“The painting must go,” writes Hannah Black. Like a chant, she reprises the demand throughout an open letter to the Whitney Biennial curators, in response to Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” a painting of Emmett Till’s corpse.1
“Neither are we all completely unknowable,” writes Dana Schutz. Beyond racial divisions, she seems to plea, she is a mother who happens to be white, she can relate to Mamie Till-Mobley. “My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”2
“A white woman had Emmett Till killed,” said Parker Bright to me, while he was physically protesting in front of “Open Casket.” His shirt read, “Black Death Spectacle.”
Hannah Black urges the destruction of “Open Casket,” accusing Dana Schutz of being so careless as to “transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.” Moreover, Schutz has overstepped the boundaries of subject matter, with damaging consequences.
“Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this,” writes Black.
The Whitney curators classify “hurt” as “tremendous emotional resonance.”
Meanwhile, Henry Taylor’s painting of a police officer shooting Philando Castile sums up a horrifying plague of police violence against Black men, including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, and too many more. The violence is a catastrophe, as is the “spectacle” opposed by Parker Bright and Hannah Black:
“A similarly high-stakes conversation has been going on about the willingness of a largely non-Black media to share images and footage of Black people in torment and distress or even at the moment of death, evoking deeply shameful white American traditions such as the public lynching.”
Like Emmett Till’s casket, Philando Castile’s unjustifiable death was a spectacle that galvanized protest actions. But at the Whitney, nobody is protesting Henry Taylor’s painting, partly because Henry Taylor is Black.3
Hannah Black’s letter describes a world of artistic freedom based on binary (or trinary) race realities: Black, white, Non-Black. So how do we address non-Black artists appropriating images of lynching?
Robert Gober? His “Hanging Man/ Sleeping Man” (1989) repeats a lynching as a pattern motif. Is it permissible because it implicates “white obliviousness and sins of omission,” as suggested by Thomas Micchelli in Hyperallergic?
Paul Chan? His apocalyptic animated video, “My birds…trash…the future” (2004) depicted a lynching, almost in line with the “tradition of the lynched figure left out in public view as a warning to the black community,” something Emmett Till’s mother reversed, as described by Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye in The New Republic. They write:
“Her son’s body would not be made into a spectacle nor be a symbol for black fear and white supremacy. By controlling the way that his body looked, Mobley was able to define its legacy. Although he was taken from her, the way lynched Americans were taken from their families, she was able to invert the final stage of public murder, which is spectacle.”
Another artist who has depicted lynchings is Adrian Piper, an artist who has cast (and embodied) race to be far more ambiguous than Hannah Black does. In her “Cornered” (1988), Piper reports:
“In fact, some researchers estimate that almost all purportedly white Americans have between 5% and 20% black ancestry. Now, this country’s entrenched conventions classify a person as black if they have any black ancestry. So most purportedly white Americans are, in fact, black. Think what this means for your own racial classification. If you’ve been identifying yourself as white, then the chances are really quite good that you’re in fact black.”
How does Piper’s racial ambiguity hold up to Hannah Black’s outlook, which is based in a stark taxonomy? Even if we reject Piper’s genetic argument, could we understand it hermeneutically as a lesson that apparent racial differences should not fool us out of solidarity? That Black, white, and non-black people have more in common than is visible?
And calls for censorship are familiar, though they typically come from the top down, from institutions, not from artists. The Catholic League fought David Wojnarowicz’s video at The Hirschhorn in 2010; Rudy Giuliani infamously threatened the Brooklyn Museum for exhibiting a Chris Ofili painting. “Sick stuff,” he called it. Still, hostility comes from the ground up, too. “Fuck White Art” graffiti defaced a gallery in Los Angeles. And that’s just in the United States. Look abroad for more hostility.
Art thrives on freedom of expression, so we should never silence an artist – including those artists who use open letters as material. With the NEA in danger, a plurality of voices is more important than ever. Still, Hannah Black seems to ask, “Is this so-called freedom really worth hurting Black viewers?” Why should that pain be acceptable? And suppose consensus accepts that the painting must go. Would that really heal the hurt that it caused? Would that act stifle the valuable discourse resulting from the painting’s visibility? Although censorship is at the heart of this issue, there are other compelling issues to examine, sooner rather than later, many of which are unearthed in “Open Casket.”
1 Jerry Saltz describes it as “…thick, sluicing…”.
2 “Ms. Schutz doesn’t picture his wounds as much as the pain of looking at them,” writes Roberta Smith.
3 The style of Dana Schutz’s painting is also a factor, as detailed by Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye in The New Republic. “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.”