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Open Casket is deeply flawed but should remain on view

Written by
Howard Halle

What’s a Whitney Biennial without controversy? Actually, this year’s edition seemed too well behaved to generate one, but indeed it has, and the work at the center of the outrage is having a busy news day.

The mishegas involves a painting by artist Dana Schutz titled Open Casket, which portrays Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for flirting with a white woman, one Carolyn Bryant Donham. (Just this February, she recanted the accusation that led to Till’s murder.) In addition to stringing up Till, his killers mutilated his body, a monstrous crime for which they were acquitted by an all-white jury.

Schutz, who is white, portrays Till in his casket, focusing on his head and torso from directly overhead. Till is dressed in a suit and Schutz renders his disfigured features in abstract brushstrokes. The image has raised a hue and cry: A letter signed by 25 black artists has been sent to the Whitney demanding that the painting be taken down and destroyed for cashing in on the suffering of African-Americans. Protestors also attempted to block the painting from viewers during a demonstration at the museum.

Schutz has defended the work by saying that it was meant to empathize with Till’s mother, and that, in any case, it wasn’t for sale (you have to wonder, though, whether or not that decision was made after the commotion). This morning, a letter purportedly by Schutz circulated on Facebook; in it, she writes that Open Casket is being taken down. Almost immediately, the Whitney released a statement saying the letter was a fake.

So what to make of this, aside from noting the intractability of race in this country? As a critic, I’m no fan of censorship of any kind. Schutz, as far as I’m concerned, should be allowed to paint what she wants, but she should also be prepared to deal with whatever blowback follows. My objection to Open Casket is that it aestheticizes a tragedy and empties out its meaning—due mostly to the fact that Schutz uses Till’s mangled face as an opportunity for bravura brushwork. She borrows liberally from the work of Francis Bacon, while leaving out its emotional resonance. Open Casket is essentially a formalist exercise trafficking in historical horror.

Bear in mind that Schutz isn’t being accused of racism but something a bit more nuanced if no less thorny: White obliviousness. One can argue that a white person presuming to channel African-American pain isn’t quite as lethal as a white person actually inflicting pain on a black body as part of a bloodthirsty mob, but despite that seeming like progress, it’s just as problematic in its own way.

So do I think that the painting should be taken down, let alone consigned to the pyre? Call it a sign of my own white obliviousness, but no, I do not. Do I think that, as a matter of getting out from under the controversy, Schutz and the Whitney would be well advised to remove it from the show? I’m going to punt here and say that’s up to them, but I suspect that they now feel painted (no pun intended) into a corner of having to stand up to censorship—which, make no mistake, is exactly what the calls for Open Casket's destruction entail. Ultimately, there’s no good decision to be made here. Ain’t America great?

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