Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Opinion

Maxwell: In defense of controversial art

Art has never had it easy. It never will.

Art is always personal and public at the same time. No art is ever a thing unto itself because we view it, study it and judge it. We can love it or hate it.

Some of us wish that some art had not been made and should be destroyed, its creator pilloried. Such is the case with Open Casket, Dana Schutz's painting at the Whitney Biennial in New York. Her cubist work reimagines the gruesomeness of the 1955 Jet magazine photo of Emmett Till's mutilated remains in his coffin.

Till was the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was lynched by white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. He was spending the summer in Mississippi with relatives. News of the murder traveled internationally, and Jet's photo of the child's disfigured body redefined the world's view of America's racial cruelty.

Schutz, a 40-year-old white woman who lives and works in Brooklyn, was best known, until now, for her lighthearted, gestural paintings. Open Casket, capturing a specific instance of racial violence, is a departure, and it has brought outrage she did not anticipate.

Surprisingly for some of us, most of the outrage is from other artists, especially people of color. Many argue that whites do not have the right or moral authority to depict black pain. One black artist, Parker Bright of New York, physically blocked the painting for eight hours over two days, arguing that "in media, black death is sensationalized and has been for years. It's creating a spectacle of black bodies."

In an open letter to Whitney Biennial curators, British-born artist and writer Hannah Black wrote: "The subject matter is not Schutz's. … The painting must go. 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. Contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution."

Schutz has responded charitably to the criticism. And I take her at her word. She said in a video that the painting "was never and is not for sale." As to the essence of the work, she said it is "not a rendering of the photograph but is more an engagement with the loss. … I understand the outrage. Till's photograph was a sacred image of the civil rights movement and I am a white woman. I did not take making this painting lightly. I don't object to people questioning the work or even my right to make it. There has to be an open discussion."

Why did she paint Open Casket? She was motivated, she wrote, by the many police fatal shootings of unarmed black men, which she refers to as "a state of emergency." She believes the brutality Till suffered mirrors the brutality black men experience today.

"The photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous to the time, what was hidden was now revealed," she wrote. "I was struck by Mamie Till's account of witnessing her son and her grief and rage. Her gesture of leaving the casket open was about visibility, sharing pain and witnessing. I wanted the painting to be intimate, not grotesque but I wanted to show the brutality."

Again, I take her at her word. Further, I do not believe that any one group owns sole moral authority to artistically depict anything. And I am particularly concerned that blacks believe that only we have the right to "control the stories of black bodies," whatever that means. Common sense should tell us that given today's cyber communications, no one controls images and no one can ban images.

What is happening with Open Casket is quite simple. One, a lot of people want to ban something they dislike, a motivation as old as human life on Earth. Two, we are witnessing virtue signaling in full bloom. Simply put, many artists are publicly spouting moral certainties in fancy language to enhance their standing in their art communities.

Whitney Biennial curators should be applauded for keeping Open Casket where it is: in full public view, accessible to the world.

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