January 11th, 2019

When Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket,” depicting the body of murdered Black teenager Emmett Till, opened at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a series of peaceful protests unfolded around it, calling for it to be taken down and/or destroyed. From artist Hannah Black’s letter, signed by 47 artists, curators and critics:

“Ongoing debates on the appropriation of Black culture by non-Black artists have highlighted the relation of these appropriations to the systematic oppression of Black communities in the US and worldwide, and, in a wider historical view, to the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people with which our present era began. Meanwhile, 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. Although derided by many white and white-affiliated critics as trivial and naive, discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humour and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded.”

Instead of apologizing for the pain she had caused and ceding the space to someone else, Dana Schutz chose to leave the painting up.

Today, the New York Times is reporting that Dana Schutz is “back to work.” In the profile, Schutz says: “I’ve had so many conversations with people who were upset by the painting…(I have included them in) my imagined audience when I’m painting. It’s good those voices were heard.”

That these voices were not a part of her imagined audience before she painted or submitted her rendering of Black death is worrisome. In her 2017 statement to the press in the midst of the controversy, she said that while she did not know what it was like to be Black, “I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her. In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

Is it a question of how we should process pain, pain that is not specifically ours? How to process the pain of bearing witness to hateful violence? Where do we have the right to process this pain? In public? On the coveted walls of an international art gallery known for being almost exclusively white? In the New York Times? Who gets to feel and work through their pain in a profitable way?