Culture  /  Art History

Dana Schutz’s ‘Open Casket’

Should white artists be allowed to depict black suffering?
Painting "Open Casket" by Dana Schultz
Dana Schutz

In 1989, John Ahearn, a white artist living in the South Bronx, cast a group of local black and Latino people for a series of bronze sculptures commissioned by the city for an intersection outside a police station. As his models, he chose a drug addict, a hustler and a street kid. Ahearn thought that he was paying them homage, restoring the humanity of people who were often vilified in American society. His models found the work flattering, but some members of the community felt that he ought to have depicted more ‘positive’ representatives, while others were insulted that a white artist had been given such a commission in the first place, since only a genuine local – a black or Latino artist – had the right to represent the community. Ahearn eventually removed the sculptures. ‘The issues were too hot for dialogue,’ he reflected later. ‘The critics said that people in the community have a right to positive images that their children can look up to. I agree that the installation did not serve that purpose.’

Jane Kramer wrote about Ahearn in the New Yorker, and later expanded her piece into a short book, Whose Art Is It? I was reminded of Kramer’s book, and the questions it raises about the frictions between artistic freedom and cultural ownership, by the controversy surrounding the work of another white artist, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a painting based on the iconic photographs of Emmett Till in his coffin. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman; his killers were acquitted. His mother insisted on the photographs of his body being published as evidence of the horror inflicted on her son. Schutz’s painting, on display at the Whitney Biennial, has raised accusations of racially insensitive exploitation, and prompted a silent protest at the museum, as well as a petition that the work be removed and even destroyed.

Schutz’s critics accuse her, first, of aestheticising atrocity in an offensive and insensitive way. ‘Where the photographs stood for a plain and universal photographic truth,’ Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye argue in the New Republic, ‘Schutz has blurred the reality of Till’s death, infusing it with subjectivity.’ But ‘aestheticise’ is precisely what painters can’t help but do when they paint from photographs; think of Gerhard Richter’s paintings of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists who died in police custody, or of Picasso’s Guernica. It may be impossible for a painting of an atrocity not to ‘aestheticise’ horror. The charge could be levelled at a painting of another racist atrocity at the Whitney Biennial, Henry Taylor’s depiction of the death of Philando Castile, who was killed in his car by a Minnesota police officer last July. But Taylor, unlike Schutz, is black.