we’re long for the music of our parents. I’ve been listening to old soul music and the kind of R&B of my mother liked. I woke up today humming Debra Laws “Very Special” so here it is. Hope you enjoy.
Okay this Friday is First Friday at the Banana Factory so that’ll be my next post. Until then do be well!