To the curators and staff of the Whitney Biennial:
I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.
As you know, this painting depicts the dead body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the open casket that his mother chose, saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” That even the disfigured corpse of a child was not sufficient to move the white gaze from its habitual cold calculation is evident daily and in a myriad of ways, not least the fact that this painting exists at all. In brief: 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.
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.
Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a white woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture: the evidence of their collective lack of understanding is that Black people go on dying at the hands of white supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs, that Black children are still denied childhood. Even if Schutz has not been gifted with any real sensitivity to history, if Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.
Ongoing debates on the appropriation of Black culture by non-Black artists have highlighted the relation of these appropriations to the systematic oppression of Black communities in the US and worldwide, and, in a wider historical view, to the capitalist appropriation of the lives and bodies of Black people with which our present era began. Meanwhile, a similarly high-stakes conversation has been going on about the willingness of a largely non-Black media to share images and footage of Black people in torment and distress or even at the moment of death, evoking deeply shameful white American traditions such as the public lynching. Although derided by many white and white-affiliated critics as trivial and naive, discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode, with humility, clarity, humour and hope, given the barbaric realities of racial and gendered violence on which our lives are founded. I see no more important foundational consideration for art than this question, which otherwise dissolves into empty formalism or irony, into a pastime or a therapy.
The curators of the Whitney biennial surely agree, because they have staged a show in which Black life and anti-Black violence feature as themes, and been approvingly reviewed in major publications for doing so. Although it is possible that this inclusion means no more than that blackness is hot right now, driven into non-Black consciousness by prominent Black uprisings and struggles across the US and elsewhere, I choose to assume as much capacity for insight and sincerity in the biennial curators as I do in myself. Which is to say—we all make terrible mistakes sometimes, but through effort the more important thing could be how we move to make amends for them and what we learn in the process. The painting must go.
Thank you for reading.
Whitney ISP 2013–14
Co-signatories/with the support of:
Hannah Catherine Jones
Justin Francis Kennedy
Tiona Nekkia McClodden
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. Dana Schutz’s painting, Open Casket (2016), is an unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans. For many African Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance. By exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history and the history of race relations in this country. As curators of this exhibition we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.
I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother . . . Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.
A response to the responses to Hannah’s open letter and a general statement of opinions that are my own and that have been produced under the influence of others whose opinion I respect:
At this juncture in the quickly escalating shitstorm that is the art world’s responses 2017 Whitney Biennial – specifically to Dana Schutz’ painting “Open Casket” – it appears useful to respond to the disingenuous and hollow response provided by the Whitney Biennial curators, as well as to Dana Schutz’ short email statement and cobbled together comments that have appeared in the Guardian’s coverage of the issue – delightfully sparse commentary for someone who otherwise claims to have so much to say on the particular issue of the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till and thus on racial violence in America at large.
This should also serve to reiterate that while Hannah Black wrote the open letter that has been circulating, it was penned with the support of countless artists, writers, friends, etc. many of whom would collectively would like to make very clear that the letter was a concrete call to dispose of Schutz’ painting. This demand has yet to have been met or directly acknowledged.
To begin, Locks and Lew claim that 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.”
When it come to anti-blackness – the violence that many including myself would argue forms the fundamental antagonism of the history of the United States – black artists and non-artists have toiled to “bring to light” the racist conditions of the United States from the very moment we were forcibly brought to this country onward. Locks and Lew’s belief that they, as curators, have brought to light anything that hasn’t already been discussed outside of the institution’s walls, is naive or despicable, perhaps both. If they mean to speak specifically to the situation of the institution – museum and gallery spaces throughout New York and globally – where in their view these stories have not been heard, then still: they are naive or despicable, or again both – willfully unaware of the engineered and calculated absence of these stories and perspectives.
In the event that Locks and Lew mean to say that these are Important Issues to Confront in this “especially divisive time,” specifically in the space of a contemporary art biennial housed in an art institution, it is very curious that they would offer this space to the white painter Dana Schutz, and allow – presumably encourage – her to exhibit a painting of 14 yr old Emmett Till’s corpse. To quote a friend, ”it would be so much easier NOT to do that.”
It appears, from the curator’s statement and from Schutz’s brief email, that everyone involved thought this a worthwhile pursuit in the name of Empathy. The curators write: “many artists in the exhibition push in on these issues, seeking empathetic connections in an especially divisive time.”
Schutz, similarly, in her statement invoked motherhood, writing that as a mother she felt sympathetic to Mamie Till. “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America, but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.”
I am not a mother myself, so I may be speaking out of turn, but it is my understanding and my sense based on the experiences of my mother and my grandmothers and all of the black women who have mothered children or helped to nurture any black child at any stage of life, and my feeling as someone with even the vaguest potentiality of black motherhood (and furthermore black parents in general, fuck the invocation of motherhood to some degree, black fatherhood is plagued with these same worries) that the degree to which the murder of your child is incomprehensible to a white mother exists on a plane very distant from the way that possibility exists in the mind of a black mother. For the black mother, the possibility of violence and death for her black child is a reality, not a conceptual impossibility that might by horrific, unimaginable accident find its way to her doorstep.
The curators also write: “For many African Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance.” This part made me laugh. Because calling the effect that this image has – or has the capacity to have – on a black viewer “emotional resonance” is just laughable.
Again, I can only speak for myself, but growing up and going to American private and public schools I was shown this image on more than one occasion, in a classroom surrounded by mostly white classmates. This is not an “emotionally resonant” image. As a black child with a black brother , black cousins, and so on, this image was terrifying and an explicit warning. It was a warning of all that had happened before us and would or could happen after us, God forbid. Emmett Till’s corpse is not something that, as the curators write, “we all have to confront, regardless of race.” I have already confronted it, and continue to confront it in its many forms – those where the corpse is Till’s, those where another body takes his place. I already understand these images. We can argue about the power of painting, but I will confidently argue that no white person will look at this painting and feel anything close to what a black person feels when confronted with it. Likewise, I will argue that Dana Schutz’ time spent making it was time spent in the throes of a simulation of the sick, complicated eroticism of white violence against black bodies whether or not she admits it or has even given it thought.
Locks, Lew, and Schutz are on one level callous in their understanding of this image – they seem to be arguing that while Hannah and other black artists are angered by this, there are “African-Americans” out there who will thank the benevolent Whitney Biennial. This alone enforces some sort of evaluation of the authenticity of the black artists who have co-signed the letter, and stinks of a white savior mentality. Perhaps worse, through Locks, Lew, and Schutz’ responses, the curators and the artist have all displayed that they have a disturbing lack of understanding of the material that they are working with. Regardless of one’s position on the fate of the painting, to call this work “emotionally resonant” and leave it at that is straight up 100% dumb. To equate white motherhood, black motherhood and the fear that runs through each of them is violent and nothing else.
Finally, we’re again confronted with this ongoing and tiresome problem, where white and non-black people make symbolic gestures toward their supposed dedication to curbing antiblackness and overtly anti-black violence and refuse to do any work that has material impact on the lives of actual black people in this country. It’s very fun to paint a pretty picture and say it will help to solve racism. It is very fun to curate a Biennial that claims such political aspirations and revel in its controversy, having said little to nothing about the violence, racism, and death that you claim to be so interested in when it manifests outside of the institution’s walls. It is very fun to play tourist and dip your toe into the deep waters of the artistic, intellectual, political, and emotional work that has been done in the service of commenting on, surviving, and destroying the antiblackness that permeates every last nook and cranny of American civil society. It is very fun to become the center of controversy and fancy yourself transgressive. It is all very, very fun.
The demand remains: the painting must go.