Disturbing Subject Matter
In case you have been in a media fast for the past week, the big news in the little art world has been the heated controversy over the painting by Dana Schutz, shown in the current Whitney Biennial, called “Open Casket.” (If you are already heartily sick of this subject, after wave upon wave of angry rhetoric crashing over your screen, please surf on.) The painting is a semi-abstract depiction of the black teenager, Emmett Till, savagely murdered and mutilated in 1955 by bigots enraged by his alleged whistling at a white woman — a fabrication, she has now admitted. (Sometimes one longs for Dante’s specialized departments of hell.) Till’s mother demanded that his coffin be open so that viewers could “see what I have seen,” in all its graphic glory, and the painter used the photo as a starting point for handling—for processing through paint and painting— her own emotions of fear and insecurity as a mother, she pointed out, in these nasty times of snapping and snarling.
What could be more important than to educate complacent, ignorant Americans about this stain on national history and honor? Alas, nothing is ever simple in the art world. The painting aroused fierce opposition from the left, nicely described Robert Smith in her New York Times article, “Should Art That Angers Remain on View?” (March 27, 2017). Two black artists took extreme umbrage at what Smith wittily characterized as Schulz’s possibly “Inappropriate appropriation.” Parker Bright stood in front of the painting, blocking the view to other museumgoers, while wearing a T-shirt imprinted “Black Death Spectacle.” Hannah Black denounced Schulz’s exploitation of “black subject matter … for profit and fun.” Many in my social media feed denounced the work as typical white hubris continuing to perpetrate the idea of black victimhood; and even, through its opting for abstraction rather than realism, whitewashing black history through aesthetic distancing. And if Schutz had replicated the graphic detail….?
Race relations in the US are a mess. The interlude of liberal rationality that Obama hoped to inaugurate—the extended teachable moment— clearly failed, a victim to white working class economic rage exacerbated by eight years of right-wing animus, sensationalism and alternate facts. (If no Alex Jones and Bill O’Reilly types failed to fan the flames on Schutzgate, it’s only because they were distracted by James Brown wig and the premature announcement of the death of Obamacare,.
But to return to the artwork, which is successful on its own terms, not as a political statement—an interpretation which the artist never claimed, yet one which its detractors opted to emphasize. (To be fait, Schultz does seem to gravitate to s sensationalistic celebrity deaths, at times.) Smith adduces, in defense of creative freedom of speech, several powerful art-historical precedents: Ben Shahn’s moving tribute to the unjustly executed Sacco and Vanzetti (despite his being Jewish and the victims Italian); Abel Meeropol’s song about race lynchings in the South, “Strange Fruit” (again by a Jewish person, and not just any, but one of the adopted orphan sons of the executed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg; and the white William Styron’s brilliantly complex novel about Nat Turner, the less-than-exemplary or heroic leader of the 1831 black slave revolt in rural Virginia. One could cite many other examples of the depiction of suffering by sympathetic cultural or racial outsiders: Delacroix’s Massacre at Chios, about Turkish atrocities; Dorotha Lange’s Migrant Mother, about the Depression tribulations of displaced Okies; or Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, still shocking today, five centuries after its creation, with its painfully mortal King of the Jews. Any crucifixion painting, in fact, rebuts the racial exclusivity idea.. Kara Walker, who explores the horrors of slavery culture in her silhouette drawings, concurs, in opposing the ensorship and destruction of the painting sought by some; Smith: “[Walker] concluded that an artwork can be generative regardless of how it offends or falls short, giving ‘rise to deeper inquiries and better art. It can only do this when it is seen.’” Another artist, Clifford Owens, similarly declared his opposition to what is in effect, to my eye, a kind of politically correct iconoclasm: “I don’t know anything about Hannah Black, or the artists who’ve co-signed her breezy and bitter letter, but I’m not down with artists who censor artists.”Why so much furor from the art world left then? The painting is unobjectionable in itself — but for its provocative title. The black artist Henry Taylor, in the same Whitney show, depicted, with a greater degree of realism than Schultz employs, the police murder of Philando Castile, and aroused no animosity. It is my belief that certain ideas that were almost universally taught in universities in the 80s and 90s—identity art, postmodernist relativism— have hardened into dogma, and can become exaggerated and counter-productive. Making, seeing and ‘using’ art primarily or solely as Tendenzkunst, as propaganda, as the hypostatization or reification of sacred truths, is bad for the country and bad for art. Let creative people make their work, and let a thousand exegetical flowers bloom.; but let’s not become cultural commissars. Artists and citizens should be truth-seekers, not avoiders of trigger issues. We have serious challenges; one painting in one biennial—and it’s not as if all blacks are furious about it, as some imply—is a molehill, if that. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize, not minor distractions. —DeWitt Cheng