When American artist Dana Schutz decided to paint the mutilated face of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched by two white men in 1955, she said she intended to convey the universal horror of the murder and acknowledge the country’s lingering racism.
But her painting, “Open Casket,” on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of the museum’s 2017 biennial exhibition, has drawn swift condemnation and protest from a growing number of artists and observers, who say that the painting by a white artist represents nothing more than the exploitation of an excruciating and defining moment in African-American history.
Schutz addressed the mounting controversy in an interview Thursday with Artnet news, acknowledging that “it’s a problematic painting and I knew that getting into it.”
The artist, born in 1976, made the work in response to a slew of shootings of black men by police during the summer of 2016, she said. “The photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous to the time,” she said.
Emmett was kidnapped and killed after a white cashier accused him of flirting with her (decades later, she recanted her claim). His death, and his mother’s decision to leave his horrifically disfigured face exposed at his funeral, was a powerful catalyst for the civil rights movement.
And that history simply doesn’t belong to Schutz, said British-born black artist Hannah Black in an emphatic open letter to the Whitney biennial’s curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew. The letter, co-signed by more than 25 artists of color, argues that the painting should not only be removed from the exhibition, but destroyed.
“The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about black people, because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time,” Black wrote.
Since the biennial’s public opening Friday, a small group of protesters led by African-American artist Parker Bright have stationed themselves in front of the painting to partially block it from view.
In a statement, the biennial’s curators stood by Schutz’s work:
“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. Many artists in the exhibition push in on these issues, seeking empathetic connections in an especially divisive time.’