Open Casket: Cultural Appropriation or Secular Blasphemy?

A controversy has erupted around the Whitney Biennial in New York. Protestors have demanded that a Dana Schutz painting of murder victim Emmett Till be removed from the exhibition with the further recommendation that it be “destroyed and not entered into and any museum or market”. This is a clear call for censorship.

Emmett Till was an 14 year old African-American, murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman. His killers were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury.

Till’s mother Mamie famously requested an open casket, so the terrible disfigurement of her son could be witnessed by everyone. This decision exposed to the world the brutality of lynchings and lack of civil rights for black people.

Emmett Till in his open casket, 1955
Emmett Till in his open casket, 1955
Dana Schutz oil painting Open Casket depicts Emmett Till in the coffin.

Dana Schutz, Open Casket
Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016). Oil on canvas.
Calling for the painting to be destroyed, artist Hannah Black says that the painting is an example of “appropriation of black culture by non-black people”.

In brief: The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because 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.

She also challenges the notion of a universal right to free speech:

The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.

Another artist, Parker Bright, has been staging a daily protest in front of the picture.

In The New Republic, Josephine Livingstone and Lovya Gyarkye write a scathing and persuasive critique of Schutz choice of subject matter.  The piece “insults his memory” and the colourful, abstract style sanitises the image of Emmett, thus distorting Mamie Till’s crucial decision to show the world the true horror of the white rage and violence visited upon her son.

Most of the New Republic essay is a straightforward artistic and political criticism, but in their final paragraph the writers also excuse the calls for censorship.

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?

Not everyone agrees with this. Kenan Malik responded on Twitter:

That’s not what I hear. What I hear are secular cries of “blasphemy!” # It’s the secular version of shouting ‘blasphemy’ at The Satanic Verses or at MF Husain’s paintings or at Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary. # But it’s probably worse because what is being declared sacred is not religious belief but racial identity. #

Manick Govinda calls it hysteria. Writing for Spiked, he condemns the suggestion that the work be destroyed:

If people believe Schutz’s painting failed to do justice to its subject, then they should critique and judge it. But to call for it to be removed, and destroyed? This is censorship at its most ugly – and it must be opposed.

For me, this is key. Condemning an artist’s insensitivity and crassness should not be followed by a call for the work’s destruction. And the corollary: defending a person’s right to free speech does not mean you believe that every picture (or indeed, any picture) they paint is a good one.

Instead, we can parrot Voltaire and Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I hate what you say, but defend your right to say it.”  Translated into this context: Open Casket can be seen as a bad painting because Schutz’s abstract style deletes what is essential about the original image and the Emmett Till story; yet she has a right to paint and present it, and the curators have a right to choose it for their exhibition.

For many, this is an unsatisfactory triangulation. Schutz’s critics assert that the painting is itself harmful to Till’s memory and the wider Struggle, and therefore to argue for its continued display is to take a side. It is to argue for continued distortion of the black experience its is an acquiescence to the structural racism of our society.

Instinctively, this feels like a conceptual stretch to me. But I accept that pronouncing on whether harm has occurred (whether to Individuals or the community) is not something I can do with any credibility… because I do not live with or directly perceive the harm caused.

What I can argue however, is that the painting should remain even if it does cause harm because the precedent set by such censorship would be intolerable in a free society. ‘Offence’ would be cited as an excuse to veto other art. Further curbs would disadvantage  black artists disproportionately. Calls for art censorship usually come from social conservatives eager to preserve the status quo. The conservative backlash to Beyoncé’s use of Black Power imagery is a recent, high profile example of this.

Establishing ‘offence’ as a legitimate reason to censor art would also set a precedent for placing certain subjects off-limits to certain types of people. Hannah Black’s statement seems to signal that this is precisely her intent, but this would surely result in an absurd situation where people would have to show how their identity related to the subject matter, before their artistic efforts could be deemed acceptable. It would also reduce art criticism to a discussion of ‘authenticity’ where the only way to view a piece of art is to interrogate the racial (or religious, or gender) identity of the artist and then pronounce on whether that identity is a morally acceptable ‘fit’ for the subject matter. This would be incredibly reductive but also, probably, impossible. People rarely fit into neat demographic boxes. Even (say) a white, middle-class cis-gendered hetero English male might have Celtic, central European and Jewish ancestry that complicates his identity.

Worse, it denies the possibility of empathy, which may be the essential quest of all art. In a Hyperalleric essay that is both broad and deep, Coco Fusco argues that it is possible for white artists to make a positive contribution to black culture and liberation, citing examples.

I do not mean to suggest that all artistic representations of black oppression by white artists and all curatorial efforts to address race are well intentioned, or that they are all good. However, 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.

I do not think it is possible to discuss this controversy, Schutz’s pairing or even Mamie Till’s original open casket decision, without talking about mass communication, attention and what we now call ‘virality’. There are several things to say about this.

First, I do not think Hannah Black is an attention seeker. Or rather – I do not think she is engaging in self-promotion. I have seen people say so on social media, and I think that is hokum.  It is merely ad hominem and an avoidance of the issues.  Rather, Hannah Black is seeking attention for an important idea and a live political issue.

Second, the controversy that Open Casket has caused is not, in itself, a vindication of its selection for the Biennial. Controversy for its own sake is tedious. In any case, there is no indication that the inclusion of the piece was a curatorial decision designed specifically to cause outrage. In fact it is clear that the outrage caught the gallery and curators by surprise.

Third, there is now a chance that discussion of Emmett Till will now always include a mention of Dana Schutz painting. An odd sort of Streisand Effect will occur, in which the two images—the photograph and the painting—will become linked in the minds of many people and certainly by Google’s algorithms. This cannot be what Hannah Black hoped for when she raised her concerns.

Next, it is shame that the call for censorship has distracted from discussion of the other works in the exhibition (which include a stylised painting by a black artist depicting the recent death of Philando Castile, a recent victim of a racist police shooting).

Finally, it is also a shame that it requires such an extreme statement in order for us to take notice of the underlying problem. Would the real and relevant issue of cultural appropriation have been discussed so widely if Hannah Black had not included a call for Schutz painting to be “destroyed” in her critique? Would I even be reading and blogging about it? Probably not. How come white men are motivated to have a ‘meta’ conversation about the censorship of white art, but cannot stir themselves to otherwise engage with the underlying problems that black artists seek to highlight? Trans activists, LGBTQ activists and feminists all report similar frustrations. We who enjoy a privileged position in society need to do more to rectify this and engage with the complaints and anger of people from marginalised groups. That would deliver a more equitable form of freedom of expression and, I am quite sure, put an end to these dangerous experiments in censorship.

5 Replies to “Open Casket: Cultural Appropriation or Secular Blasphemy?”

  1. I think you get to the crux of it in that final paragraph. Free speech arguments seem to me to rely upon all parties and their speech being treated (within the culture) as equal. When that assumption isn’t met, they’re a blunt instrument whose application helps to perpetuate these inequalities. I’m almost certain it’s possible to have some nuance within free speech without sliding onto the slippery slope.

  2. An excellent tool of criticism in this area is to reverse the parameters. If a “black” artist produced a work concerning a matter that was iconic on some way to “white” observers, what reception would the critic receive if they asserted that the “black”artist was not qualified to make a statement about the “white” matter? I hope all rightly thinking people would recognise the absurdity, the wrongness, of that attempt at exclusion. Much artistic endeavour is an essay at understanding, interpreting, the point of view of an other – whether an individual, a world view, or a group. If any defined body of humanity successfully seeks a monopoly of interpretation of their own point of viwe, or allows only approved versions of interpretation, then we close down a whole branch of the means by which humanity can understand itself. We exclude females interpreting male behaviour from the point of view of a male, a Jew from interpreting the world from the point of view of a Gentile, a Muslim interpreting the world from the point of view of an un-believer; all because they do not “own” that point of view. Should we stop trying to write stories from the point of view of children, because we are no longer children?

    1. Yes, but… I think it might be a little more complicated than that. I think that marginalised groups would point out that since one experience is ‘mainstream’ and default while the other is suppressed and submerged, a black person making art on ‘white’ issues is not directly comparable to a white person making art on ‘black’ issues. The black artist has knowledge of the white narrative and concerns, because the culture and society ensures it is well documented and discussed. Indeed, things that happen to white people are considered part of the national story and therefore ‘owned’ by everyone.

      Meanwhile the black history and narratives are suppressed and white people in particular are ignorant of them. Thus their attempts to make art out of such experiences become crass, offensive and wrong.

      We might make a similar argument about male/ female stories and the idea that history is his-story, the story of men. This everyone had knowledge of an ownership of the male experience in a way that they do not have for the female experience.

      A better way of addressing this is to ensure that the mainstream culture tells more black and female stories. In this decade of the 21st century I’d say we’re getting better at asking for that to happen. And films like ‘Moonlight’ eventually break through to become part of the cultural canon.

      Better to argue for more, different culture than the destruction of existing culture.

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