Monday, March 27th, 2017

Open Casket: “Enquête” regarding the Dana Schutz affair, the painting, the protests

Comments by Sascha Behrendt, David Carrier, David Cohen, Lisa Corinne Davis, Anne Harris, Susan Jennings, Ken Johnson, Dennis Kardon, Lee Ann Norman, Walter Robinson, Seph Rodney, Suzy Spence, Peter Williams, Alexi Worth

Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016). Oil on canvas. Collection of the
Dana Schutz, Open Casket, 2016. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery, New York

Public reaction to Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket”, to be seen (at the time of writing at least) in the Whitney Biennial, and responses to the vociferous protests of the painting – a letter to the Biennial curators that went so far as to call for the destruction of the painting – have been galvanizing. One never knows, in the heat of such excitement, whether controversy will blow over as suddenly as it appeared or continue to resonate for years to come, but it seems a fair gamble that Black-versus-Schutz might be the Whistler-versus-Ruskin of our moment. Many of the issues raised by this case — of artistic freedom and responsibility; the role of race in art and criticism; painting as, once again, a contested medium; the status of intentions and motivations — all make this affair indicative of deep tensions in our art culture.

And yet, as so often happens in culture wars, queasiness can overtake bystanders. For unlike, say, the battle between the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and the politics of Jesse Helms where most Americans felt imperative, almost tribal affinity for one side or the other, in this debate, if you find yourself veering in one direction half your heart might go out to the other side. Freedom of expression versus freedom from insensitivity is no duel the civilized should relish. And yet, you might wish a plague on both their houses where the choice is between a flawed and misconceived painting and a shrill, almost vicious demand for its destruction.

This scandal has already in three long days generated its own literature. While I have littered Facebook posts with a few comments, some heartfelt, some glib, I now find that, in having held back in the interests of gathering and editing this “enquête,” that two very fine statements pretty much say, for me, what needs most to be said. Kara Walker, with the poise of one of her own silhouettes, has made the case, exquisitely, for leaving a fellow artist the space to experiment, to fail, to learn. On her Instagram page, accompanying an image of Judith and Holofernes, and naming no names, she writes, with exhilarating humanism: “Painting…often lasts longer than the controversies that greet it. I say this as a shout [out] to every artist and artwork that gives rise to vocal outrage. Perhaps it too gives rise to deeper inquiries and better art. It can only do this when it is seen.” And Gary Indiana hits the nail on the head in a shrewd analysis that calls out the “cliché-riddled, race-baiting demagoguery” of Hannah Black’s literally destructive manifesto.

artcritical prides itself on its promotion of diverse opinion. In that spirit we invited a cross section of regular contributors, guests of The Review Panel, and artists whose opinions reached us on social media to contribute brief statements on whatever aspect of this affair –the painting or the protest – excites their passions or what they feel to be their most useful observations. In striving for inclusiveness I initially invited an equal number of writers who qualify as people of color and writers who don’t. If eventual balance had been a greater priority this “enquête” would have appeared later; instead we have who we have, and are deeply grateful to our writers for sharing considered thoughts on a tight deadline. They are presented in alphabetical order by last name. More may be added in due course.

This painting is well meaning but in poor taste. It shows a lack of understanding of violence and trauma in the wake of slavery that black people still experience daily as an existential threat.

It is naive to imagine just being a mother and to paint is enough to bridge the huge chasm between Schutz’s reality and that of Mamie Tills.

Schutz could have chosen other subjects, but she didn’t – she chose this one, with all the history and context attached. Unfortunately, in this case there is a responsibility to meet the seriousness of the subject with all its accompanying contextual difficulties. Black bodies violated have appeared as ‘spectacle’ in many forms in the public realm, a focus for distanced, fascinated horror and pity, whether lynchings, Rodney King or recent shootings, that have been disseminated as images by photography, TV or iPhone.

Mamie Tills originally only wanted the black community to be able see her son in an open casket. There were reasons for this, one clearly being a distrust of some of the above. An exception to this was her allowing the circulation of images in Jet’, a black magazine.

This painting fails to deal with these important complexities and so unwittingly ends up acting as a self indulgent, limited, personal response. Without the title, we have no idea what this painting is about and when we do it repeats problematic relations between the public viewer and a black destroyed body. One could say that Schutz by the attempt has created a move forward by opening up a dialogue. However it actually displays a kind of lazy ignorance since she did not do her homework and consider the consequences of presenting this particular content in this way, or how hurtful it might be to experience as a black person.

Everyone is entitled to express him-or-herself, but in this case, in relation to the subject matter, this just was not good enough.

Almost all contemporary political art preaches to the choir. Ask yourself, when was the last time that a prominent gallery or museum exhibition challenged the beliefs of its prime audience?

This is why the controversy over Dana Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) is so challenging. For once political art inspires a genuine moral conflict. On one hand, it’s not hard to understand why Parker Bright, Hannah Black and the other protesting African-Americans were outraged by this painting. The history of artistic representations of black Americans is mortifying. And right now no non-black artist who makes such representations can avoid being a part of that tradition. But on the other hand, given the statement of her intentions by Dana Schutz, it’s superabundantly clear that she’s a person of good will. We believe that artists should be free to present their chosen images without censorship. But here that right conflicts with the claims announced by members of the black artistic community.

In New York, a city where whites are now a minority, the art world—for all of its rhetoric about inclusiveness— is surprisingly segregated. And so this debate is not surprising. In the larger context of present American politics, it may seem a petty disagreement. But if the art world cannot resolve its moral disputes, then what claim have we to critique conflicts in the larger culture?

As should be becoming clear, I have no way of resolving this conflict, which does justice to the competing claims. But I do feel a real, heartfelt debt to Parker, Bright and their colleagues for presenting this quandary. On the whole, we art world people tend to take an aesthetic distance on art—even on political art. What they teach is the limits of that way of thinking. And that, to speak personally, is a lesson I take to heart. I haven’t yet seen this exhibition. But I do not think that viewing the show or the painting would change this argument.

The question of who can tell whose stories is ripe at the moment, from discussions ranging from Kelley Walker’s exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum of Saint Louis to the notion of “sensitivity readers” in the literary world. Therefore, I am not surprised it has taken center stage in the conversation around the 2017 Whitney Biennial. In comparing the hysteria around Dana Schutz’s painting to the lack of outrage over the painting by Henry Taylor of Philandro Castile, or Jordan Wolfson’s extremely violent virtual reality film orchestrated by the sound of Chanukah blessings, I can only conclude the difference is due to a question of ownership of one’s own cultural and historical narratives. Of course artists and writers are free to tell the stories of others – but only if they are clear they are telling a story from their own very personal perspective and not simply appropriating another’s.

Schutz’s mistake was to confuse an image for a story. Schutz’s subject matter has often consisted of responses to observed moments around her. She conjures up the creation of rumpus narratives, their meaning lying in the story and not in static imagery. Unlike her previous works, the Till painting is based on a singular, iconic, historical image and therefore is pinned to a very specific, known story of a victimized person, a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement and unjust race relations. This leaves no room for Schutz to impose her personal relationship to that image. In this instance, her sense of wonder, her imagination and her narrative invention are held hostage to this iconic image. Material manipulation is limited to the image’s borders. Her response of empathy and grief to the original photograph is impossible to locate in the absence of some visual connection that would be provided by the mechanism of narrative. For a white person to use this image – by definition “a representation of the external form of a person or thing” – of a seminal figure of the civil rights movement, seems tone deaf at best and hurtful or insulting at worst.

As artists, we try to effect change in the world by opening up dialogs around difficult issues. But visual images, especially iconic ones, are fixed in their position and are capable of confining the conversation to previously known facts and issues, and therefore undermining their power.to engage with new meanings. Unfortunately, Schutz has stepped into these muddy waters.

Some questions:

Is the heart of the problem that Schutz’s painting just isn’t good enough? Does it rely on its source for its intensity, thus failing to do what painting does—to transform its material? Does the attempt at transformation overwhelm the source, reducing it to stylized paint?

Is this a subject Dana Schutz cannot touch? Is it impossible for her to succeed with this content? Is this the failure of a white woman to acknowledge that not all content is hers to use?

Or is this a painting failure? Should she try again? What would happen if she invented the painting whole cloth? What would happen if she aimed for another point of view—not the camera’s, not Emmett Till’s mother’s, but her own?

Some thoughts:

Painters who paint from photographs get into trouble when they assume that what’s inside a photograph (subject, content, emotion, power) will automatically translate into paint. But too often, the painting becomes about the painted interpretation—painterly style imposed on top of a preconceived image. If the photograph is highly charged and well known, the painting only functions as a painted reminder.

The painters who get beyond this—like Vija Celmins’s WWII bombers or Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof series—do so by focusing on the translation of the surface plane of the photograph. Ironically, their work becomes more psychologically powerful when they aim at something else. Of course, Schutz is a different kind of painter. I’m guessing she’d do better bouncing off a photograph, rather than working directly from it.

Another issue: artists and viewers can confuse intent with meaning. The intent of the artist does matter, but if art fails to go beyond its intent it often falls flat, becoming an illustration of an idea. That’s another kind of transformational failure. Also, the evolution of meaning continues after the piece is made. Meaning is acquired through the interaction of art and audience. Much of the current debate is actually doing this—defining the meaning of Schutz’s painting. For better or worse.

Finally: Schutz’s stated intent was to paint empathy. But empathy is imagining that someone else’s pain is ours. If I, a white woman painter, want to paint the pain that Emmett Till’s mother felt, I need to paint my own son, mutilated and dead in that coffin.

I was discussing “Open Casket” with a dear friend and writer, when he asked,  “What sound do you hear when a bell rings?” “I hear “a bell,” obviously. But this friend is too smart to ask a simple question. Do people hear different things when a bell rings?

To all of those who have contributed to the discussion around Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket”, in particular to Dana Schutz herself, whose work I have long admired; and to Hannah Black, who I think is brave; and to Kara Walker whose work is undeniably powerful and who wrote profoundly on Instagram using Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” to make her case; I am grateful and full of respect.

I believe Schutz when she says the painting came about out of empathy and was not purposefully hurtful. And yet it has hit some as painfully tone deaf to the situation in which we have been living where innocent black adults and children are killed and their killers still go free. White empathy is certainly necessary and yet it is not enough.  We are all watching in horror as black brothers and sisters are murdered without indictments or reparations. This is the historical situation in which “Open Casket” lives, separated from the intentions of the artist. We are aghast, waiting for someone to do something.  That Emmet Till was brutally murdered because a white woman lied and now a white woman could repair something through art is possibly profound if she/we could figure it out. I believe entirely in the power of art. I believe in the possibility that art can create new paradigms. A bell has just rung for us all in the form of this painting.

I have a fantasy in which we all agree that Hannah Black’s letter and the protesters in the museum and all of the discussions and Dana Schutz choosing to heed the call to destroy her painting – all of this- becomes a new collaborative relational aesthetics work of art.  In my fantasy, Black and Schutz are Judith and the painting (along with all the nuanced and historical racism it engenders) is Holofernes.

In my dream we are together in the process of beheading the oppressor by creating this new art. Dana Schutz chooses to complete the art, begun by making and exhibiting “Open Casket,” by destroying her painting. There are no victims in my dream.  Dana Schutz heard the protests not as forcible demand or as coercion but as an opening to something new and she chose powerfully, for herself, to hear the bell of invitation and to collaborate with those who call for the paintings’ demise. The success of this new work of art is achieved through a performance in which the painting is destroyed and Dana speaks the language of strength, humility and grace in so doing.

If Dana Schutz could chose to allow her work to be “erased” in the spirit that de Kooning allowed Rauschenberg to erase his drawing, we would all be authors in her new so far unfamiliar art. My fantasy may be horrifying to some painters and artists, art appreciators and politicos and may smack of censorship. I have been told already that I am awful and terrible for giving voice to my dream. I am not advocating for censorship. Of course no art should ever be censored. And of course no art should ever be destroyed by anyone other than the artist.

I am reaching for something else, an artwork as of yet “unknown.”

There is another sound in this ringing bell. It is the sound of the magpie. She sounds wise and she recognizes herself in the mirror when it is shown to her.

Leaving aside the recommendation that Schutz’s painting be destroyed and the question who should administer said destruction, consider the substance of the protest: that white people should not make art that represents black people. Speaking as an old white man, I say the heck with that. I want to see MORE art by white people about black people. Also, more art by black people about white people; more art by Asian people about Native American people; more art by heterosexuals about homosexuals; more art by trans people about cis people; more art by Jews about the goyim; more art by theists about atheists; more art by short people about tall people; more art about identity group X by identity group Y.  Feelings may be hurt – so what? Are we not grownups?

No to sectarian prohibitionism! No to political bullying! No to opportunistic, self-appointed ayatollahs of righteousness! Yes to conversational promiscuity! Yes to creative imagination! Radical ecumenicism!

Does the controversy surrounding Open Casket automatically make it an important work of art? After reading at least four major articles, and volumes of compelling, complex intellectual argument on social media, what has become clear is this: what constitutes a work of art, and what role we expect art, and especially painting to play in our culture today is still hotly contested. Indeed who exactly belongs in our? Or does our even exist anymore except as a privileged code?

In the end, I find the opinions of people who think they have seen this painting, when what they have seen is a jpeg on their cellphone, to be the most problematic. To claim the irrelevance of having to see the actual painting when what is important are the situational dynamics of race and voice, devalues the very idea of a painting. After viewing Open Casket in person, the problems with a photo of the painting became immediately apparent when I tried to take one.

First, photos deny the physical relationship of your body to the painting in real space-time. The scale of Open Casket is larger than life-size, which means the image becomes more intimate as its scale enacts a closeness not afforded in digital representation.

Second, this painting becomes completely flattened by photography. Clearly, Open Casket is not at all a “rendering of a photograph.” It’s a complex re-invention in three dimensions, from black and white images, of the mutilated head of a child in an immaculate tuxedo and satin-lined coffin, as if at the funeral, looking down. I’ve read the only thing not visible in jpegs of Schutz’s painting is merely her “bravura paint handling,” a damning reduction to a generic phrase of nuanced physical movements. Only in person can one observe the enactment of the complex emotional involvement and invention by the painter as she tries to revivify in paint (scraping out, scooping to over an inch in places, slashing as well as madly brushing) a horrific image. Schutz interjects her perverse imagination into the situation, trying to rediscover what might have been lost from the original photographs, through the diminished detail of black and white, and the distanced formulation and familiarity produced from continued reproduction. Only after seeing the painting can one advance a real opinion as to whether risking that act of imagination was either brave or a clueless, foolhardy undertaking. Schutz seems well aware of the consequences of that risk and choosing to take it is what makes her an important painter.

Art can be a powerful tool to render the world and a range of human experiences, as many scholars and thinkers have concluded, and Schutz, known for colorful, humorous, gestural painting of fictional subjects has said[1] that she, too, chooses subject matter based on how she sees the world. In a statement[2] to The Guardian about the Open Casket controversy, Schutz noted that art can be “. . . a space of empathy,” where one can understand and share the feelings of another. She also stated that she may not know what it is like to be Black, but she could empathize with Mamie Till Bradley, one mother to another (although one who has not experienced the horror of racialized violence like a lynching).

Open Casket renders a version of Till in Schutz’s signature color palette of vomit-and shit-like pinks, reds, beiges and browns, further abstracting the image of his already disfigured face. When Mrs. Till Bradley decided to have an open casket funeral, she openly defied the Jim Crow rule that Black Americans stay quiet and know their place. And when she turned her private grief into a public matter, she broke yet another social taboo, despite knowing that her son’s image circulating around the world may have little consequence at home. In fact, the now-iconic black-and-white photos of Till’s disfigured corpse disseminated by The Chicago Defender and Jet magazine then picked up by news outlets worldwide did not positively influence the outcome of the murder trial. Defense counsel argued that since the boy’s body was so badly disfigured, the corpse may not be Emmett Till at all.

Open Casket and images of the painting now circulate much like viral videos of police shootings, shocking and traumatizing people every time they pop up in a search for Schutz, the Whitney Biennial, and now even Emmett Till. Had Schutz painted Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Williams standing at the bridge near the Tallahatchie River where they dumped his body, or Carolyn Bryant, who in a recently published 2008 interview, admitted that the testimony she gave implicating the teen was a lie, perhaps that would have been helpful, less harmful. We’ve all seen Emmett Till rendered a monster, his bloated body brutalized beyond recognition, yet the ones who are responsible for his horrific demise are still allowed to keep their humanity intact.

I think Hannah Black is a Russian plant.

There is a way in which the controversy around “Open Casket” coerces us into taking authoritarian and reactionary positions, and more than objecting to the painting itself, I object to the ways the ensuing debate has compelled participants to take extreme perspectives.

For example, Christina Sharpe, in an interview with Siddartha Mitter amplifies her respect for Hannah Black’s call for the removal and destruction of the painting, explaining that it is now part of a circulation system in which black people’s suffering is distributed for enjoyment and profit. Sharpe argues that Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Till Mobley decided to publish photographs (on which the painting is loosely based) of her son’s mutilated body in a black publication, Jet Magazine, for black people — not attempting to address mainstream white consciousness. Sharpe contends that the painting fails because it presumes an intimacy with the subject, Till, that is not earned, and the viewer is necessarily placed in that counterfeit intimacy, which is really rooted in spectacle. Thereby Sharpe makes an oblique argument that “there can be an ethical call to destroy something,” in this case the painting, because although Schutz has insisted she won’t sell the painting, according to Sharpe it might still be inherited and eradicating it “does stop the ability of the artist to profit from it in a certain way.”

The liberal response to this is to protect a notion of free speech, artistic license, and intellectual autonomy that seems threatened by these absolutist appeals to rid ourselves of offensive objects.

This debate impoverishes us. Arguments premised on the notion of black ownership of “black pain” essentially balkanize culture into discrete demesnes in which only certain members of the particular group are authorized to address issues intimately relevant to that group. I understand regarding culture as a possession—so much has been taken from black folks, repurposed and sold to mainstream audiences without acknowledgment that it seems aggressive policing of cultural goods is required. But this position presumes the logic of the marketplace, and I don’t want to live there. I believe in nurturing a civic space where the crucial notions that support a healthy life are collectively negotiated. I think we always need others: women helping to unpack masculinity, black people helping us understand whiteness, and poor people contributing to our comprehension of wealth. The painting may fail, but the subsequent dispute is moving us toward ugly dictatorial positions.

I believe Dana Schutz has the right to evolve, even if it’s painful to watch. The visceral rendering of the child’s head in “Open Casket”, handled with blurring and impasto, disturbs because it reanimates the historic image of Emmett Till with such physical proximity as to conjure the real, horrific mutilating events that took place. Schutz’s truly empathic piece is a testament to the enduring power of painting and its ability to stir strong emotion.

Schutz’s application of paint in this work is consistent with her distinctive manner of abstraction. Cubistic distortions of fleshy pink men and women showering, walking in the park, sneezing, are her usual subjects. She’s good at the daily life of white people doing just about nothing; on occasion she’ll approach violent themes, or birth and death, but she dips in briefly then on to something else.

The problem I have with Schutz, is that she failed to established her position on race in earlier works, and now she’s dropped a bomb. Her detractors are wrong to try to silence her, but they are right to mind the sudden, forceful injection of race as subject. Her choice of image, which has a unique place in African American history, is particularly problematic.

In reality Schutz’s work has always been about race (whiteness), but the art world has focused on her formal and narrative techniques. That is a privilege. Asking whether she ought to paint a historic image of a black man is beside the point, as she’s never been held accountable for the ways she’s depicted her own race. Others like John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Alex Katz, and Will Cotton and company, also seem to paint about power and privilege unconsciously. Why critics and curators tend not to address this when considering them could be fear or laziness, or lack of vocabulary. I struggle with it too.

Philip Guston was remarkable in his ability to address whiteness, using a combination of color, symbolism, and caricature to get at the sorry state of things. Kerry James Marshall, Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, and Laylah Ali come to mind as artists who employ the color black (or near black) for skin tone as a powerful formal device. They give flesh its own special key, they deal with it as a kind of monochrome, which then carries the painting forth. I wonder how it would reshape the conversation if Schutz found a better formal methodology for addressing race in the future. Maybe then her earnest, well intentioned voice would be better heard in the important dialog about race and representation.

A fiction: Neo Negro, a ” — ” [old-school black], asks the question, What now is this thing called “whiteness”? How does it exist, in whose body does it reside? Not mine he thinks, but then again his pale features belie the family history. He thinks of his great-great-great-great-grandfather. He was kinda white, wasn’t he? Could pass for white, they said. Neo had that fine hair, lithe and straight. His great-great-great-great-grandfather had the good talk and was educated– could this be his, Neo’s, own whiteness? There was a picture of him made by a white painter at the time. But now some wanted it to remake it to fit their image of the past.

White people were gathering around trying to explain this to Neo. That he too was possessed not by ghosts (though there was that too), but by his own whiteness. But Neo knew it was a demon’s history that had much maligned the history of the nigga, the colored and negro, even the Black and now African-American. This history, white people said, once owned his body and they wanted to complete that possession through this image. Didn’t matter that this negro didn’t own anything. He didn’t own his past, maybe he did not own his future either, certainly his own people’s image was his, he thought.

Now Neo had a picture of his great great great great grandfather, a picture whose ownership was being debated. Why did whiteness want it too? It was valuable to Neo; it was his history. For white people, it was a valuable document that proved they owned Neo’s body and soul. Didn’t matter that Neo had original possession– the devil was in the details. Beside he knew white people often overlooked the truth to have their way, since they had long ago lost their own Soul. The fact was, he was still of the mind that the past was never really over, and whiteness (which was their religion) had a right to take ownership of Neo’s history. In effect it wasn’t so much the image they wanted. It wasn’t of great value to them, but to their legacy of whiteness. It was ownership that gave a kind of power to whiteness.

On “Open Casket”

My first thought was that the painting was, for Schutz, unusually quiet, modest, and static. There’s none of her usual crowding vertiginousness, except maybe in the very top band, where pale flowers– or perhaps the bunched satins of the casket interior?– lean out over Till’s shoulder. This quietness seemed like deference. Schutz must have felt constrained—who wouldn’t?– by the gravity of the famous photographs. Her painting is dominated by one simple shape: Till’s white shirtfront, bordered by the black of his jacket and pants. Together these make a wide flat arrow pointing to his face. Schutz doesn’t seem to have relied directly (ie., literally) on any of the photographs here. Instead she built up some kind of 3-D structure under the canvas, so that it juts out slightly toward the viewer, into our physical space. Over that projection, curving semi-abstract brushstrokes are roughly legible as physiognomy. The effect is something like a becalmed, softened version of one of Francis Bacon’s portraits. But unlike Bacon’s middle distance, the viewpoint here is uncomfortably close. As several observers have noted, the suggestion is unmistakable. We are visitor’s at Till’s wake.

Why paint that wake now? Even before Schutz’s explanatory statement, the connection to recent violence seemed obvious enough–arguably too obvious. It’s clear that Schutz was thinking about a kind of subject she hesitated to paint directly: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other killings painfully fresh in American memories. Sensibly, cautiously, she chose an oblique route, not painting the news but going back to a canonical Civil Rights image, one taught in high schools. Whatever you think of her painting, its point was plain: to link the grim present to the grim past, and implicitly to remind us that the public sorrow, outrage and resolve that led from Till’s casket to the (incomplete) Civil Rights victories of the 1960s is needed all over again. It’s a plain painting with a plain message. Do many Americans already feel that outrage and sorrow, 24/7? Of course. Are still more reminders necessary? After the recent elections, in a country where Confederate flags still fly, who is to say not?