#representation #WhitneyMuseum #EmmettTill #DanaSchutz #MartinBerger #race #civilrights
So much hinges on the question of audience. Who is presumed to engage with artwork, and on what terms? In the museum, people of color so often feel that we are not the intended audience. The hurt that we experience on realizing that disconnect—that we are here for art but art is not necessarily here for us—has now been made starkly evident by a clumsy gesture that instigated so much debate that it seems to overpower any other conversation. This is a feeling we expect to get at the Whitney Biennial on a regular basis, and it is why so many people were negatively affected simply by the image of the painting as it circulated around the internet. It’s all the more frustrating when one stands before the painting, feeling the weakness of its impact and the pull of the other artists’ works around it.
Perhaps what surprises most about seeing the painting in person is how small it is. Henry Taylor’s Ancestors of Genghis Khan with Black Man on Horse (2015–2017), on the sixth-floor landing, is many times its size. Nearly obscured in a back corner of a fifth-floor gallery, the now-infamous painting of Emmett Till does not scream for attention the way Dana Schutz’s other paintings on the fifth floor do. If anything, it is not sensational enough—not visceral enough, not cruel enough to do justice to its subject. On a large and busy floor, featuring a dizzying vortex by Samara Golden, Pope L.’s oozing bologna slices, a 3D film by Anicka Yi, and works using the institution to illustrate the operations of capital, from Occupy Museums and Cameron Rowland, the painting seems an ancillary work in the curatorial argument. This is perhaps the biggest indictment, this and its utter lack of resolution. Above these galleries hang several luxurious handmade banners by Cauleen Smith. “Rage blooms within me,” they proclaim. “I am holding my breath.” “We were never meant to survive.” Maya Stovall’s four videos of public performances in the streets of Detroit hang adjacent to the painting. In them, people of color talk about their experiences and their dreams. It is possible to hear their voices while looking directly at the painting of Emmett Till.
Looking at the painting is difficult. The obvious challenge is the subject matter, and how it clashes unnervingly with the candy-like color scheme. Neo-Expressionism’s blend of grotesque and provocative subject matter, combined with the media-saturated palette of Pop Art, makes a style particularly ill-suited for rendering an image of raw horror. Certainly the effect seems facile—if not exactly glib, then more ambivalent and anxious than the subject warrants. Critics of the painting have charged that it violates an innate truth carried in the original photograph. What is that truth, and is it inviolable? Or does it shift based on its framing, what is seen and what is unseen? What does a painting of Emmett Till in his casket need to show us?
Historian Martin Berger has written in Seeing Through Race of how White media of the 1960s suppressed the circulation of the image of Till in his casket. “Given the importance of the Till murder to the history of civil rights, and the absence of visual representations of the boy’s suffering in the white press,” writes Berger, “analysis of the coverage of his death provides insights into the complex symbolic work that black children performed in the white imagination.” For Berger, “the modern civil rights movement was grounded on the unrepresented body of a black child,” namely Till, whose absence from the covers of mainstream newspapers indicated that “the idea of suffering black children was of greater interest to whites than visual evidence of their plight.” [emphasis his] Berger argues that White progressives’ inability to see Till as both a child and a visual manifestation of the everyday horror of White supremacy has hobbled efforts to improve social conditions for African Americans since the civil-rights era. His point is underscored by the similar rhetoric employed around the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, nearly sixty years later. In both cases, Black youths were described as “men,” their physical and sexual maturity greatly exaggerated, as a means of engendering public sympathy for the White men who committed the acts of killing.
In an interview with artnet, Schutz defended her painting: “It was the feeling of understanding and sharing the pain, the horror” that she sought to capture with Open Casket. In the New York Times, she said, “My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” To artnet: “I could never, ever know her experience, but I know what it is to love your child.” From Schutz’s perspective as a White woman, her recognition of Till as a child deserving of a mother’s care is a radical rethinking of the traditional relationship between White female and Black male. Disinclined to identify with Till’s accuser, Carolyn Bryant, Schutz’s empathy for the young Black men murdered in contemporary America prompts her to imagine herself as Mamie Till Bradley. Her painting—a methodical exercise of studying Till’s mutilated face and caressing it into existence through the slow buildup of paint—demonstrates the limits of that empathy as a tool for connection. Berger again: “When a focus on the innocent and helpless precludes attention to and sympathy for the politically active and strong, then sympathy for kids becomes part of the racial problem […] In highlighting white concern for Till or the children of the Birmingham campaign, we risk overlooking the significant limitations of white empathy.” Here Schutz can see only herself, imagining the experience of joy and pain that is Black motherhood. She cannot see the truth of what she imagines, so enamored is she of her own capacity to empathize. Schutz to artnet: “I always had issues with making this painting, everything about it. And it is still uncertain for me.” What artist of color would dare to put a work so unresolved on public display, let alone be invited to do so in a major museum? What artist of color would have so little to say and yet stand so firm in her assertion that she ought to speak, and be heard?
Some critics of the painting have faulted the biennial’s curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, for racial insensitivity in including this work. It is an ironic charge for two Asian American curators who for the first time lead the biennial team without a White colleague. Is it a tone-deaf choice? Possibly. Is it intended to foreclose dialogue around race, or to provoke it? Speaking to artnet, Lew described his intention to address questions of race head-on in the exhibition: “We spend our everyday lives skirting around these issues, but they’re really built into the show—we’re not running away from these discussions.” Asian Americans, though hardly a homogenous group or evenly represented in the art world, frequently find themselves awash in racial nuance when debates turn black-and-white.
Even the controversial call to destroy Schutz’s painting, issued by artist Hannah Black in an open letter, is anticipated in the biennial. The presentation of Frances Stark’s paintings, which employ text appropriated from the writings of musician Ian Svenonius, constitutes a vigorous defense of censorship on grounds of its necessity in equalizing political representation in cultural spaces, much as Black suggests. One wonders whether Black, a Berlin-based artist of Black and Jewish heritage, saw Open Casket in its 2016 debut at CFA in Berlin, as Lew did, and whether the work could have been read differently there given Schutz’s own Jewish background. What role Schutz’s painting was intended to play in the biennial’s racial dialogue is unclear, although it represents the lone instance of a White artist attempting to wrestle directly with questions of race. If the curators thought they would balance the scales by including Open Casket, thereby showing that White artists were open to engagement with racial issues, they blundered by neglecting to recognize that a White artist’s engagement must be with the racial imaginary of Whiteness in order to matter. That complicated and ugly construct is one that few Americans of any race are well equipped to dismantle.What does a painting of Emmett Till in his casket need to show us? How racial violence is a socialized, not an anti-social, behavior pattern for Whites. How the dismembered must be put together into perfect victims or else their bodily integrity is inferred to have been provisional, if they were ever endowed with that integrity to begin with. “Abjection” is shorthand for how the parts of a Black body never quite resolve into a human view. Schutz’s painting would have to explore the uncanny, where like and unlike collide in a deeply unsettling way. She would have to position herself deliberately, not as a casual spectator at Till’s funeral, but as a purposeful witness. She would have to make explicit the task of allowing Till to be a child—not a man, not a monster, and not a symbol. To be uncertain about racial violence is a privilege. To be affronted by racial violence is a human imperative. Schutz pulls her punches in Open Casket. Too gentle to reenact the violence of Till’s murder with her brush, she shows us instead what it is like to look endlessly and still never truly see.
The 2017 Whitney Biennial is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through June 11, 2017.
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