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.
Dana Schutz oil painting Open Casket depicts Emmett Till in the coffin.
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.
At the Whitney, a protest against Dana Schutz' painting of Emmett Till: "She has nothing to say to the Black community about Black trauma." pic.twitter.com/C6x1JcbwRa
— Scott Y. (@hei_scott) March 17, 2017
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.