The 2017 Whitney Biennial was filled with impressive paintings and a lot of multi media works from various artists, the piece that created the most dialogue was Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket”. While the painting seems a little grotesque, the event it portrays is far more sinister. For this reason her painting polarized the art world, bringing attention to the issue of cultural appropriation.
The painting is an abstract depiction of Emit Till’s corpse. To understand the significance of the piece it’s important to know the history behind the boy being portrayed. He was killed in 1955 by a group of white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The men who committed this heinous act received little to no punishment. They lynched Emit then dumped him in a river, his body was so mutilated that his remains were unrecognizable to his own mother. Emit’s mother chose to have an open casket funeral to show the brutal reality of the black experience in the South. This gesture was one of the catalysts that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.
The chief complaint was that Dana’s depiction of Emit’s mutilated corpse was painted with soft colors and loose brush strokes which softened the harshness of the situation. The opposition claimed that because she is a white artist she had no business portraying a symbol that belonged to the black community. While I can not deny that white privilege exists, Dana’s rebuttal was well thought out and sincere. She claimed that, she was commiserating with Emit Till’s mother as a mother herself and the message she was portraying was meant to empathize her sorrow towards humanity rather than exploit a tragedy.
I believe this painting is good for multiple reasons. One reason is the controversial nature, I’m sure Schutz knew this piece would be met with some sort of opposition especially considering the tumultuous times were living in presently. Also the racial tension experienced in this country has created a divide, the contrast between the artist and the content clearly demonstrates this point. This subject was poignant at the 2017 Whitney Biennial between Kerry James Marshal, and a submersive VR experience where the viewer becomes the assailant as a man is beaten. All these artists are trying to be relevant and create dialogue; therefore, Dana Schutz was successful in her endeavor creating a very notable piece.
All of the best artists through out time have been met with resistance. Art is a visual representation of culture from the present time the artist made that work. I don’t think art should ever be stifled or censored, people will likely remember this piece for the events surrounding it rather than the content portrayed. Inadvertently the people that requested the paintings destruction gave it more power by giving it that recognition. The point is artists especially in America should be free to express themselves without limitations; however, they must be willing to face the consequences. Dana Schutz did not need to ask permission or apologize she painted a subject matter that is clearly volatile; thus, capturing the current racial, political climate. Overall the piece stands alone and forces the viewer to really contemplate the image before them, this to me is the essence of a powerful piece and a thoughtful artist.
By Andrew Hansen
3 Replies to “Dana Schutz “Open Casket””
Good article. Uh, those who opposed the piece were more, how shall I say, aggressive than your article indicates. A petition was launched to have the work destroyed on the grounds that it was racist. The artist was accused of being culpable and implicated in the death of Emmett Till — or at least present racism in America and violence visited upon the black population — by none other than Hrag Vartanian, editor of Hyperallergic, as well as at least one of their prominent art critics.
When Shutz had an unrelated show, protesters demanded it be SHUT DOWN because her other painting of Till proved she was in league with genocide against indigenous peoples and state sponsored terror visited on black men. The argument was that a white woman could not possibly understand what it is like to be black in America, hence she was stealing their history for “fun and profit”. There was a demand for censorship and punishment because she made a painting, and in an attempt to be an ally she fell short, and this we are to understand is the forefront of progressive social change.
The protests and demands are one of the nastier and more backwards incidents in recent art history, and reflect far worse on the people clamoring for destruction of art and ruination of an artists career than on the actual painting, which is pretty damned good.
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I really appreciate the feedback, I read the letters Dana posted in response to the allegations of being racist and that her work should be destroyed. However, I didn’t realize it effected her after the biennial. In my opinion it was a way for a performance artist to exploit an opportunity at a big event and gain some visibility, but like I said I don’t think there should be limitation to self expression. In my mind that is the real polarizing issue. Also I agree Dana’s work is really great.
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I’m sure it was devastating for the artist. Consider in today’s climate of “social justice” what it means to be an artist guilty of making a painting so offensive, because of its unconscious racism and white supremacy, that black artists themselves have protested it and signed a petition to have the work destroyed. Then you get art prominent art journals agreeing with the protesters, and people like Hrag Vartanian and Ryan Wang at Hyperallergic getting in their own kicks about how Dana Schutz doesn’t even know what it means to be a white person living in America, let along a black person.
We will look back on this as a particularly ugly moment in the history of art, and not because of anything the artist did, but because of the actions and beliefs of those who sought to destroy her work and her career because of their own, radical, sociopolitical belief system.
I wrote about this issue in detail here: https://artofericwayne.com/2017/06/07/censoring-and-burning-art-in-the-name-of-progressive-morality/
And about demanding her show be shut down as well here: https://artofericwayne.com/2017/07/27/militant-radicals-demand-the-end-of-an-artists-career/
This is one of the things that made me givve up on the contemporary art world.