Before it opened to the public, the 2017 Whitney Biennial was lauded by critics for deftly addressing the political and cultural turbulence of our times—not just the Trump era, but our country’s broader socio-political climate and racial tensions during the Obama years as well.
A group of protesters have arrived at a different conclusion: the Biennial has exploited the black experience by displaying a white artist’s painting of Emmett Till, the teenager who was brutally murdered by two white men in 1955.
British artist Hannah Black has launched a petition calling on the Whitney to remove and destroy the painting, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, which depicts Till’s bludgeoned face as seen in a photograph of his open-casket funeral service.
A handful of people also protested the painting in person last Friday, the Biennial’s opening day, standing in front of it to block it from public view.
More than thirty people have signed the petition, which began circulating Facebook on Monday afternoon. “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,” the petition reads.
A number of original signatories’ names were scrubbed on Monday because they were white; responding to criticism, Black commented on her Facebook post that it was “better to include only black signatories.” The artist declined to speak to The Daily Beast beyond what she wrote in her public statement, which argues that it is “not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Schutz said the painting was “never for sale and never will be.” Schutz, who has two other paintings on view at the Biennial, said she created the painting in August 2016, “after a long, violent summer of mass shootings, rallies filled with hate speech, and an ever-escalating number of camera phone videos of black men being shot execution style by police.”
She noted that there was “renewed attention” around this time to the murder of Till and his mother’s decision to “let the world see what she had seen.” (This is also written on the wall text accompanying Schutz’s painting). “Till’s photograph, like a festering wound, felt analogous to the tragic events of the summer. What had been hidden was now in plain view,” Schutz said, adding that she “did not know if I could make this painting ethically or emotionally.
“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. I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her. In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain. I made this painting to engage with the loss.”
But Black and others supporting her campaign argue that--regardless of Schutz’s intentions--the loss is not hers to engage with because “white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.”
Even if Schutz herself does not directly profit from sales of the painting, the petition states that contemporary art is a “fundamentally white supremacist institution” and that the Whitney Museum is profiting from Biennial ticket sales--and thus is exploiting black people’s suffering.
Schutz said that while she knew her depiction of Till might stir up controversy, she didn't anticipate calls for it to be destroyed or removed from the Whitney Biennial. Asked if art should ever be censored, Schutz said no. But she encourages debate over works like hers. "People have a right to their outrage," she said. "Public discussion and argument is important and essential for art."
Open Casket was first shown in Berlin last year, Schutz said, where there was "no context or audience" for the painting as there is in the U.S. The Biennial's curators "felt that it would be in dialog with other works in the show," Schutz wrote in an email to The Daily Beast. "Context is important, and a lot of the issues with this painting revolve around context."
Indeed, Henry Taylor's painting of Philando Castile after he was fatally shot by a Minnesota police officer last summer is displayed on the floor above Schutz's painting of Till. Taylor, an African American artist, has not been scrutinized or protested for his work.
Exhibition curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks did not comment on whether or not the museum will heed protesters’ calls.
“The 2017 Whitney Biennial brings to light many facets of the human experience, including conditions that are painful or difficult to confront such as violence, racism, and death,” Lew and Locks said in a statement. “Many artists in the exhibition push in on these issues, seeking empathetic connections in an especially divisive time. Dana Schutz’s painting, Open Casket (2016), is an unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans.
“For many African Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance. By exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history and the history of race relations in this country. As curators of this exhibition we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.”