At the Whitney Biennal last spring, protestors made headlines when they demanded that the museum destroy an artwork they found offensive. The protesters didn’t want the painting removed from the Biennial, they wanted it destroyed. The painting by Dana Schutz, Open Casket, is based on a well-known photograph of Emmett Till in his coffin. Till was an African American who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955. Till’s mother insisted that her son’s casket remain open during the funeral in spite of, or because of, her son’s horrifying wounds.
One protester demonstrated in front of the painting wearing a tee-shirt with BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE printed on it. Others published an open letter demanding that the offending painting be destroyed.
The protesters are offended, they say, that a white artist (the unlucky Schutz is white) painted a ‘black’ subject. They’re so offended that merely removing the despised object is not enough to sooth the offense–they want it destroyed.
Why such a violent reaction? Clearly, the artist is not trying to mock the event. Schutz’ style is a combination of cartoons and graffiti which, in this case, imparts a crude and grotesque quality. Regardless of the artist’s intentions (she wrote that as a mother she identified with Till’s mother), the impression is not one of sympathy or empathy.
The protesters claim the painting is exploitative. While I disagree with them, it’s clear that the painting is about Schutz and not Till. To artists like Schutz, everything is grist for the biographical or anthropological mill and this is just another example–why the fuss? People care intensely about art’s subject matter. This never occurred to Schutz? Her manner denudes her of cover and highlights the superficiality of the work. If someone created a painting about Till that rivaled, say, David’s Death of Marat, I doubt that there would be demands for the painting’s destruction.
In our post-modern times, subject matter is important even if only in a negative way. Most subjects are ground into cool, detached sausage. Everything that cannot fit into the sausage maker is kitsch. For the true sophisticate, ironic meta-kitsch, art about kitschy popular culture, is the highest achievement.
The only thing that stands outside the postmodern bubble is politics, which loops us back to the protestors. I have sympathy for those who look for art that addresses the human condition and who instinctively recoil from post-modern detachment. But I have no sympathy for the identity politics of the protestors. I’ve painted black subjects many times. Should I, as a white artist, destroy my portraits of Africans or African Americans? Should I turn away black collectors who want to buy my work and scold them for their insensitivity? This direction is very troubling to me.
Finally, the protester’s demand to destroy the painting makes my blood run cold and renders me completely unsympathetic to their cause. Schutz has every right to paint Open Casket. Destroy the painting? DESTROY it? To their credit, the Whitney did not remove the painting from the Biennial nor–heaven forbid!–destroy it.