Painting with a Broad Brush
Emmett Till was just 14 when he was kidnapped, tortured, and drowned by white supremacists. The year was 1955 and the place was Mississippi. Till was a Chicago native, and he had traveled South to visit relatives. His alleged offense was that he flirted with a white woman. (Earlier this year, the woman, Carolyn Bryant, admitted that her accusation was a lie.) When Till’s brutalized body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, insisted on having him photographed and displayed in an open coffin. “Let the people see what I see,” she said. The killers were summarily acquitted by an all-white jury, but the photos of Till’s savaged face – taken by Jet Magazine’s David Jackson – helped galvanize the Civil Rights Movement. Sixty-two years later, a very different image of Till is on display at the Whitney’s latest Biennial, and it has triggered a very different kind of outcry. The piece in question, “Open Casket,” is by a painter named Dana Schutz, and it is loosely based on Jackson’s postmortem photos. In spite of its emotionally charged subject matter, it’s unlikely that it would have grabbed national headlines if not for one detail: Dana Schutz is white. When the Biennial opened, on March 17th, a black artist named Parker Bright planted himself in front of “Open Casket” with a shirt that read “Black Death Spectacle.” Within hours, photos of Bright’s protest had gone viral. That same day, a British artist named Hannah Black published an open letter to the Biennial’s curators. “I am writing,” it begins, “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.” (Yes: “destroyed” and “not entered into any market.” Make of that what you will.) Her petition was co-signed by Bright and roughly two dozen other black artists. As the headwinds of outrage gathered force, Schutz tried to clear the air. “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America,” she wrote, “but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son … My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” (Schutz’s oldest child, Arlo, was two years old at the time “Open Casket” was completed.) The artist offered additional context for the piece in an interview with Artnet News:
I made this painting in August of 2016 after a summer that felt like a state of emergency—there were constant mass shootings, racist rallies filled with hate speech, and an escalating number of camera-phone videos of innocent black men being shot by police. The photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous to the time: what was hidden was now revealed.
This message only served to amplify the debate. In the weeks that followed, hundreds of homiletics and apologetics entered the public record – many of them circling around the same key question: are there certain subjects that only black artists should be permitted to depict? The poet, Claudia Rankine, weighed in during an April 9th talk on race and representation, co-sponsored by the Whitney and Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute. “[W]hite Americans are culpable in the suffering of … people of color, and that culpability needs to be present in the representation….” At the same time, she allowed that “anyone who is subject to a culture can use it” in their art, regardless of race. Others had far less equivocal responses. In a widely circulated piece for The New Republic, Josephine Livingston and Lovia Gyarkye contend that the painting’s abstract style, along with its “bright and pretty” colors, misrepresent the “photographic truth” of the tragedy. Moreover, they insinuate that Schutz’s painting reenacts the racist power dynamic that led to Till’s murder: “For a white woman to paint Emmett Till’s mutilated face communicates … an ignorance of the history of white women’s speech in that murder—the way it cancelled out Till’s own expression, with lethal effect.” Just to be clear: the analogy cited above is premised on the (supposed) similarities between, on the one hand, the creation of an oil painting, and, on the other, the commission and cover-up of a grisly lynching. That this analogy may strike some of us as incautious – to put it very mildly – has not prevented a host of similar assertions from gaining traction online. And this is thanks, in part, to what Carl Swanson recently dubbed the “mob moralism of social media.” A case in point: the artist Rafia Santana enjoins her Twitter followers to “Burn that #DanaSchutz painting of Emmet [sic] Till’s open casket. White woman profiting off of black murder caused by a white woman.” Striking a somewhat less inflammatory note, the art historian, Aruna D’Souza, suggests on Facebook that those who stand up for Schutz’s painting are “go[ing] to the mat to defend whiteness.” Canvassed in this allegation are numerous black and brown artists and commentators, including Whoopi Goldberg, Clifford Owens, and Coco Fusco. Fusco, for her part, penned a superb essay for Hyperallergic, in which she notes that the history of the Civil Rights Movement is filled with white artists who created art in service of social justice. She also observes that – pace Livingston and Gyarkye – there’s plenty of precedent for the use of figurative abstraction within racially conscious art. (See, for example, Romare Bearden.) The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins underscores the legitimacy of Schutz’s abstractionist approach to “Open Casket”: “The horror is conveyed in painterly ways that, to me, make it seem more tragic than the photograph, because the viewer is drawn in, not repelled.” Indeed, one of the things that struck me when I visited the Whitney back in April is how, by softening Till’s features, Schutz invites us to linger on his face instead of averting our eyes. This, no doubt, is what Hannah Black means when she refers, in her petition, to the “white gaze” that permeates the painting. The thick impasto and passionate brushstrokes that Schutz uses on Till’s visage call to mind the distorted portraits of Francis Bacon. As with Bacon’s work, the appealing surface hints at ghastly menace, held just beyond our view.
Body of Work
The “Open Casket” debacle bears similarities to a 2015 incident that began with (of all things!) a poetry reading at Brown University. In that instance, the white conceptualist poet, Kenneth Goldsmith – famous for his “uncreative writing” experiments, which rely heavily on preexisting texts – read from a composition entitled “The Body of Michael Brown.” The poem’s source document, which Goldsmith rearranged, is the official autopsy report for the eponymous black teenager, who was murdered in 2014 by police in Ferguson, MO.
This was not the first time Goldsmith had recycled morbid minutia under the flag of poetry. His 2013 collection, Seven American Deaths and Disasters, includes descriptions of victims from the Columbine shooting and 9/11, among others. Regardless of whether one thinks that Goldsmith’s poem about Michael Brown has any artistic merit, it’s certainly consistent with his oeuvre. And yet, the poem generated an almost immediate backlash. One audience member charged Goldsmith with turning Brown’s body into a “spectacle,” and many others mounted attacks online. Here’s a typical call to arms from a literary collective calling itself the New Order of St. Agatha:
It’s hard to resist the impulse to kill Kenneth Goldsmith, but many different and more effective strategies are available…. Try things like: Sitting in the audience and reminding people Kenny is a racist by periodically yelling, “Racist!”
No complete copies of Goldsmith’s Michael Brown poem are available, but the snippets I’ve seen suggest that it was meant – however misguidedly – to impugn racism, rather than perpetuate it. (The last line reads: “The remaining male genitalia system is unremarkable.”)
In response to the uproar, Goldsmith donated his fee for the reading (five hundred dollars) to Hands Up United, an organization that has called for an investigation of Michael Brown’s death. This decision highlights the degree to which the Schutz and Goldsmith affairs differ from art-world scandals of previous eras. Think back to the 1990s, for example, and the indignation in response to works like John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer, or Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary.” Those works were intended to be provocative, divisive. Indeed, their creators remained consciously aloof from those they offended. By contrast, Schutz and Goldsmith appear to want nothing more than to be embraced by the communities that now call for censoring their work. Schutz has made it very clear that “Open Casket” will never be sold for a profit, and Goldsmith reportedly asked Brown not to release footage of his reading because “there’s been too much pain for many people around this and I do not wish to cause more.” (Can you imagine Ofili relinquishing all profits from the “Holy Virgin Mary”? Or Adams asking to suppress recordings of Klinghoffer?)
Put differently, Schutz and Goldsmith share essentially the same political convictions as their opponents. In consequence, the controversies surrounding their work seem less like genuine disputes and more like show trials aimed at producing what the founder of this magazine has called “a total culture.”
For those still finding their bearings in this brave new world, Hannah Black’s letter to the Whitney serves as a valuable field guide: “[I]f Black people are telling [Schutz] that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this.” Truth, in this formulation, takes on a rather pre-Modern cast: a function of subjective emotions, as opposed to an objective enterprise conforming to the dictates of logic and evidence. For Hannah Black, a person’s race is a form of unimpeachable, a priori knowledge.
Some observers have suggested that these conceptions of truth and knowledge are symptoms of an ascendant culture of victimhood. In a 2016 paper on this topic, psychologist Nick Haslam surveys psychological literature of the last several decades as it pertains to six harm-related words: abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice. Haslam concludes that each of these terms has come to encompass “milder, subtler, or less extreme phenomena than those to which they referred at an earlier time.” He refers to this semantic dilation as “concept creep”:
[B]y increasing the range of people who are defined as … worthy of moral concern, based on their perceived capacity to suffer and be harmed … [concept creep] risks reducing the range of people who see themselves as capable of moral agency. A possible adverse looping effect of concept creep is therefore a tendency for more and more people to see themselves as victims who are defined by their suffering, vulnerability, and innocence, and who have diminished agency to overcome their plight. The flip-side of this expanding sense of victimhood would be a typecast assortment of moral villains: abusers, bullies, bigots, and traumatizers.
We must, of course, take note that Haslam’s account focuses primarily on the rarefied fields of social and behavioral psychology, while largely ignoring larger cultural trends. It may be true, for example, that “prejudice” has come to be defined more broadly among academics, but outside of this group, that concept’s semantic boundaries have arguably contracted—effectively normalizing certain types of racism. (This is still a nation where a dispiritingly sizeable minority elected Donald Trump.) Nevertheless, the notion of concept creep—and its attendant division of the world into victims and victimizers—is clearly visible in the Schutz controversy.
In its emphasis on the evolution of moral terms, Haslam’s study recalls Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals – a work whose central claim is that the Judeo-Christian worldview inverted a more ancient vocabulary of good and evil, under which moral goodness was equated with wealth and power. According to Nietzsche, Jews and Christians carried out a “slave revolt in morality” – a collective act of ressentiment that enshrined the poor and impotent as the most blessed, while recasting the rich and powerful as evil sinners.
So maybe the whole battle over “Open Casket” is just a case of Will to Power, with Black, Bright, and even Schutz, herself, jockeying for the benefits of being associated with a well-known victim of racist terror. After all, no one can deny that the Biennial affair vaulted all three artists to national prominence.
The truth, of course, is quite a bit more messy.
I live about two hours away from the town in Mississippi where Emmett Till was murdered. The surrounding county is now home to various historical markers, identifying sites related to the lynching. Most of these were installed in 2007 and 2008 – more than fifty years after the heinous events they memorialize.
I’m not much for visiting historical landmarks, and that goes double for sites of gruesome suffering. No surprise, then, that I can barely stand to look at the postmortem photos of Till or to watch the tragic video of Philando Castile bleeding to death. And it’s not just white-on-black violence that turns my stomach: as a rule, I won’t look out the window when I drive past a wreck, and I won’t watch replays of sports injuries. On a trip to Berlin with my wife, I refused to visit any sites relating to the Holocaust. (Needless to say, this dramatically circumscribed the scope of our itinerary.)
Depending on your point of view, my moral constitution is either too robust for rubbernecking, or too anemic for grown-up reckoning with reality. And yet, as I researched this essay, I felt something tugging me in the direction of the Mississippi Delta.
“I’m thinking about visiting the site,” I told my wife. “The place where Emmett Till was killed by those awful men.”
She glanced up from her work with a quizzical look. “You mean the place where people shoot the sign?”
“The place where people … what?” I replied.
“It’s terrible. There’s a marker for Emmett Till and people shot bullets into it.”
Black and Bright, White and Dumb
Of course white supremacy and systemic racism aren’t just fantasies dreamed up by “snowflakes” on the cultural left. They constitute the visceral backdrop of daily life for many black people in America. And yet it’s one thing to rehearse grievances at a political rally, and quite another to invoke them to indict a work of the imagination. Which is to say, those who call for the removal of “Open Casket” are misplacing their rage at white hegemony in American society. This is evident in Hannah Black’s assertion that “white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others and are not natural rights.” Note the wording – not “white-led corporations” or “white-led criminal justice regimes,” but “white creative freedom.” This might roll off the tongue, but it should leave a sour taste in our mouths. It contains the seeds of censorship – targeting not only Schutz’s work but that of any artist who undertakes a project that might not lead them or us where ostensibly enlightened people already know we ought to go.
And so we must categorically oppose the chorus of voices who cry out, with Hannah Black, that “the painting must go.” If Schutz is not permitted to depict Emmett Till, how long before it’s deemed necessary to ban other works by white artists that depict black trauma? How long, for example, before we decide that we can no longer tolerate the ballads of Bob Dylan, or the novels of Russell Banks, or the films of Norman Jewison? And what about black artists like Kara Walker, whose work has been called a “betrayal” of her race? Are galleries going to start soliciting loyalty oaths in lieu of artist statements?
“Open Casket” is not a masterpiece, but it is a serious work of art. And, as such, it resists the didactic purposes into which many critics have tried to conscript it. For an astonishing number of these critics, the actual properties of the painting – the intentions and meanings that it supports – are immaterial; their single-minded objective is to identify a culprit in the work. (Consider the word “culpability” in Claudia Rankine’s comment, above.) In their pursuit of that objective, such critics will tend to ignore the artist’s intentions. After all, they will say, the relevant evidence is not explicitly articulated but, rather, embodied and subjective. Nick Haslam describes this trend in the context of concept creep: “several concepts have acquired a more subjective aspect [in recent decades]. Emotional abuse may be claimed if one party feels abused,” and with no need to invoke “objective abusive behaviors.” This emphasis on subjective perception is pushed to the point of incoherence in a recent essay about “Open Casket,” written by M. Neelika Jayawardane for Al-Jazeera:
Schutz may have aimed at showing how one’s humanity is distorted by violence, how silent, complicit witnesses are also deeply distorted by brutal acts. But when the lives of the majority of the audience that filters through the doors of the Whitney are so far removed from the realities faced by the politically, economically and socially disenfranchised of America – they become less the “witness” and more participants in the violence of gawking.
It’s not at all clear who we should treat as the offending agent in this passage. It isn’t Schutz; nor is it her audience. So it must be some nebulous third thing, captured in Jayawardane’s stirring, but completely vacuous phrase, “the violence of gawking.” It should be obvious that nothing licenses the use of a word like “violence” in the context of touring the Whitney Biennial. (Who, exactly, is harmed by this supposedly violent gawking?) And yet such words are now commonly circulated – not within the culture at large, but certainly within the precincts of many elite universities and museums. Think of “trauma” and “unsafe” and “trigger.” Ironically, by borrowing the force of these words from what was once their exclusive domain (e.g., incidents of police brutality) we risk making them trivial.
“There is,” observes Coco Fusco, “a deeply puritanical and anti-intellectual strain in American culture that expresses itself by putting moral judgment before aesthetic understanding.” What does this phrase, “aesthetic understanding,” entail? Isn’t it the capacity to discern the difference between conceiving a painting and plotting a murder? The capacity to acknowledge that a painting is not a cop with a gun? And that art doesn’t exist to satisfy anyone’s demands for pre-approved sentiments or pieties? So that when Hannah Black insists that “white shame” is not “correctly” represented by a white artist, or when Claudia Rankine intimates that “[white] culpability needs to be present” (my emphasis) in any white artist’s depiction of black suffering, we should be troubled. Troubled by the idea that a creative enterprise is being treated like a criminal confession. Troubled by the casual willingness of practicing artists to police the moral boundaries of art production. Troubled by the ease with which the racial identities of artists and art patrons are essentialized and reductively equated with historical villainy or victimhood.
Indeed, the furor directed against Schutz’s painting reveals the perils that face anyone who wishes to represent racism within the art world’s totalizing political climate. A climate in which historical images and narratives are claimed as the heritage of just one racial group, and alternative voices are, to paraphrase Fusco, “intimidated into silence.”
There are, of course, other examples of this same dynamic.
One of the Delta’s most significant Emmett Till memorials is labeled, simply, “River Site.” It’s located off of Route 49, on the East bank of the Tallahatchie, and it marks the spot where many believe Till’s murderers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, dumped his body into the river, after tying him, with barbed wire, to a cotton gin fan. To reach the site, you first enter a poor but stable-seeming neighborhood of soft hills, one-story houses, and free-standing satellite dishes. From there, you turn down an inconspicuous gravel road that runs parallel with an unkempt cotton field. Defunct tractor tires serve in place of road signs, and aging farm equipment punctuates the landscape. After about two-and-a-half miles, you reach an overgrown turnoff point where the unthinkable act is said to have taken place.
Last October, shortly before the presidential election, a filmmaker named Kevin Wilson, Jr. visited the River Site and found that its marker was riddled with bullet holes. Wilson’s photo of the vandalized sign, posted on Facebook, caused a nationwide commotion, which (as the critic, Dave Tell, has pointed out) echoed the outrage that attended the Jet Magazine images, six decades earlier. The story was covered by virtually every major news outlet and it inspired an online fundraising campaign to purchase a replacement marker.
When I visited the River Site, in early May, it had been several months since the campaign wrapped up, but the new marker still had not arrived. In fact, the only indication that something historic had taken place at the spot was a pair of aluminum stanchions, peeking out from behind waist-high weeds, where they once supported the shot-up sign. As it happens, the site looked very much the way it did after a much less publicized episode of vandalism, which occurred in 2008. October, to be exact – just before the election that sent Barack Obama to the White House. In that incident, the marker wasn’t punctured with bullets. It was completely torn from its legs, and then deposited into the Tallahatchie, where it probably still resides.
Just imagine the kind of person – or, most likely, persons – who would commit such an act. Imagine what a deep sense of ownership they must have felt toward the story of Emmett Till’s murder. So deep that they would suffer no trespass against their own version of the story. So deep that they would oppose any representation that might contradict, or even complicate, what they regarded as their heritage. So deep that they would, in fact, spend hours – perhaps whole days – seething and scheming to dislodge the offending sign from its posts. And then drive, perhaps late at night, down this gravel road, to focus all their energy and ingenuity toward the destruction of an object – an object which was harming no one, yet which somehow symbolized everything they regarded as being wrong with society.
We must not, of course, pretend that there’s any moral equivalence between the white supremacists who desecrated the River Site marker and the art critics who demand that Schutz’s painting be destroyed. Nevertheless, the recent Biennial controversy should give us pause to consider, next time the question of censorship arises: how far down that gravel road do we really want to go?