Brow Beat

The Problem With the Whitney Biennial’s Emmett Till Painting Isn’t That the Artist Is White

People stand in protest in front of Dana Schutz's painting of Emmett Till, "Open Casket", on the public opening day of the Whitney Biennial, March 17, 2017.
People stand in protest in front of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, “Open Casket”, on the public opening day of the Whitney Biennial, March 17.

Lisa Larson-Walker

Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” a controversial painting now on display at the Whitney Biennial, depicts the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was lynched by white men in Mississippi in 1955. Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, opted for an open-casket funeral, saying, “Let the world see what I’ve seen … The whole nation had to bear witness to this.” She also allowed photographs of his body to be published. And in 2016, Schutz, who is a white woman, created a painting of Till, claiming inspiration from interviews with Mobley. “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America,” she said, “but I do know what it is like to be a mother.”

The backlash began even before the Whitney Biennial opened. “Who is the audience for this painting?” wrote artist Devin Kenny, wondering why this painting of black suffering by a white artist was going to be included in the exhibition. “What action is this work purportedly, and actually doing? Does it inform? Shock? Build connection? Help a new audience understand either emotionally or intellectually the complex set of factors all falling under the umbrella of white supremacy, sexism, and anti-blackness that led to this young person’s death?” On March 17, the opening day of the Whitney Biennial, dozens of protesters took turns standing in front of Schutz’s work to block it from view. But the catalyst that launched the controversy from the art world into the slightly larger realm of social media infamy was an open letter penned by the artist Hannah Black, posted to Facebook (and since deleted) early last week, summarizing her critical and ideological objections to the work. Deeming it exploitative, she called for the painting to be both removed from the museum as well as destroyed to ensure its removal from the market. The ensuing controversy has dwelt on Black’s proposal for censorship almost more than on the nature of Schutz’s work itself.

But the failures of “Open Casket” and the problems with its inclusion in the biennial shouldn’t be reduced to the artist’s whiteness. Schutz is a painter who likes pushing boundaries; her canvases are full of auto-cannibalism, mauling lions, and bloody afterbirth. They tackle gross and gory imagery with enthusiastic brushwork and colorful ambiguity. Her figures are both cubist and cartoonish, evidence of an earnest imagination at work. And she has long used politics and current events as abstracted points of departure for her art. Inspired by the spectacle of Michael Jackson’s criminal trial, she painted the pop star into an imaginary autopsy scene, four years before he actually died. It’s exactly this fanciful artistic style that makes her portrayal of Emmett Till’s very real mangled body so questionable.

Some critics have pointed to another work in the biennial—Henry Taylor’s “The Times They Ain’t a Changing Fast Enough!,” which portrays the death of Philando Castile—as a counterpoint to Schutz’s painting, suggesting that it’s successful primarily because Taylor is a black man. But this line of criticism is missing the point. Taylor has spent decades painting contemporary American life, and his approach is both autobiographical as well as acutely historically aware. His painting is a measured rendering of violence; his contrast between the timid fragment of the gun-wielding officer and the prostrate body of Castile is a sharp meditation on the dynamics of power and fear—and thus on police brutality and black casualties in general. This kind of political statement is plainly not evident—or even intended, for that matter—in Schutz’s phantasmagoric rendering of “Open Casket.” The modeled surface and whirling multicolor of Till’s disfigured face are consistent with her recipe for fictional dismemberment, which is present in much of her work and feels unconnected to the immense historical weight and significance of this particular subject.

So the problem with “Open Casket” has less to do with Schutz’s race than with the substance and style of the painting itself. One of the most moving artworks I have seen about the legacy of Emmett Till, “Standing at the grave of Emmett Till, day of exhumation, June 1st, 2005 (Alsip, IL),” was actually made by a white artist, Jason Lazarus. There is an immense sadness to this desolate photo of the cemetery where Till is buried; it’s powerful because its dingy bleakness captures the sense that that all these years have passed and yet Till is still here, nearly forgotten.