The Controversial Painting of Emmett Till Stays on Show at The Whitney
An artist’s letter that proved to be a hoax, and a now-extinct petition demanding the removal of a racist artwork: the Whitney Biennial’s Emmett Till painting controversy continues.
On Thursday afternoon at the Whitney Museum, the artist Robert Goldman was standing near Dana Schutz’s controversial Open Casket painting at this year’s Biennial exhibition, hoping to engage with protesters who had called for its removal and destruction.
“I wouldn’t have made the painting,” Goldman, a white artist also known as Bobby G, told The Daily Beast, “but it’s not for me to judge her. I also think it would be wrong to take the painting down.”
Earlier on Thursday, Schutz appeared to heed demands that Open Casket be censored. The Daily Beast and other media outlets received a letter from Schutz’s personal gmail account asking the exhibition’s curators to remove the painting.
As a white artist whose depiction of Till had caused “suffering” in the black community, “I can no longer protect an object at their expense,” the letter read, echoing a petition that British artist Hannah Black posted on her Facebook page earlier in the week. “The painting must go.”
Reached by The Daily Beast, the Whitney Museum said that the letter was a “hoax” and that Schutz “had nothing to do with it.” Schutz, too, later confirmed in an email that the letter was a hoax.
Meanwhile, the petition had been taken offline, with Black declining to comment on its sudden disappearance. Neither Schutz nor the Whitney Museum responded to a Daily Beast inquiry asking if the artist had been in touch with Black or other protesters; if Schutz’s email account had been hacked, or if the painting would be removed from the Biennial.
Goldman’s ambivalence encapsulates the debate that has roiled over Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, the teenager who was famously lynched and murdered by two white men in 1955, since the Biennial opened last Friday.
A small group of protesters stood in front of the painting that day, shielding it from public view.
More than 30 non-white artists, activists, and art critics signed Black’s online campaign for the painting’s removal and destruction. Before the petition disappeared from Black’s Facebook page without explanation, many of the original signatories’ names were scrubbed because they were white; Black wrote in a Facebook comment that it was “better to include only black signatories.” Her open letter petition declared that Schutz, a white artist, had no right to exploit the black experience for “profit and fun.” (Schutz, however, said she never intended to sell the painting.)
“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 read.
Black maintained that “white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.”
“The image carries so much meaning and pain for African Americans,” Goldman said, choosing his words carefully. Schutz’s defense of her artistic expression seemed like an after-the-fact “rationalization” of her wrongdoing, he added.
In a previous statement responding to protests, Schutz explained that she “thought about the possibility of painting [Open Casket] only after listening to interviews” with Emmett Till’s mother, who had organized an open casket service to “let the people see” what she’d seen: Till’s brutalized face. “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,” Schutz said. “In [Mamie Till’s] 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.”
At the Whitney on Thursday, some visitors talked quietly about the brouhaha surrounding the painting. “They say a white artist shouldn't have created this,” one man explained to his friend. An African American man discussing the painting with two companions told the Daily Beast he was still “processing” how he felt about the work.
Shalini Abeyaratne, a Sri Lankan-born architect in her mid-40s, disagreed with protesters’ arguments that Schutz was exploiting black suffering. “I think she’s bringing it to light,” said Abeyaratne, who identifies as a person of color. She was surprised dissenting artists were making a case for censorship. “If we police who can talk about certain subjects based on race, then we prevent other people from relating to them,” she said.
Francisca Caceres, a Chilean woman who had taken the day off from her job in fashion retail to visit the Biennial, thought that it was important for people to see the painting—regardless of the artist’s race. “I don’t think she’s exploiting [Till’s] suffering. I think she’s trying to communicate reality,” said Caceras. “I bet a lot of people didn’t know about this part of history. Ignorance is the enemy, for this country and for the world.”
Michael Edgill, a 29-year-old African American teacher, understood where protesters were coming from but criticized their logic as contradictory. “Historically we all come from different perspectives, but if you want to progress you have to be open minded,” he said. “At the end of the day there’s only one race: human.”
Schutz’s apparently hoax letter in full:
I am sending you this letter as your publication recently covered a protest of my painting “Open Casket,” included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. I hope you will consider presenting this statement I have written to the show curators as a followup to those pieces.
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.