What happened, Dana?
A conversation with Curatorial Fellow for Diversity in the Fine Arts, Kelli Morgan, on the recent controversy surrounding the 2017 Whitney Biennial
By Matthew Herzog and Abby King
Dana Schutz's 'Open Casket' currently hangs at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The piece replicates, in Schutz's style, the mutilated body of Emmett Till - a young African American teenager lynched in 1955 after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. We sat with Kelli Morgan, a self-described 'Cultural Historian', to get a comprehensive look at how the piece functions and its connection to the lineage of Black Death Spectacle in the United States.
Images Left to Right: Emmitt Till; Associated Press, Artist Parker Bright protesting 'Open Casket'; photo via Scott W. H. Young/Twitter, Alligator Bait via ReunionBlackFamily.com, Downtown Dallas 1910 via Dallas Public Library; Dallas History Archives Division
Fake Letter impersonating Dana Schutz
Addressed to the 2017 Whitney Curators, Christopher Lew and Mia Locks
Dear Mia and Christopher,
I am writing to publicly request that my painting, “Open Casket,” be removed from this year’s Whitney Biennial. Though it was not at all my intention to cause harm, many artists have come forward to announce that my depiction of suffering is in turn causing them suffering. I cannot rightly protect a painting at the expense of human beings.
I understand that many have attempted to defend my work in the interest of free speech, and with calls against censorship. However, the artists and writers generously critiquing “Open Casket” have made plain to me that I have benefited from the very systems of racism I aimed to critique, in a way that blinded me to what my re-presenting this image would mean to Black audiences. Particularly because, with my stamp of authorship, “Open Casket” could enter into the market and, in turn, commodify the very suffering I wished to explore. And while I agree with your curatorial statement that art can be an appropriate venue for political expression and debate, I do not agree with your implication that Black pain—what you refer to as “tremendous emotional resonance”—is a social good to be sought after through art. At least, not within a historically white-run institution, at the hands of a white artist, in an exhibit organized by a predominantly non-Black staff.
Indeed, I wanted to critique anti-Black violence and explore the real empathy I found between myself and the mother of Emmett Till, but I have learned that my re-presentation of violence against her son has proven to demonstrate its opposite: appealing to the universal truth of motherhood goes against what I have learned about the denial of motherhood, and of humanity itself, on the basis of race. I recognize that the calls for the painting’s removal have been made not as an imputation of my person or my career but of this artistic choice, this work, and the system that supports, even celebrates, such a gesture. Donna Haraway credits getting “called to account” by Black feminist thinkers for her most famous text (itself a call for sensitivity, a willingness to be wrong and a commitment to anti-racist coalition building). I want to model a willingness to learn from my mistakes, and honesty about accounting for them.
People who have been harmed by and are at risk of continued harm by systems of racist violence are in a much better position to know what is needed for restitution for that violence. If the removal of my painting has been called for by Black artists, writers, and activists, I can no longer protect an object at their expense. The painting must go.
I now join them in calling for the immediate removal of “Open Casket.” I have already promised the work will never be for sale, and I will also promise to make it impossible for the work to re-enter the public sphere. I also plan to redirect all funds from the sales of my other paintings included in the Biennial towards the Black liberation movement.
Finally, out of continued respect for those harmed by the work, I ask that the catalog and the press in the future and retroactively remove all images of the work from circulation, and replace it with images of the work’s subsequent protest.
Images Left to Right: Hottenton Venus via ArchivalPlatform.com, Screen Capture from Kelli Morgan's Facebook, George Cuvier via Wikipedia, Louis Agassiz via NNDB.com, Louis Agassiz's subject Delia
Images Left to Right: Kara Walker's Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or “Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life)” See the Peculiar Institution as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause, Inside Cover of Harriet Ann Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slace Girl, Inside Cover of Mary Prince's History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Henry Taylor's THE TIMES THEY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!, Benny Andrews, Cliff Joseph leading artists-activists —members of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC)—in protest to the Whitney Museum’s controversial exhibition Contemporary Black Artists in America (months before its opening on April 7, 1971); via Duke University Press
Open Letter to the Whitney by Hannah Black
Co-signed by prominent Artists, Curators, Directors and Writers
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,
Hannah Black. Artist/writer. Whitney ISP 2013-14
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 Pavlović, Imani Robinson, Andrew Ross, Cory Scozzari, Christina Sharpe, Misu Simbiatu, Addie Wagenknecht,Dominique White, Kandis Williams, Robert Wilson
How African American Artists fought to diversify Museums
Dana Schutz's Response via ArtNet.com