The 2017 Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan features a painting by the American artist Dana Schutz based upon photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Protests have arisen over the work.
The following are my thoughts on the controversy, which are based upon the following article:
“White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests.” By Randy Kennedy. The New York Times, March 21, 2017
My comments are in boldface.
— Roger W. Smith
“[P]rotests … have arisen online and at the newly opened Whitney Biennial over the decision of a white artist, Dana Schutz, to make a painting based on the photographs.”
An artist, Dana Schutz, created a painting. Based upon photographs of an actual event. The Times writer chose the verb to make, which seems a bit awkward. But, anyway, an ARTIST CREATED a work of art. (She happens to be white. God forbid!)
Since when has creating a work of art been construed as a “decision”? One would think we were talking about a politician or a general deciding to go to war. Board members of corporations make decisions. Judges issue them. Artists create ART, arising from a creative urge, spontaneous impulse, or whatever one wishes to call it.
“An African-American artist, Parker Bright, has conducted peaceful protests in front of the painting since Friday [March 17], positioning himself, sometimes with a few other protesters, in front of the work to partly block its view.”
What gives him the right to obstruct the view of museum visitors of the painting? If he were a white protestor, he would have been forcibly removed from the exhibit in short order by security personnel.
“Another protester, Hannah Black, a British-born black artist and writer working in Berlin, has written a letter to the biennial’s curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, urging that the painting be not only removed from the show but also destroyed.”
We are outraged when the Taliban or ISIS take sledgehammers to religious structures and imagery in the Middle East. But here, in the name of political correctness, the DESTRUCTION of works of art considered ideologically suspect can be countenanced. Why, in God’s name, are not such actions — proposals for the same — denounced outright? Next, ideologues will be attempting to find and destroy all existing holographs and printed copies of Huckleberry Finn (to pick just one example), Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Shakespeare’s Othello, and God knows what other works.
“ ‘The subject matter is not Schutz’s,’ Ms. Black wrote in a Facebook message that has been signed by more than 30 other artists she identifies as nonwhite.”
What does this mean? Ms. Schutz created the painting. She chose the subject. I am not stupid. I get it. What is meant is that the subject matter should not be hers to create art from. Because she’s white. (These racial categories are suspect, in my mind.) So, white people cannot have feelings and/or an opinion about an atrocity such as the murder of Emmett Till? Says who? Why not?
To take one example among a million, I have always felt that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were an outrage. My father, like many Word War II veterans, felt that President Truman’s decision to order the bombing of the cities was justified, given that it probably saved American lives that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. I always strongly disagreed. I could see no justification for dropping the atomic bomb twice. And so on.
Should it be claimed that I have no right express such an opinion or have such feelings because I am not Japanese and was not among the victims, or related to or descended from them?
“ ‘White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.’ She added [Ms. Black] that ‘contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends.’ ”
This is nonsense masquerading as profundity and wisdom. Its premises are racist. It is pernicious, shallow, distorted — inane — thinking. It is close, if not equivalent to, what left wing ideologues would call “hate speech.” Whatever happened to the Declaration of Independence’s doctrine of inalienable rights of all persons?
“The protest has found traction on Twitter, where some commenters have called for destruction of the painting and others have focused on what they view as an ill-conceived attempt by Ms. Schutz to aestheticize an atrocity.”
Aestheticize? This is pseudoliterate purple prose. Yes, it’s art. About an atrocity.
John Hersey — not Japanese — wrote a compelling book about the horrors of the Hiroshima bombing. He tried to convey it experientially. You and I weren’t there. Is not someone who wasn’t himself or herself there and didn’t suffer entitled nevertheless to write about it?
I was eight years old when Emmett Till was murdered. I have no recollection of the event, was never told about it. I am grateful for anyone who brings it to notice and attempts to convey its horror.
“Dana Schutz should have read Saidiya Hartman before she turned Emmett Till into a bad Francis Bacon painting.” #WhitneyBiennial — cathy park hong (@cathyparkhong) March 17, 2017 (A tweet.)
Maybe it’s a bad painting. That’s not the point. Dana Schutz is an admired artist. She should be allowed to work and express herself.
“@whitneymuseum I think it’s mighty disrespectful for you all to display Dana Schutz’ photo of Emmet Till. You should really remove this” — Mahdi ? (@My_D_) March 17, 2017 (A tweet.)
Disrespectful? What an odd term to describe the inclusion of a work of art — one apparently created with sincerity and feeling — in an exhibit of contemporary art.
“The biennial is an unusually diverse exhibition of work by 63 artists and collectives; nearly half the artists are female and half are nonwhite” (quoth the Times).
The implication here is that — don’t worry yourself over it — the exhibition is safely diverse.
“[N]early half of the artists are female.” This implies that we should be grateful to the curators for representing the female “minority.” I have news for you. Nearly half the world’s population is female.
“[N]early … half are nonwhite.” What does this mean? Black? Asian? Who knows? The main thing is, thank God that the Whitney’s curators have not “erred” by including too many white artists in the exhibition.
“Calling the painting ‘a mockery’ and ‘an injustice to the black community,’ Mr. Bright adds that he believes the work perpetuates ‘the same kind of violence that was enacted’ on Till ‘just to make a painting move.’ ”
Violence? By creating such a work of art, the artist has committed, vicariously, a violent act? This is pure nonsense.
“ ‘I feel like she doesn’t have the privilege to speak for black people as a whole or for Emmett Till’s family,’ Mr. Bright says in the video.”
Did the artist claim to be doing this? No.
“The curators said that they wanted to include the painting because many of the exhibition’s artists focus on violence — racial, economic, cultural — and they felt that the work raised important questions, especially now, in a political climate in which race, power and privilege have become ever more urgent issues.”
The Times writer weighs in with his own zany take on what is acceptable and politically correct in the art world today. Actually, the curators do. But, the Times writer obviously approves. The curators “felt that the work raised important questions, especially now, in a political climate in which race, power and privilege have become ever more urgent issues.” This is nonsensical purple prose — code words used to convey meanings which, when analyzed, are absurd. Art may have a political content, but it isn’t fundamentally ideological. It goes a lot deeper than that. Art and polemics are two different things.
A curator, Ms. Locks said: “Right now I think there are a lot of sensitivities not just to race but to questions of identities in general. We welcome these responses. We invited these conversations intentionally in the way that we thought about the show.”
I, for one, do not welcome such discussions.
There is a word for what’s going on here. It’s RACISM.
Racism pure and simple. The critics of this painting object to it on racial grounds. Using racist thinking and racist hate mongering. That’s what’s actually going on. But one can’t say it. Least of all the exhibit’s curators, or that liberal organ of enlightened opinion and respectable middle class thinking, The New York Times.
— Roger W. Smith
“In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” op ed by Kenan Malik, The New York Times, June 14, 2017