When American artist Dana Schutz decided to paint the mutilated face of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy who was tortured and lynched by two white men in 1955, she said she intended to convey the universal horror of the murder and acknowledge the country’s lingering racism.
But her painting, “Open Casket,” currently on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the museum’s 2017 biennial exhibition, has drawn swift condemnation and protest from a growing number of artists and observers, who say that the painting by a white artist represents nothing more than the exploitation of an excruciating and defining moment in African American history.
Schutz addressed the mounting controversy in an interview Thursday with Artnet news, acknowledging that “it’s a problematic painting and I knew that getting into it.”
The artist, born in 1976, made the work in response to a slew of shootings of black men by police during the summer of 2016, she said. “The photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous to the time,” she said. “What was hidden was now revealed.”
Emmett was kidnapped and killed after a white cashier falsely accused him of flirting with her (decades later, she recanted her claim). His death, and his mother’s decision to leave his horrifically disfigured face exposed at his funeral, was a powerful catalyst for the civil rights movement.
And that history simply doesn’t belong to Schutz, said British-born black artist Hannah Black in an emphatic open letter to the Whitney biennial’s curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew. The letter, co-signed by more than 25 artists of color, argues that the painting should not only be removed from the exhibition, but destroyed.
“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,” Black wrote.
Since the biennial’s public opening Friday, a small group of protesters led by African American artist Parker Bright have stationed themselves in front of the painting to partially block it from view. Bright, who wore a T-shirt printed with the words “Black Death Spectacle” on the back, spoke with museum visitors about the controversial work and made a Facebook Live video of his protest.
“I believe that this piece is an injustice to the black community,” he said in the video. “[Schutz] doesn’t have the privilege to speak for black people as a whole, or for Emmett Till’s family.”
He also objected to the painting’s potential financial benefit to the artist: “Nobody should be making money off of a black dead body,” he said. “That’s what I feel.”
In a statement provided by the Whitney, Schutz insisted that she had no such intentions. “I made this painting to engage with the loss,” she said. “It was never for sale and never will be.”
In an odd twist, an email from a person who claimed to be Schutz was sent to several publications Thursday — but the message, which said that Schutz had decided the painting should be removed from the exhibition, was actually a fraud, the Whitney confirmed.
In a statement, the biennial’s curators stood by Schutz’s work:
“The 2017 Whitney Biennial brings to light many facets of the human experience, including conditions that are painful or difficult to confront such as violence, racism, and death. Many artists in the exhibition push in on these issues, seeking empathetic connections in an especially divisive time. Dana Schutz’s painting, Open Casket (2016), is an unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans. For many African Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance. By exhibiting the painting, we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history and the history of race relations in this country. As curators of this exhibition we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.”
Schutz has not requested that the work be removed, the Whitney confirmed. In the prepared statement, she acknowledged again that the painting’s subject matter is fraught.
“I did not know if I could make this painting, ethically or emotionally,” she said. “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. But 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.”
Regardless of Schutz’s good intentions in creating the work, Black argued in her letter to the museum, the artist and the exhibition’s curators should listen to the resulting outcry.
“Even if Schutz has not been gifted with any real sensitivity to history, if black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this,” Black said in her letter.
Their anger did make an impression on Schutz, she told Artnet. Asked if the vehement response to her work would change her practice going forward, she answered simply, “I’m sure it has to.”