On Dana Schutz and the Culture of America

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Photo: Open Casket, Dana Schutz

By Leslie Lyons 

Does any one of us ever really know another person? Whether through intimacy or the social construct of a justice system, can the motivation of any one living soul really be determined without they, themselves, offering a reasonable explanation?  If available, can such an explanation even be trusted; not in terms of an intentional deception but because there is also the question of whether we ever truly know ourselves? The gifted German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, said “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings, infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”

The American painter, Dana Schutz, is being presented in the current Whitney Biennial of American Art with several paintings but one, Open Casket, offering an expressionistic rendering of the mutilated face of Emmett Till from 1955, is causing some to call not only for its removal from the exhibition but for it to be destroyed. The painting references the shocking photographic portrait of Emmett who was brutally beaten and lynched when he was 14-years-old for allegedly flirting with a White woman in Mississippi. Emmett’s mother chose to have an open casket at his funeral to flip the narrative of horrific images of murdered Black bodies being used to instill fear in other Black bodies.  Instead, the imagery of Emmett’s unrecognizable face that was revealed to the world reignited the Civil Rights Movement. But Emmett’s murderers were acquitted and even as recently as this year, his accuser admitted to falsely reporting the incident.

Open Casket is a crushing reminder of the horror that is racism in America of the past while it is inextricably linked to the horrors that still exist. The issue at hand is whether this White artist has appropriated Emmett Till’s narrative for her own personal gain and whether it’s even appropriate for her to consider this narrative as her own. The very culture of the country, racism within our past and present, and ownership of that culture, as well as responsibility to it, are being used as divisive lines drawn in the sand, mud, sweat, blood and tears of our shared history.  My brothers and sisters, is this our shared history or is it not? Have we not owned Dr. King’s words, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere?’ And is it not the job of any artist to bring forth that which will either begin or continue or force this conversation to the end goal of understanding racism as our shared history? Is it not more valuable that this painting remains on display and, perhaps, cause us to say out loud and to each other, ‘Yes, for the love of God, the years are short and we have come not so far but hardly anywhere at all? That current police brutality and institutionalized racism is the same thing as what happened to Emmett Till is the same thing which has carried over from our unfortunate beginnings as a country?’ It’s not as if a Black artist painted the same painting and this one was chosen instead.  There are Black artists represented in the Biennial (we can always argue the percentages) but this argument is about this painting, is about this conversation, is about this American culture. The fact remains that there are many White people – even ones who attend contemporary art shows like the Whitney Biennial – who need to see this painting and be confronted with this narrative.

In activist, scholar and writer, Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class, she references Angelina Grimke, one of the only Southern, White women to be part of the abolition movement and specifically quotes Grimke when she speaks out to unify the Black Liberation and Women’s Liberation movements –

I feel that the iron has entered into our souls. True, we have not felt the slaveholder’s lash! True we have not had our hands manacled, but our hearts have been crushed … The nation is in a death-struggle.  It must either become one vast slaveocracy of petty tyrants or wholly the land of the free.

White privilege is something that is both exploited willfully and also subversively acted upon mindlessly. But because the latter is more difficult and insidious to call out and dismantle, does it make us even more untrusting and untrustworthy? Does it make us see each other as less whole and against a darkened sky? Does it keep us from seeing each other as ‘ourselves?’

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