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Artists and Critics Demand Whitney Biennial Remove Painting in Open Letter

More than two dozen artists and writers are calling for the Whitney Museum of American Art to take down a painting by Dana Schutz that is based on a historic 1955 photograph of the funeral of African American teenager Emmett Till. In an open letter addressed to the institution’s curators and the staff—cited in full below—the signatories are recommending the work be destroyed.

The work at the heart of the controversy is Open Casket, 2016, a painting that depicts the photograph of Till’s body after he was brutally killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till’s mother insisted on having an open-casket funeral for her son. “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she said. The picture of his disfigured body was published in Jet magazine and became a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

A small-scale protest took place when the Biennial launched on Friday, March 17. A group of five or six people stationed themselves in front of the painting for several hours, blocking it from view. They remained there until the museum closed. African American artist Parker Bright has also intermittently stood in front of the work while wearing a shirt that reads “Black Death Spectacle.”

In response to the controversy over the piece, Schutz issued the following statement: “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother . . . Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.”

An updated version of the letter, with only black signatories, reads:

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
Whitney ISP 2013–14

Co-signatories/with the support of:
Amal Alhaag
Hannah Assebe
Anwar Batte
Charmaine Bee
Parker Bright
Kai Clancy
Vivian Crockett
Jareh Das
Aria Dean
Kimberly Drew
Chrissy Etienne
Hamishi Farah
Ja'Tovia Gary
Juliana Huxtable
Anisa Jackson
Janine Jembere
Hannah Catherine Jones
Justin Francis Kennedy
Devin Kenny
Carolyn Lazard
Taylor LeMelle
Tiona Nekkia McClodden
Sandra Mujinga
Precious Okoyomon
Emmanuel Olunkwa
Ari Robey-Lawrence
Imani Robinson
Andrew Ross
Adam Saad
Christina Sharpe
Misu Simbiatu
Shani Strand
Dominique White
Kandis Williams