This past January, Carolyn Bryant Donham confessed that the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, and her involvement in it, in Mississippi back in August 1955 were based on a lie. I am sure that anyone reading is familiar with the details of the depraved and disgusting event, and if you are not, I urge you to take to the internet and educate yourself.
Nearly two weeks ago, at the opening of the Whitney Biennial, a painting by Dana Schutz, titled “Open Casket”, was unveiled. The painting is of the mangled and mutilated “face” of Emmett
Till, based on photos that appeared in JET Magazine. The artist and the museum immediately found themselves in a spiral of controversy as people began to ask why the painting was put up in the first place, with some demanding that the painting be taken down and others demanding that it be destroyed. On the opposing side, the consensus is that black subject matter, specifically black death, is forbidden to white artists.
In one of my previous posts, I discussed the reasons that I believe people of color tend to recoil from, and are sometimes suspicious of white liberals. Essentially, white liberals often speak and behave in ways that may suggest that they think are doing someone a favor, simply because they are white and are not prejudiced in the context of a country where white people are historically prejudiced. But the thing is, you’re not supposed to be prejudiced in the first place, because you have nothing to be prejudiced about.
Dana Schutz appears to be one of those people, as do those who support her right to create the work and have it on display and also happen to be non-prejudiced white people. Schutz said to Artnet that she decided to create the work in the scope of the “…constant mass shootings, racist
rallies filled with hate speech, and an escalating number of camera-phone videos of innocent black men being shot by police”, and that she approached it through a sense of empathy for Till’s mother, stating that she “…could never, ever know her experience,” but that she knows “what it is to love your child”.
As artists, we’re free to make art about whatever we want, but that doesn’t mean we get to be ignorant of how our art affects people and what our art means in the context of the world we create it in. “Open Casket” is insensitive, offensive and unequivocally harmful. A white woman commodified the death of a black boy that was catalyzed by a white woman. This entire ordeal is a classic incident of white people knowing that they’re white, but not knowing that they’re white. What people like Dana Schutz and her supporters fail to understand, it seems, is that in the context of America, their whiteness means something in direct opposition to the blackness of Emmett Till, his mother, the late Mamie Till-Mobley, and every other black person in this country, regardless of how they feel about them, in any and every respect; the existence of white people in America is inherently oppressive to black people in America, mainly because of their privilege to be ignorant of this fact and what this fact entails. Their privilege is not an aspect of their experience. It is their experience.
I am not blaming anyone for this, for it is no one’s fault; it is American culture. But this is not about a white artist depicting black death and prospering at the expense of black people. The nature of the work only adds insult to injury. This is about a white artist depicting black death, the mode in which they chose to depict it, and their belief that it was okay to do so. Her intentions do not matter here. Schutz and her supporters are justifying her work by appealing to artistry and artistic intention, and to humanity through motherhood and empathy. But the point they are missing, and what needs to be understood, is that in America, black people are black first and people second. Humanity has never been the primary mode of consideration for us, and if any white person in the “Open Casket” situation is empathetic of anything, it should be this, mother or otherwise. If Dana Schutz is genuine about what she says, then she would agree that the painting is about black people, and therefore, has no right to make the situation about herself when she got a response that she may not have liked or expected. When someone tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide you didn’t. That is empathy.