Ironically, or prophetically, the latest edition of the Whitney’s Museum’s biannual survey of new American art dedicates a gallery to Frances Stark’s cycle of paintings presenting Ian Svenonius’s “Censorship Now”: a sometimes satirical, sometimes parodic, at times disturbingly earnest call for censorship. The underlying arguments: too much vapid, fake and hateful speech in the world and, anyway, art needs to be policed in order to have an effective voice. Little did the curators suspect how real the calls for censorship accompanying the Biennial would become.
Protests against one of the pieces in the Biennial, “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, began the day after the opening reception, when artist Parker Bright stood in front of the painting, blocking it from view while wearing a shirt that read, “Black Death Spectacle.” Soon after, a British bi-racial Black identified artist, Hannah Black, posted a letter and petition calling for the painting’s immediate removal and destruction. A heated debate followed.
The painting, created in response to the many recent incidents of police violence against black men, was inspired by a 62-year old photograph of Emmett Till’s tortured body lying disfigured in his casket “for all the world to see” (in his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley’s, words). The photograph galvanized the Civil Rights movement.
Yet Dana Shutz is white and in her painting, which layers paint to a three-dimensional effect not easily reproduced on flat screens and in print, Till’s face is represented, (in her signature style), as an abstraction. Those two facts generated anger, rage, a call for destruction, as well as counter-outrage, support for the artist and the work and, also, a great amount of significant and very needed conversation. The inclusion of the work in a leading showcase of contemporary American art at a leading art institution, adds to the anger – but also helps the conversation attain national prominence.
In arguments that are familiar and variously leveled at exhibitions, books and art projects, critics declared Emmett Till the sacred historical heritage of Black people and accused Shutz of cultural appropriation, they demanded the black body back from the exploiting work of white artists, expressed pain and slammed racial insensitivity, and often ended in general condemnation of structural racism in a white supremacist art world.
At a time of widespread racial tension, open conversations about race are as essential as they are emotionally loaded and often very difficult. Indeed, a unprecedented number of censorship controversies NCAC has dealt with in the last year have focused on the representation of race and racial tension.
The Whitney Museum, which is no stranger to controversy, has responded to the controversy by respecting the ongoing protests while supporting the artist’s work and the decisions of the Biennial’s curators. There have been calls for the removal of the work, but no censorship. On the contrary, a wide-ranging free and open discussion has developed in social and print media and opinions don’t line fully along any free speech – censorship divide.
As Roberta Smith noted in The New York Times “the Schutz painting and the debate around it are already a historical unit, one that seems new to the art world, and one that will change things.” So how are things changing? The controversy has brought into sharp focus nuanced (and less nuanced) disagreements about the ethics of representation, race and historical trauma; disagreements that have been at a slow burn for the last several years, occasionally erupting into full scale controversies. We went through the hundreds of pages of commentary and picked multiple perspectives on some key issues: the conversation continues, but these perspectives should serve as an evolving map of the field.
Does a white artist have the right to represent black historical trauma?
Christopher Lew, Whitney Biennial 2017 co-curator (artnet interview): …the history that Dana is tapping into with the work, the lynching and murder of Emmett Till—is that this is a history that is an American history. Certainly people of different races have different experiences, but this historic and contemporary violence is something that we all have to grapple with and confront. It is deeply painful and traumatic—more so for some than others, in unequal terms—but it is something that we all have to deal with, and I think if we don’t confront it, if we don’t have these kind of conversations, then we’re not getting anywhere.
Pastishe Lumumba (Hyperallergic): It’s insensitive and gratuitous for the artist, primarily — then the curators and the museum — to willingly participate in the long tradition of white people sharing and circulating images of anti-black violence. There’s a history of white people taking pictures of lynchings. In 2017, for us to have a white woman painting that image with no context… that’s a grossly deficient way of using one’s privilege.
Woldman from Chicago (comment to WNYC report): The story of Emmett Till is part of the larger story of what it means to be an American. All Americans should be allowed to explore this story, especially artists who are searching for a perspective that may help create a better understanding. How did a very small subculture develop a language that rationalizes the supression of legitimate expression as the key to social justice? When did the rest of us agree that this language is actually useful? And why did The Takeaway act as if no other point of view on this issue could possibly exist? [Mar 23, 2017, 12:34 PM]
Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye (The New Republic): Emmett Till died because a white woman lied about their brief interaction. He died because his side of the story did not mean anything to the two white men who killed him, just as it meant nothing to the jury that acquitted them. For a white woman to paint Emmett Till’s mutilated face communicates not only a tone-deafness toward the history of his murder, but an ignorance of the history of white women’s speech in that murder—the way it cancelled out Till’s own expression, with lethal effect.
In her painting, Schutz has smeared Till’s face and made it unrecognizable, again. The streaks of paint crossing the canvas read like an aggressive rejoinder to Mamie Till Mobley’s insistence that he be photographed. Mobley wanted those photographs to bear witness to the racist brutality inflicted on her son; instead Schutz has disrespected that act of dignity, by defacing them with her own creative way of seeing. Where the photographs stood for a plain and universal photographic truth, Schutz has blurred the reality of Till’s death, infusing it with subjectivity. The angle of the painting’s view is directly over the body as if Schutz is looming in her imagination. The colors are pretty. Looking at it is like stepping inside a dream that Schutz had about Emmett Till in his coffin. Since this case is one so importantly defined by visual legacy and competing narratives, an artist seeking to paint him ought literally to know better.
David Walsh (World Socialist Web Site): Hannah Black and her co-signatories see the world entirely through the prism of race. This blinds them to the decisive social realities. … Schutz has no reason to feel “shame” for the murder of Till, who was a victim of Jim Crow racism, racism kept alive and incited by the American ruling elite for the purpose of dividing the working class and the poor. Behind the apartheid-like system in the South, and Till’s killing, stood the oppressive and brutal reality of American capitalism, the same system that oppresses the working population of every color and national background….
…The experience of other human beings is accessible to us, not absolutely, of course, but relatively. Human thinking, including artistic creative thinking, is capable of reflecting reality accurately and richly enough to form the basis of work that conveys essential truths. Otherwise, all artistic activity would cease; it would have no meaning and no possible audience. … Nor would we have world culture if artistic life were ethnically rooted, we would have a series of isolated, discrete narratives only comprehensible to the members of this or that “tribe” and impenetrable to the rest of humanity.
Coco Fusco (artist and writer): …the argument that any attempt by a white cultural producer to engage with racism via the expression of black pain is inherently unacceptable forecloses the effort to achieve interracial cooperation, mutual understanding, or universal anti-racist consciousness. There are better ways to arrive at cultural equity than policing art production and resorting to moralistic pieties in order to intimidate individuals into silence. …reasoned assessment involves more nuanced evaluative criteria, ones that do not essentialize racial identity, impute intent, or ignore the way distinct cultural forms hold differing degrees of power when it comes to racial relations.
Roberta Smith (The New York TImes): …the paintings by Mr. Taylor and Ms. Schutz share an all-too- American subject, that of hateful, corrosive white racism. Who owns that?
Katha Pollitt (The Nation): …attacking Schutz for making art out of black lives seems to deny the very ground on which art rests, the communicability and permeability of human experience. If, as James Baldwin said, American history is black history, how can it also be the possession of black artists only? Any work of imagination is bound to use the lives, experience, and history of others, and sometimes there is indeed something voracious, even cannibalistic about that. When Flaubert supposedly said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” was he claiming empathy with that foolish, trapped provincial housewife or celebrating a hostile takeover? Or both? Either way, you can’t reduce art to the creator’s autobiography. There have been too many cases in which authors who appear to be writing from within a particular identity turn out to belong to another. “Danny Santiago,” who won a prize in 1984 for his ostensibly Latino novel Famous All Over Town, was actually the well-born WASP screenwriter Daniel James. The pseudonymous Elena Ferrante was thought to portray the slums of Naples so intimately she had to have grown up there herself. If the investigation of her identity by Claudio Gatti is correct, she actually came from a middle-class Jewish family and grew up in Rome. But her novels are still exactly what they were before we knew who wrote them, and Dana Schutz’s painting is good or not regardless of her race…
Can white people ever empathize with African American experience?
Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till (at an NAACP rally in Cleveland in 1955): When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong. I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.
Hannah Black (letter, tumblr): …non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand [mamie till’s] gesture.
Dana Shutz (the artist behind “Open Casket”): I only thought about the possibility of painting it after listening to interviews with Till’s mother. In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.
I was trying to understand the horror. I could never, ever know her experience, but I know what it is to love your child. I don’t know if there would be a way to address the subject without some way of approaching it on a personal level.
Christopher Lew (artnet interview): These are conversations that we need to have right now, together. Otherwise literal doors are closing, and we will no longer be able to speak to each other.
Kara Walker (artist): The history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don’t necessarily belong to the artists own life, or perhaps, when we are feeling generous we can ascribe the artist some human feeling, some empathy toward her subject. …I am more than a woman, more than the descendant of Africa, more than my fathers daughter. More than black more than the sum of my experiences thus far. I experience painting too as a site of potentiality, of query, a space to join physical and emotional energy, political and allegorical forms.
Conor Friedersdorf (The Atlantic): “Slavery and white supremacy are parts of American history, and white people are no less obligated than black people to engage with them as best they can. To call such engagement cultural appropriation implies a racial essentialism that is the enemy of empathy.”
Jacob Willer (The Spectator): “Categorising subjects as ‘Black’ (always capitalised) or ‘white’ (never capitalised), and warning about ‘white’ artists appropriating ‘Black culture’, they profess a doctrine of ethnic predestination in cultural experiences and expressions that would drag us back – unwittingly – to Wagner. For Wagner, Judaism was ‘the evil conscience of our modern Civilisation’, while for Schutz’s protesters it is whiteness. For Wagner, the Jew could never gain the slightest ‘glimpse into our [German] essence’, and so Jewish art would always be characterised by a ‘soulless, feelingless inertia’; for Schutz’s protesters, the ‘white gaze’ cannot move from its ‘habitual cold calculation’, so ‘white’ art is all ’empty formalism or irony… a pastime or a therapy’. And it will only improve when white artists begin working in a ‘reparative mode’ by accepting exclusivist identity politics and intersectional theory.”
David Walsh (wsws.org) The claim that there are insurmountable differences between nationalities and ethnicities, as we have noted, has been the program of reaction since the time of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Historian Jacques Godechot, for example, explains that for the Anglo-Irishman Edmund Burke, a ferocious enemy of the 1789 revolution, “There is a British people, a French people, a German people, who are fundamentally different from each other, and each of them evolves according to its own law.” Another arch-reactionary opponent of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre, the man who once charmingly argued that “Humanity only survives through the hangman and religion,” commented that he had seen “Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on … but I must say, as for man, I have never come across him anywhere.” In more recent times, notorious Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt put it simply, “Whoever says humanity lies.”
A considerable section of what passes for the intelligentsia in America today is so saturated with backward and foul racialism or gender obsession, takes this “identity” outlook so much for granted, that the desire of artists, past or present, to treat life honestly and with compassion appears surprising and exceptional.
What is the meaning of artistic freedom? What is the responsibility of an artist working with emotionally fraught material?
Dana Schutz (artnet interview): The anger surrounding this painting is real and I understand that. 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.
Howard Halle (art critic, TimeOut): My objection to Open Casket is that it aestheticizes a tragedy and empties out its meaning—due mostly to the fact that Schutz uses Till’s mangled face as an opportunity for bravura brushwork. She borrows liberally from the work of Francis Bacon, while leaving out its emotional resonance. Open Casket is essentially a formalist exercise trafficking in historical horror.
Bear in mind that Schutz isn’t being accused of racism but something a bit more nuanced if no less thorny: White obliviousness. One can argue that a white person presuming to channel African-American pain isn’t quite as lethal as a white person actually inflicting pain on a black body as part of a bloodthirsty mob, but despite that seeming like progress, it’s just as problematic in its own way.
Marinlyn Minter (on Facebook): “The art world thinks Dana Schutz is the enemy? The left is eating its young again. Censorship from the left really sucks!”
Coco Fusco (Hyperallergic): …if I want an art world that can handle more than pretty pictures and simplistic evocations of identity, I understand that I will have to support not only difficult subjects but clumsiness and mistakes.
Christian Viveros-Faune (The Art Newspaper) Stripped bare of arty jargon the iconoclastic demands voiced by the petition’s author and supporters neatly mirror the new global xenophobia. Put in the frame of #MAGA and Brexit: the European ethnocultural preservationists of the Right meet the identity politics Savonarolas of the Left.
Is there an ethics of representation that precludes the exploitation of spectacles of suffering and causing pain and discomfort to some audiences?
Parker Bright, (NYTimes, about his protest): “I told people they could go Google search Emmett Till’s open casket and see a more impactful image that doesn’t simplify or reduce or flatten Till’s body,” Bright said. “I was more interested in having people confront a living, breathing black body as opposed to one that didn’t really have a choice.”
M Neelika Jayawardane @Sugarintheplum (al-Jazeera) “…in choosing to alter the violent, physical distortions to Till’s face, through using techniques of abstraction, Schutz diffused the political importance of having an open casket.
The photographs depict a “realism” or an “indexicality” that abstraction in the painting distorts, diluting the power of witness. The photographs of Till’s body, and of Mamie Till-Mobley’s dignity and pain made the ordinary savagery of America’s sociopolitical landscapes impossible to avoid. Schutz may have aimed at showing how one’s humanity is distorted by violence, how silent, complicit witnesses are also deeply distorted by brutal acts. But when the lives of the majority of the audience that filters through the doors of the Whitney are so far removed from the realities faced by the politically, economically and socially disenfranchised of America – they become less the “witness” and more participants in the violence of gawking….
That powerful, painful choice to unmask and unveil the effects of white supremacist violence in America, and the power inherent in making it plain, in not hiding from repercussions, is made weak – if not altogether removed – by the elisions inherent in abstraction. ”
permafrost from Tacoma, WA (comment under WNYC report): I … understand why some would have a visceral reaction to this painting. I also think that’s the point. Art is meant to trouble and disturb us to a certain extent, to shake us out of the status quo, to cause us to examine ourselves. Requesting the destruction of this painting is terrible. Yhere must be a way to preserve and/or display the work with greater sensitivity, rather than destroying it. It’s the same with renaming universities, or removing statues of founders and public figures who participated in atrocities, in addition to some other activities that were celebrated. To erase the commemoration of the controversial individual is to also erase a record of the atrocity, in addition to discounting their accomplishments. This does nothing to rectify the wrongs done. Perhaps the better solution is to publicly present several points of view (e.g. additional artwork, monuments to victims and survivors, a plaque outlining the controversial legacy of such-and-such), rather than presenting none at all. [Mar 23, 2017, 1:10 PM]
Zeba Blay (The Huffington Post): For many black folk, white empathy means little if it doesn’t come with positive, intentional action that centers and amplifies the voices of the oppressed. White empathy rarely translates to justice, or the restructuring of the institutional horrors that result in the deaths of black people every day.
The only thing to take away from this controversy is this: listen to black people. Believe black people. Give black people the access and space and resources to elitist, mostly white institutions so that issues like these don’t even have the chance to arise.
Is censorship and the destruction of work ever warranted?
Hannah Black (letter, tumblr): …white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.
Wesley Kimler (Facebook): Having grown up surrounded by black culture, having marched with Angela Davis, The Black Panthers-having been imprisoned-and witnessed something close to the brutality depicted in this painting close up and personal with my fellow inmates -mostly black and hispanic, having then been involved in very serious prison riots in response to such brutality, .. working to this day with black artists, black community, along with middle eastern human rights… I have heard. This situation has career opportunity written all over it as political correctness advocates a new era of segregation and censorship. As the university system systematically attempts to replace art with something best described as ‘critical theory concerning social injustice.’
Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarky (The New Republic): When Hannah Black and her co-signers call for the destruction of this painting, try not to interpret them as book-burners doing the work of censorship. Instead, hear their open letter as a call for silence inside a church. How will you hear the dead boy’s voice, if you keep speaking over him?
Anna Khachian (blog): This art offends me, therefore it must be removed from public view’ is identical to the stance of Jesse Helms and Rudy Giuliani,” notes Freddie DeBoer (the left, it turns out, is no less prone to censorship than the right). Unlike the Bible-thumping ghouls and Spanish Inquisitors who patrolled the culture debate stages of the nineties, however, they have both morality and a relative lack of power on their side. So while it’s morally indefensible to ban “Piss Christ” on the basis of so-called obscenity, a moral argument can in fact be made as to why “Open Casket” is misguided and, possibly, harmful. Yet the purpose of admitting morally questionable cultural products into the public record is not to protect the right to evil in the name of free speech but to ensure that evil itself does not go undetected. In the most basic sense, it forces us to have hard conversations about inconvenient truths.
Roberta Smith, (NYTimes: comparing calls for removal to previous instances of attempted censorship): Those who call for the removal of Ms. Schutz’s painting today seem to align themselves with black artists who in 1997 started a letter-writing campaign against what they considered the negative stereotypes of blacks in the early work of Kara Walker, the African-American artist known for her mercilessly Swiftian portrayals of antebellum plantation life. They also appear to side with Roman Catholics who in 1999, led by then Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, protested a painting at the Brooklyn Museum by the British artist Chris Ofili.
Antwaun Sargent (Artsy editorial): Fundamentally, artists can and should express whatever they feel compelled to, and the public, like Black, Parker, and many others, has every right to contest what they create. But to encourage censorship engages in the very same processes of erasure that have long denied black artists a place in museums and suppressed black experience in society at large.
Coco Fusco (Hyperallergic): On many occasions I have had to contend with self-righteous people — of all of ethnic backgrounds — who have declared with conviction that this or that can’t be art or shouldn’t be seen. There is a deeply puritanical and anti-intellectual strain in American culture that expresses itself by putting moral judgment before aesthetic understanding. To take note of that is not equitable with defending whiteness, as critic Aruna D’Souza has suggested — it’s a defense of civil liberties and an appeal for civility.
I find it alarming and entirely wrongheaded to call for the censorship and destruction of an artwork, no matter what its content is or who made it. As artists and as human beings, we may encounter works we do not like and find offensive. We may understand artworks to be indicators of racial, gender, and class privilege — I do, often. But presuming that calls for censorship and destruction constitute a legitimate response to perceived injustice leads us down a very dark path.
Christopher Lew (artnet interview): So for people to be debating, protesting? It’s a good thing, and it’s a powerful thing. But…to have a discussion around the destruction of an artwork is deeply problematic and disturbing—that’s not something that we entertain as a museum.
Does representing the violence perpetrated against black bodies always commodify this violence? What about black artists representing black bodies? Are they not commodifying those bodies or is it that they have the right to do so?
Zeba Blay (The Huffington Post): We see white artists and creators profit off of black trauma, black death, and black bodies time and time again. We see it in the endless loop of shaky iPhone videos and dashcam clips that replay the deaths of black people like Alton Sterling, Philando Castille and Eric Garner over and over again on 24-hour cable news. We saw it in the photos of lynched black bodies shared as postcards all the way up to the 1960s.
While Schutz has stated that she never intends to sell the painting, according to The New York Times, there’s no denying that the attention that it has generated will undoubtedly lead to some form of profit down the road. And this is beyond just profit. It’s about the currency of privilege.
Black trauma drives views and clicks. Black pain translates to dollars, even as we’re told that the spreading of images of black bodies equals awareness, empathy.
Hannah Black: Remember, contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends, so most of what happens in it is politically meaningless….
Antwaun Sargent (Artsy editorial): Another work in the biennial that explores racial violence, the black painter Henry Taylor’s THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH (2016), has also been drawn into the controversy. Included on the Whitney’s sixth-floor gallery, the painting shows Philando Castile, a black man, lying dead in his car from seven bullets fired by a Minnesota police officer. Castile’s murder was famously live-streamed on Facebook by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. The video has been viewed at least 5.4 million times.
A smaller group of black artists and museum professionals have expressed displeasure with Taylor, seeing his painting as a means to “profit” from black death.
Anna Khachian (blog): Artists would like to think of themselves as agents of political change, but the fact remains: art is a barnacle on the side of capital, which is why it can never be a political platform. The best it can hope to do, then, is comment on the political situation after the fact or, in rare, often purely serendipitous cases, anticipate it. The luxury status of art under capitalism leaves artists in a compromised position, reducing the most urgent debates to the level of internecine turf wars.
Coco Fusco (Hyperallergic): …it is reductive and inaccurate to claim that all treatment of black suffering by white cultural producers is driven by commercial interests and sadistic voyeurism. Black overlooks an important history of white people making anti-racist art, often commissioned by Civil Rights activists.
That history extends back to 19th-century abolitionists who used photographs of the branded hands and scourged backs of slaves to denounce the inhumanity of slavery and to target white audiences in the North. It includes the works made by white artists Paul Cadmus and John Steuart Curry, who drew and painted blacks struggling against white mobs for the 1935 exhibition An Art Commentary on Lynching, organized at the behest of the NAACP in support of its anti-lynching campaign. It also includes Charles Moore’s and Danny Lyon’s celebrated documentary photographs of police brutality toward black Civil Rights activists that circulated among white people at home and abroad, and helped push a reluctant US Congress to pass Civil Rights legislation. It encompasses the Minimalist sound piece “Come Out,” composed by avant-garde musician Steve Reich in 1966 for a benefit for the Harlem Six upon the request of a Civil Rights activist. Reich’s piece consists of a looped sound recording of Daniel Hamm, a young black man in Harlem who was a victim of false arrest and police violence. The speech fragment repeats his explanation of how he turned his physical suffering into spectacle, making one of his bruises bleed visibly so that the police would finally take him to a hospital.
Calvin Tompkins (New Yorker) “Trying to deal with this atrocity in visual terms had seemed almost beyond imagining, and “Open Casket” is a very dark picture—but it’s not grotesque. The horror is conveyed in painterly ways that, to me, make it seem more tragic than the photograph, because the viewer is drawn in, not repelled.”
While the discussion is ongoing, for the time being, we would like to end with the words of Anya Jaremko-Greenwold, writing in Hyperallergic: “in these dangerous Trump times, if we don’t find ways to talk to each other, we are in deep trouble.” Or, as Christopher Benson, co-author with Mamie Till-Mobley of “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America,” writes in the New York Times, “Mrs. Till-Mobley would have welcomed an artist’s rendering of her son as preface to a counternarrative and a challenge to the rest of us to step up. She opened that coffin to force us to cast our eyes on a shared national responsibility for the death of her son by those who had contributed to the harsh system of American apartheid, as well as those who had done nothing to oppose it….Mrs. Till-Mobley just might have found value in protests (though not in censorship). She would have supported a full, robust engagement, perhaps organized by the Whitney to facilitate the debate the painting has provoked. As a public-school teacher and activist, she would have seen a teachable moment here. And so should we. In this way, we stand to create dialogue to replace the competing monologues we have now.”
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