‘Open Casket’ and the Question of Empathy

Did Dana Schutz’s painting engage with her subject, Emmett Till, ethically and responsibly?

Aruna D’Souza | Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in Three Acts | Badlands Unlimited | May 2018 | 30 minutes (8,304 words)

The cultural earthquake triggered by Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016), a painting included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, began as social media tremors in the days before the exhibition opened to the public on March 17. [1] Artists, critics, curators, writers, and the art-world adjacent — many but not all black, many but not all millennial and Gen Z — began expressing discomfort, anger, and disbelief that anyone thought it was okay to include this painting in this show.

Open Casket was tucked away in a back gallery, wedged between one of the best pieces in the exhibition — Maya Stovall’s video Liquor Store Theatre (2014–17), in which the artist and other dancers perform unannounced on the streets of Detroit and strike up conversations with passersby — and a black-curtained door leading to a room in which was installed a multimedia video installation by Kamasi Washington. Open Casket was modest in scale, muted in color, and less overtly cartoonish than is typical for Schutz — out of character, that is, with the kind of work that propelled her to art-world stardom as soon as she graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in 2002.

If the aesthetic qualities of Open Casket felt anomalous within Schutz’s oeuvre, its subject matter was also unusual. Schutz tends toward outlandish and even violent themes, rarely explicitly political or historical ones. [2] This painting, however, was based on one of the most iconic and charged photographs of the Civil Rights era — a picture of a fourteen-year-old black child, Emmett Till, in his coffin, horribly disfigured from a brutal beating that occurred when he was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman in 1955. [3] At his funeral, Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted that his coffin be left open. She was acting in defiance of the Mississippi sheriff who only released her son’s body for burial on the condition that the casket be sealed, because he wanted “to get that body in the ground so nobody else could see it,” in Till Mobley’s words. In a singular act of courage, she also urged that the photograph of her son’s body circulate widely to “let the world see what I have seen.” The picture, first published in Jet and other black magazines, is credited with galvanizing the Civil Rights movement and, as it circulated in the white media, with garnering sympathy among white Americans who had until then paid little attention to antiracist activism. It was a crucial moment of consciousness-raising in the long struggle for desegregation and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In other words, the photograph was much more than an historical artifact to many people in this country. As the controversy around Open Casket unfolded, many commentators reiterated its significance in terms that connected the past act of violence to a lived reality of blackness. Artist, curator, and writer Aria Dean explained the visceral reaction she still has to the photograph half a century after the horrific event in a Facebook post on March 28: “Growing up and going to American private and public schools I was shown this image on more than one occasion, in a classroom surrounded by mostly white classmates…As a black child with a black brother, black cousins, and so on, this image was terrifying and an explicit warning.”[4] The poet Elizabeth Alexander explained that the photo inscribed a generational trauma — emboldening some, and cowing others. [5]

Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that Schutz’s decision to represent this of all photos left many confused. Artist Devin Kenny, in a Facebook post from March 16, posed a series of questions that spoke to the concerns of some of those who were hearing of the painting for the first time: “what action is this work purportedly, and actually, doing? does it inform? shock? build connection? help a new audience understand either emotionally or intellectually the complex set of factors all falling under the umbrella of white supremacy, sexism, and anti-blackness that led to this young person’s death? if no, what element of the history is being tapped into and depicted? if not regarding the history referenced in the image, and instead about the culture of photography and its circulation, why was that particular example chosen?” [6]

Other questions inevitably followed. What did it mean for a white woman to take up this particular image, one so important to black culture and experience? Was it an act of historical witnessing or a form of cultural appropriation? What did it mean not only that the painting was made, but also that it was included in one of the most-watched art events in the US? Does the fact that an artist may be assumed to have the artistic freedom to create whatever art she wants mean that a museum is correct in showing it? Are there limits and responsibilities that go along with artistic freedom, and with curatorial judgment? And, inevitably, because this image of a brutalized black body was being shown in 2017, in the wake of a growing list of murders of young men and women of color perpetrated by the police and the officers’ subsequent acquittals by judges and juries: what did this all mean now?

What started with questions around a single painting by a single artist in a single exhibition turned into a national public debate over the fundamental questions that bind culture and society: who art is for, socially speaking; what are the responsibilities of art institutions to their audience and artists’ to theirs; who is granted the right to speak and paint freely; and what censorship is and who has the power to censor.

***

Artist Parker Bright launched an opening salvo in the form of a performance, recorded in a video posted online on March 17 from inside the museum. In it, Bright is seen walking through the galleries to get to Open Casket. He takes off his coat to reveal a T-shirt with the words “Lynch Mob” written and crossed out with a black Sharpie on the front. He looks nervous. He awkwardly juggles the camera phone in one hand and his jacket and bag in the other. A woman off-screen eventually offers to hold the phone and continue filming so that we can see the words on the back of Bright’s shirt: “Black Death Spectacle.” Bright makes it to Open Casket and stands in front of it with arms outstretched. He then turns around and begins to chat with the museum visitors. With this single gesture, the artist both partially obscures the painting’s view and adds a new, living layer to the surface of the work. In exceedingly polite terms he discusses the history of the work, posing questions to the gallery visitors about how they see the painting and what they think of the museum’s decision to include it in the Biennial.

At one point, Bright points out to museumgoers that whatever the painting was meant to achieve, he didn’t see how it showed any particular care for black people — and states that it was not fair game for a white artist to take on a subject matter that was so rooted in black history. “I believe the painting really doesn’t do anything for the black experience,” Bright says to one interlocutor, pointing out that “black people really don’t have access to this museum since it’s twenty-two dollars to get in.” Alluding both to the potential market value of the Schutz painting and the ticket price of the museum, Bright comments at another point that “no one should be making money off a black dead body.” And at another: “It seems like a scheme for the Whitney to create controversy.”

For two days, Bright showed up at the Whitney to conduct his protest. For a few days after that, other groups stood quietly in front of the painting in his stead. The cumulative effect of these intervening bodies was to encourage viewers to see this image of black history behind the living and breathing social reality of black lives today. The videos of these actions were viewed more than ten thousand times on social media platforms, sparking intense debate from the first moments of the Biennial.

Other protesters were likewise insistent on highlighting the connection between historical forms of racism and the present condition of black lives — and of the immediacy that the image of Emmett Till continues to hold. On March 17, artist Pastiche Lumumba hung a banner outside the museum on the High Line balcony that reproduced his own March 17 Instagram post. It read: “The white woman whose lies got Emmett Till lynched is still alive in 2017. Feel old yet?” He was approached a few minutes into his action by High Line staff, who told him to leave. The meme on which the banner was based, however, spread quickly online.

But it was the appearance of an open letter on March 21 that kicked the protests —and the backlash to them — into high gear.

It’s easy to forget that the letter to the Biennial’s curators penned by artist and writer Hannah Black wasn’t the start of the protest — it was just one of many interventions and statements made as posts on social media or published in more formal venues that formed a virtual movement against Open Casket. Even so, it came to frame the terms of the subsequent debates and to define Hannah Black, willingly or not, as their leader — not least because of a single sentence contained therein, comprising only 31 of its 734 words: a call for the destruction of the painting.

The letter first appeared as a Facebook post on Black’s page. It was not, Black later insisted, composed with any sense that it would generate the furor that eventually ensued. Rather, it was tapped out on a phone screen and circulated among friends by text message, with edits done along the way. When it was eventually posted, there were forty-seven cosignatories, including artists, writers, art critics, curators, and arts professionals; the original list included white allies, but after some discussion among the signatories those names were removed. [7] Parker Bright was among those whose names were appended, although he explained to reporters later that he did it as an act of solidarity despite personally not advocating the destruction of the painting.

The statement went viral—a fact all the more extraordinary because this wasn’t, after all, a meme or a news article or a cat video. It was more like an aesthetico-political manifesto, an invitation to take part in a process of truth and reconciliation, and evidence of an open wound. It generated a controversy about a painting that far exceeded the art world. But the thousands of people who read it and expressed an opinion—whether supportive or dismissive, whether thoughtful or knee-jerk, whether they read the whole letter or stopped after the first sentence—realized that the questions being raised were consequential. And so it’s worth reading it in full, again:

To the curators and staff of the Whitney biennial:

I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.

As you know, this painting depicts the dead body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the open casket that his mother chose, saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” That even the disfigured corpse of a child was not sufficient to move the white gaze from its habitual cold calculation is evident daily and in a myriad of ways, not least the fact that this painting exists at all. 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.

Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. 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.

Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a white woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture: the evidence of their collective lack of understanding is that Black people go on dying at the hands of white supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs, that Black children are still denied childhood. 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. The painting must go.

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. I see no more important foundational consideration for art than this question, which otherwise dissolves into empty formalism or irony, into a pastime or a therapy.

The curators of the Whitney biennial surely agree, because they have staged a show in which Black life and anti-Black violence feature as themes, and been approvingly reviewed in major publications for doing so. Although it is possible that this inclusion means no more than that blackness is hot right now, driven into non-Black consciousness by prominent Black uprisings and struggles across the US and elsewhere, I choose to assume as much capacity for insight and sincerity in the biennial curators as I do in myself. Which is to say — we all make terrible mistakes sometimes, but through effort the more important thing could be how we move to make amends for them and what we learn in the process. The painting must go.

Thank you for reading.

It is impossible to say how many people laid eyes on Black’s original Facebook post. At some point, she took it down, but by then, it had been reproduced countless times on social media, blogs, and art-news websites.

***

The Biennial is reliably controversial, and especially so when it comes to matters of race, gender, and representation. Since the late 1960s (when it was an annual exhibition) to today, it has been the subject of protests by artist-activists, and black artists have long referred to the museum as “the Whitey” to reflect its poor track record when it comes to including artists of color in its programming. (The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition picketed with signs saying “Is it the Whitney or the Whitey?” as early as 1971; the all-too-serious joke stuck.) Most recently, the 2014 Biennial included only nine black artists out of about 118 participants, and only about a third were women of any race. To add insult to injury, one of the few black woman artists among this paltry number was “Donelle Woolford”—the fictional alter ego of artist Joe Scanlan, who is a white man. Scanlan’s inclusion provoked a great deal of anger; the Yams Collective withdrew their work in protest of what they saw as the curators’ unresponsiveness to complaints of a white artist’s conceptual performance of blackface. In addition, the institution, like many of its kind, has long been criticized for the fact that any diversity that might exist among its staff is not reflected where it really counts—in its curatorial departments or upper administration. With its move from the Upper East Side to its new building in the Meatpacking District, the Whitney was also vulnerable to charges that it was taking part in a process of gentrification that was pushing long-standing communities of color (as well as low-income residents, LGBTQ teens and elders, and immigrants) out of the neighborhood.

The museum was hardly unaware of or unconcerned by this history. Since the move, Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, has made clear his commitment to working toward a more diverse and inclusive institution. The 2017 Biennial seemed designed to further this goal. The museum appointed two Asian Americans as co-curators of the exhibition — Christopher Y. Lew, a member of the Whitney’s own staff, and Mia Locks, an independent curator — marking the first time the Biennial would be led by a curatorial team composed entirely of people of color. Lew and Locks would go on to put together what many observers would recognize as the most diverse Whitney Biennial to date: there were over thirty artists of color and over thirty women of all races included among the sixty-three artists and groups in the show — an extraordinary statistic, one that comes close to actual US demographics.

It was also, as many art critics noted in the almost unanimously glowing reviews that appeared in the days before it opened to the public, the most outspokenly “political” Biennial in some time. Lew and Locks were more than a little conscious of their moment in history, as they made clear in interviews preceding the opening of the show. After a presidential campaign marked by extreme misogyny and overt white supremacist rhetoric leading to the election of Donald Trump, at a time of increasing numbers of anti-immigrant and xenophobic crimes, and in the shadow of the highly publicized police murders of black men and women that fueled the rise of Black Lives Matter and other antiracist activist groups, the stakes were high. In the press release announcing the names of the participating artists, Lew and Locks highlighted this context. “Throughout our research and travel we’ve been moved by the impassioned discussions we had about recent tumult in society, politics, and the economic system. It’s been unavoidable as we met with artists, fellow curators, writers, and other cultural producers across the United States and beyond,” Lew said in the statement. Locks continued: “Against this backdrop, many of the participating artists are asking probing questions about the self and the social, and where these intersect. How do we think and live through these lenses? How and where do they fall short?” [8]

But while the Biennial may have been outspoken in many ways, when the controversy around Open Casket erupted, the Whitney’s response was initially tight-lipped. Lew and Locks, as is usual for the Biennial’s curators, functioned in a semi-autonomous fashion, supported by the museum but not “part” of the museum. As such, they ended up being the main spokespeople on the controversy by default, though Locks was not even on staff. It was only on March 21 — the day they met with Bright and Black’s letter was posted online and went viral — that the two released a short statement to the press. They upheld the value of the debates surrounding Open Casket, intimating that the exhibition was designed precisely to provoke such reactions while condemning unequivocally the call for the destruction of the painting in Black’s letter. “By exhibiting the painting,” wrote Lew and Locks, “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.”

This call to grapple with critical issues and have important conversations when it comes to art is one that is familiar to anyone with even a glancing experience of the art world. Curators and museums bring it up when questioned about their decision to show certain works of art, no matter who is asking that question — whether it’s a rabble-rousing conservative politician objecting on the grounds of a narrow and self-serving “morality,” or members of a disenfranchised group protesting what they see as bias, or simply average visitors who don’t understand what they happen to be looking at. Museums, by and large, see themselves as serving the public interest by providing the platform for such debates. So it is perhaps not surprising that as soon as the controversy began, staff at the Whitney began to discuss how to respond to the outcry — how to “own” the controversy, in some sense. For Megan Heuer, the director of public programs, that meant creating an event that would shift the debates from the anarchic space of social media to the museum, thus making them part of the show’s public record, and demonstrating that the Whitney could be an appropriate site to contend with the issues raised by Schutz’s decision to make the painting, or even the curators’ decision to include it.

But as the curators had made clear from the start, removing, let alone destroying, the artwork was out of the question, which posed a dilemma: would hosting a conversation under these terms not simply result in leveraging protesters’ words to burnish the reputation of the museum itself — demonstrating the museum’s graciousness and open-mindedness at the same time as occluding its refusal to act on the protesters’ demands? The need to respond quickly to a protest gaining speed on social media was also an issue.

On March 30, the museum announced that it would invite the poet Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute to host a conversation on “Perspectives on Race and Representation.” Rankine, winner of the 2016 MacArthur “genius” award, had used her prize money to establish a think tank that at its outset was devoted to the study of whiteness. The collaboration made sense: not only did the issues raised by the protests fit perfectly with the Racial Imaginary Institute’s mission, but it would allow for an “independent” assessment of the controversy, one not limited by the museum’s terms. Fourteen speakers, chosen by Rankine’s group and the Biennial curators, were asked to make short presentations, with audience questions at the midway mark and at the end. Black and Bright were both invited, but chose not to participate. Other protesters also declined to appear largely because the museum was standing firm in its refusal to remove the painting from view. Schutz did not attend either, though she was asked. In the end, this may have bolstered the Whitney’s hopes that they could broaden the conversation so as not to center the work of a single white woman in a Biennial that included so many people of color.

On the evening of April 9, Weinberg introduced the event. Significantly, this was the first public statement he had made about the protests. Weinberg reiterated his desire for the museum to be a platform for debate and public discourse. “I am here to listen,” he said, before joining the audience for the rest of the evening.

But listen to what, exactly? What seemed to hang over the program — perhaps taking the museum by surprise, given the protesters’ ostensible focus on Schutz’s painting up to that point — were questions of what we are talking about when we talk about art, and what makes art meaningful. For many onlookers, what was at stake was not simply Open Casket, but its entire framing. Weinberg’s and the Whitney’s decision to listen respectfully was interpreted by some in the audience (both in the room and watching online) not as a laudable determination to focus on the art itself and the historical and political issues it raised, but as a refusal to allow the institution itself — its allocation of resources, its structural biases, its decision-making processes and management, and its power as cultural arbiter — to come into question. For those streaming the event online and holding “viewing parties” on Facebook, including the artists Caitlin Cherry and Tomashi Jackson, the event fell short. It seemed too stage-managed, for one, leading some to interpret it as a public-relations move rather than a genuine conversation. “It was frustrating that the Whitney pretended it was a neutral moderator in the event when the only reason the event happened was because of their mistake that caused a need for a response about Open Casket,” recalls Cherry.

To the legendary performance artist Lorraine O’Grady, whose work has long engaged the issue of museums’ racial exclusiveness, the Whitney’s silence on the question of their institutional complicity was not news. To have a discussion about race and representation in 2017 without acknowledging the Whitney’s failure to change its institutional direction after the lessons of two of its own race-focused exhibitions in the 1990s — the 1993 Biennial curated by Elisabeth Sussman, excoriated by the press for its insistent multiculturalism, and Thelma Golden’s equally vilified 1994 exhibition Black Male — was, to O’Grady, intellectually dishonest. She stood up and spoke from the audience in the first question period, setting the tone for much of what followed:

We cannot get away from the fact that we are sitting in a space, the Whitney Museum, which is hosting a Biennial and a panel about the Biennial. This whole discussion has to be framed within the institutional context that we are sitting in. And the question is, since the 1993 “multicultural” Biennial and the 1994 Black Male show, that is but a quarter of a century for the administration and the structure of the museum itself to consider these issues and to begin to address them. The entire question of this show as far as I’m concerned is, indeed, why was the Whitney not prepared for what the eventuality of this Biennial would produce? Why has the Whitney not increased the curatorial staff of color in twenty-five years? We can discuss a great deal about lynching and its significance in the racial imaginary and all of that. But we are here in a very specific context, and the specific context is that of the museum and its intellectual discourse. We need to hold the Whitney accountable for its lack of probity, for its lack of preparation and for its lack of material advancement of these issues that it’s been facing now for twenty-five years, a quarter of a century.

It was Lew — not Weinberg — who responded to this comment. He reiterated the museum’s commitment to grappling with issues of race and representation. But his next words provoked murmurings in the audience: he posited that his presence on the curatorial staff at the Whitney was evidence that Golden’s curatorial interventions in the early 1990s had had their effect. Even on the archived video, you can see the temperature in the room drop as he speaks at this point — there was visible shock at Lew’s positing his own appointment as a solution to the problems that O’Grady was highlighting in her forceful remarks.

Lew was mistaking, perhaps understandably, what was at stake for the protesters: reading their outcry as a plea for diversity at the museum, as opposed to an insistence that the museum face its own structural antiblackness and its complicity in centering whiteness. Lew’s presence on staff as a nonblack person of color was not, in fact, a guarantee that the institution’s antiblackness would be recognized or addressed, as the playwright Young Jean Lee insisted in her intervention during the second question period. Lee pointed to the ways in which antiblackness played out even in Asian American communities, and insisted, too, on attending to differences in how anti-Asian racism and antiblack racism play out in American culture. Rather than assume a privileged knowledge of the racism that the Schutz painting disinterred, she insisted that Asian Americans should on the contrary be listening. She then extended the apology to African Americans that in her mind the Whitney should have already given. “I’m sorry,” she repeated, over the course of her comments.

The tensions in the room came to a head in the final moments of the event, when Rankine thanked the audience and the Whitney for coming together to take “a first step” in thinking through the difficult questions that the Schutz painting coalesced. She expressed, among other things, gratitude that the museum was responding exactly as it should, by opening itself up to public discourse. At this point, the artist Lyle Ashton Harris, who had been one of the evening’s speakers and whose work appeared in the Biennial, jumped up from his seat and grabbed the microphone, and in an impassioned voice insisted that the examination of whiteness wasn’t something new — black artists have been examining whiteness for decades — and if the Whitney hadn’t figured that out yet, it wasn’t because they didn’t have the information, but because they were actively ignoring the issue to disastrous effect. “I don’t want to have a ‘kumbaya’ moment,” he boomed. The audience roared in approval.

***

Though Schutz did not take part in the April 9 event, she had attempted to speak several times over the course of a few weeks about her decision to make Open Casket. [9] In a statement put out on March 21, and posted as part of a revised wall label in the gallery on March 28, she said the painting had been conceived in August 2016, “after a long, violent summer of mass shootings, rallies filled with hate speech, and an ever-escalating number of Black men being shot execution style by police, recorded with camera phones as witness.” She began thinking about Emmett Till, another young black man, the victim of another form of state-sanctioned violence — lynching.

“I don’t know what it is like to be Black in America,” her statement continued. “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.” In a March 23 interview posted on Artnet, she acknowledged, “The anger surrounding this painting is real and I understand that. It’s a problematic painting and I knew that getting into it. I do think that it is better to try to engage something extremely uncomfortable, maybe impossible, and fail, than to not respond at all.” [10]

These explanations did not sit well with many of the protesters. One of the main arguments against Open Casket was that Schutz’s decision to paint the Till photograph was an act of cultural appropriation: “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” in Black’s pithy terms. Bright had said in his Facebook video something similar: “I feel like [Schutz] doesn’t have the privilege to speak for black people as a whole or for Emmett Till’s family.” The charge was repeated, in various forms, in hundreds of Facebook and Instagram posts, and argued vociferously online.

The question of when, and on what terms, a person is justified in taking up the cultural forms and historical legacies of groups (races, ethnicities, genders, etc.) to which they themselves are not a part is always fraught, but especially so in the art world where cultural “borrowings” are the cornerstone of the European avant-garde tradition we’ve been taught to admire. To declare certain subject matters off-limits for artists was — for many of those who pushed back on the protesters’ objections — fundamentally opposed to artistic freedom. What made the accusation worse in this case were echoes of essentialism that many heard in the protesters’ cries: the idea that one’s identity is innate, and so white people should only be doing “white art,” black people “black art,” and so on, or that certain subject matters are only available to certain people depending on how they are racialized.

The clash between these two ideas — cultural appropriation on the one hand, and antiessentialist insistence on uninhibited artistic freedom on the other — led to unexpected mappings of positions in the debates. The controversy did not play out as a starkly black versus white issue; on the contrary, at times it seemed that the divide was more generational than racial. This was especially true for black artists and writers who had come of age in the 1980s and 1990s, a generation or two older than many of the protesters. Those belonging to this older generation had worked hard to reject both the legacy of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, with its messy search for a “black aesthetic” and insistence that the primary value of black art was its relevance to the struggles of the black community, and the tokenization of artists of color by writers and curators in search of multicultural diversity who valued them mainly for their ability to speak to issues of race and perform a kind of race-based “authenticity.”

During the Schutz controversy, many of the same black artists, art historians, writers, and critics who had resisted being boxed into limiting notions of identity twenty-five years ago firmly rejected the idea that there were some subject matters that were off-limits to white artists on the basis of their identity. Among them was Kara Walker. Walker had been subject to protests in the early 1990s by an older generation of black artists — including Howardena Pindell and Betye Saar — for using racist antebellum imagery and stereotypes in her silhouetted wall works. When the Schutz controversy boiled over, Walker put up a series of public Instagram posts that referred obliquely to the younger artist’s predicament. The first, on March 23, consisted of an image of Artemisia Gentileschi’s iconic painting Judith Beheading Holofernes, and referred to the fact that “the history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don’t necessarily belong to the artist’s own life, or perhaps, when we are feeling generous we can ascribe the artist some human feeling, some empathy toward her subject.” [11] Another, on April 9, featured a photo of her cat, and outlined the history of protests against her work, which hinged on the “critique of the reach and power of the black image in art as well as who has the authority/authenticity to address race.” [12]

Performance artist and theorist Coco Fusco also responded to the protests, penning an article that appeared in the online art publication Hyperallergic on March 27. Fusco’s article was read widely and for many was considered the last word on the subject. Fusco aligned the protests against Schutz with “a deeply puritanical and anti-intellectual strain in American culture that expresses itself by putting moral judgment before aesthetic understanding.” She went on to “analyze [Black’s] arguments, rather than giving them credence by recirculating them, as the press does; smugly deflecting them, as museum personnel is trained to do; or remaining silent about them, as many black arts professionals continue to do in order to avoid ruffling feathers or sullying themselves with cultural nationalist politics.” [13] Among Fusco’s many contentions are that “[Black] relies on problematic notions of cultural property and imputes malicious intent in a totalizing manner to cultural producers and consumers on the basis of race” and “presumes an ability to speak for all black people that smacks of a cultural nationalism.” Citing a long history of abolitionist and pro–Civil Rights images by white artists, Fusco insisted “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.”

There was a great deal of pushback from younger black artists, writers, and their supporters. Thom Donovan, a poet and curator, summed up these objections succinctly in a Facebook post of March 28. [14] He took issue with Fusco’s dismissal of the Black Arts Movement, which, he said, has been “important to younger Black artists and Artists of Color, especially given the prominent and specious uses of terms like ‘post-Black’ in contemporary art discourse.” He also rejected the idea that the abolitionist empathy of the white artists about whom Fusco wrote approvingly led to politically sound art: “I agree [with Fusco] that Schutz’s painting evokes white abolitionist empathy (i.e. identification with and projection upon black suffering/death), and that such aesthetic amusements are contiguous with abolitionist cultural production (Uncle Tom’s Cabin to present),” he argued, his “agreement” ironically making apparent that he placed less value than Fusco on the efficacy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an antiracist tract.

***

Although Fusco never used the word empathy in her article, her argument did hinge on the idea of empathetic allyship — that by policing the boundaries of who could address particular histories of racism, the protesters were rejecting a long tradition of antiracist, abolitionist, and pro–Civil Rights art and literature by white people. In this, she was very much in tune with the bulk of Schutz’s supporters.

At the heart of the discussions about Schutz’s choice to paint Emmett Till was the question of empathy. Her defenders considered her attempt to deal with this particular death as not just appropriate, but necessary.

Indeed, for those who spoke up against Schutz’s painting, the question was not whether she, as a white person, was free to engage the subject matter at all — but whether she had done so ethically and responsibly. The difference is articulated in words leading up to Black’s seemingly blanket proscription against the possibility of white artists taking up Emmett Till’s death: “Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s.” In other words, the issue is not that Schutz cannot engage with a particular history in her art. Rather, it’s that in her position as a nonblack person, her artistic choices failed to rise to the level of historical and political understanding needed to meet the work’s own social and artistic ambitions. She may have wanted to stand in solidarity. Instead, she acted as a bad ally.

***

The accusations of censorship and other vitriol directed toward the protesters speaking out against Open Casket proved what many of them had long suspected: that freedom of speech, far from being a universal liberal value, was one that only white people can take full advantage of. Black had alluded to it in the open letter: “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.” In this short sentence, the open letter lays bare the ways in which values that we claim are universal and available to everyone are in fact doled out unequally depending on how we are raced.

I often wonder what would have happened had Black’s letter not begun with an incendiary call for the work’s destruction. Would the thousands of people from all corners of culture who weighed in on the controversy — from art-world insiders to those who have never stepped into a museum to Whoopi Goldberg on The View — have been able to hear what was being said in the rest of the letter? Would they have seen the call for the artist and curators to acknowledge their mistakes as an opportunity to enter into a reparative form of justice, of truth and reconciliation, whereby the inequities that underpin the art world can begin to shift? And, just as important, would they have been able to see the charge of cultural appropriation not as Fusco and others did — as censorial essentialism — but for what it was: a materialist argument, a struggle over resources?

As many of the protesters made clear in their posts and comments about the affair, cultural appropriation was not only about identity, but about how economic and cultural resources are available to some, while others — artists who share a cultural and historical link with Emmett Till, who grew up hearing his story as a warning and a call to action — are left without. From this point of view, the fact that Schutz made explicit that she would never sell the work or allow it to enter any museum collection didn’t mean much. The problem with her work was the way it traded on not only a cultural but also a “capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people with which our present era began,” as Black put it in her letter (emphasis mine). Protesters like Black saw in Schutz’s painting both a question of who may or may not speak to black history and one of how those acts of speech are exploited in capitalism. Black’s repeated declarations that “the painting must go” were a demand that all black bodies be taken out of circulation as commodities. The open letter encourages the idea that Schutz’s work be seen in the context of the real black bodies that were brutalized for profit in the past (under slavery) and in the present (e.g., through the prison industrial complex), and of the myriad ways that images of such violence were circulated to police blackness. By this reasoning, there was no other solution than that the painting be destroyed.

As is often the case when it comes to acts of protest in the U.S. — think of the pearl-clutching over looting and broken windows during the Ferguson uprising, an anxiety that seemed in some quarters to far outweigh concern over the actual murder of a black man or the violent suppression of demonstrations by the police — it was the attack on a valued commodity that provoked most of the backlash. In a sense, the open letter was designed to create such a reaction by putting the call for the painting’s destruction out front, laying bare once again the way that liberal culture seems consistently to value things over people.

But here is where the conversation broke down: for the protesters, the question was always about people. It was never about things.

***

From Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts by Aruna D’Souza. Published by Badlands Unlimited. Copyright © 2018 Aruna D’Souza. 

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[1] Much of the early debate was triggered by an Instagram post of March 16, 2017, by the influential critic Jerry Saltz, who posted a photo of Open Casket with a comment about how beautiful it was; a number of vocal commenters took great issue with appending the descriptor beautiful on an image of a black corpse. The post, and the subsequent comment thread, has been heavily edited in the meantime.

[2] One exception to this rule was her 2006 painting Poisoned Man, an image of Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian political leader widely thought to have been dosed with dioxins by the Russian government. For a useful discussion of the problems with Schutz’s approach to her subject, see Dushko Petrovich, “The State of Painting,” n+1, June 17, 2015,

[3] Maurice Berger, in a piece for the New York Times’ Lens blog, provides an excellent history of the photographs and their resonance today: Maurice Berger, “The Lasting Power of Emmett Till’s Image,” The New York Times, April 5, 2017,

[4] The Facebook post was reprinted in the New Inquiry on the same day. Aria Dean, “The Demand Remains,” The New Inquiry, March 28, 2017,

[5] Racial Imaginary Institute, April 9, 2017.

[6] Devin Kenny, “I don’t want to see depictions/interpretations of Black trauma made by those with no proximity to that experience,” Facebook, March 16, 2017,

[7] The other signatories of the letter were Amal Alhaag, Andrea Arrubla, Hannah Assebe, Thea Ballard, Anwar Batte, Parker Bright, Harry Burke, Gaby Cepeda, Vivian Crockett, Jareh Das, Jesse Darling, Aria Dean, Kimberly Drew, Chrissy Etienne, Hamishi Farah, Ja’Tovia Gary, Hannah Gregory, Jack Gross, Rose-Anne Gush, Mostafa Heddaya, Juliana Huxtable, Alexander Iadarola, Anisa Jackson, Hannah Catherine Jones, Devin Kenny, Dana Kopel, Carolyn Lazard, Taylor LeMelle, Beatrice Loft Schulz, Jacqueline Mabey, Mia Matthias, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Sandra Mujinga, Lulu Nunn, Precious Okoyomon, Emmanuel Olunkwa, Mathew Parkin, Temra Pavlovi, Imani Robinson, Andrew Ross, Cory Scozzari, Christina Sharpe, Misu Simbiatu, Addie Wagenknecht, Dominique White, Kandis Williams, and Robert Wilson.

[8] Whitney Museum, “2017 Whitney Biennial, the First to Take Place in the Museum’s Downtown Building, to Open March 17,” press release, November 17, 2016,

[9] Her statement was first circulated to the press on March 21 and appeared in the form of a revised wall label for the painting on March 28. The quotations here are taken both from the wall label and from Randy Kennedy, “White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests,” The New York Times, March 21, 2017,

[10] Brian Boucher, “Dana Schutz Responds to the Uproar Over Her Emmett Till Painting at the Whitney Biennial,” Artnet, March 23, 2017,

[11] Kara Walker, “The history of painting is full of graphic violence,” Instagram, March 23, 2017.

[12] Kara Walker, “Pearl is revisiting Vol. 14 no. 3 issue of the International Review of African American Art ‘Stereotypes Subverted or for Sale?’ and ‘Kara Walker Yes/No?,’” Instagram, April 9, 2017,

[13] Coco Fusco, “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till,” Hyperallergic, March 27, 2017,

[14] Thom Donovan, “I am suspicious of the call to “reason” and the dismissal of the values of an affective response to the painting,” Facebook, March 28, 2017,