Wednesday, April 25, 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.

Comments
Editorial: As USFSP consolidation task force meets, openness and collaboration are key

Editorial: As USFSP consolidation task force meets, openness and collaboration are key

Writing a new law that phases out separate accreditation for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and folds it back into the major research university was the easy part. The hard work starts today when a new consolidation task force holds i...
Published: 04/23/18
Updated: 04/24/18

Correction

CorrectionCircuit Judge John Stargel of Lakeland is a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission who voted against a proposed amendment that would have stopped write-in candidates from closing primary elections. An editorial Saturday inco...
Published: 04/23/18
Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Not too many people took then-candidate Donald Trump seriously when he famously campaigned to "drain the swamp" as president. But that shouldn’t give this administration a free pass to excuse the behavior of Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Env...
Published: 04/22/18
Updated: 04/23/18
Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Allegiant Air’s safety record remains troubling, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s reluctance to talk about it is no more encouraging. Those are the key takeaways from a 60 Minutes report on the low-cost carrier’s high rate of mid-flight brea...
Published: 04/21/18

Editorial: Women’s work undervalued in bay area

Even a strong economy and low unemployment cannot overcome the persistent pay gap affecting full-time working women in Florida. A new report shows women in Florida earned 12.5 percent less on average than their male counterparts, and the disparities ...
Published: 04/21/18
Editorial: Florida’s death penalty fading away on its own

Editorial: Florida’s death penalty fading away on its own

Florida lawmakers may never take the death penalty off the books, but stronger forces are steadily eroding this inhumane, outdated tool of injustice. Court rulings, subsequent changes to law and waning public support have significantly suppressed the...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/24/18

Editorial: A missed chance for open primary elections

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission did a lot of things wrong this week by combining unrelated or unpalatable provisions into single amendments that will appear on the November ballot. It also wasted an opportunity to do one thing right. The...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/23/18
Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

For all the symbolism, Raul Castro’s handoff of the Cuban presidency this week amounts to less than meets the eye even if his handpicked successor, the Communist Party functionary Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, is the first person not named Castro to le...
Published: 04/20/18
Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

The Hillsborough school district planted a fruitful seed with the opening of Nature’s Classroom five decades ago on the cypress-lined banks of the Hillsborough River northeast of Tampa. • The lessons taught there to some 17,000 sixth graders each yea...
Published: 04/20/18

Editorial: Equality pays off on Southwest Flight 1380

The passengers of Southwest Flight 1380 can be thankful that, 33 years ago, the U.S. Navy took the lead on equal opportunity.Capt. Tammie Jo Shults was piloting the flight from New York to Dallas on Tuesday when an engine exploded, blowing out a wind...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18