Dana Schutz “Open Casket”

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