a timeline of the dana schutz emmett till painting controversy

A painting at the Whitney Biennial has sparked a fierce debate about race and cultural ownership.

by Jo Rosenthal
23 March 2017, 7:36pm

The 2017 Whitney Biennial, the first to take place at the museum's new headquarters, has been praised as a "generational shift" by The New York Times. But a work included in the show has also re-ignited controversies about race and representation in contemporary art.

This week, protesters, critics, and artists are voicing their concerns about a painting based on a photograph of the funeral of Emmett Till, an African-American boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955, at the age of 14, after he had been falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. Till's mother insisted on having an open casket funeral so that people could see the brutality of her son's lynching and the horrific reality of American racism. The press images of Till's mutilated body, along with the fact that his murderers were subsequently acquitted, are often credited as having helped to galvanize the Civil Rights movement in the US. Dana Schutz's medium-sized abstract oil on canvas painting, Open Casket, depicts Till's face and chest in his coffin.

The controversy.
While some were impressed with the work, many believe its presence in the show is offensive and an exploitative representation of black suffering. Since its debut, a rising tide of critics and artists have called for its removal from the show, and ultimately its destruction. The central issue: whether or not a white artist is appropriating a fatal trauma experienced by a black youth for her personal practice and potential profit.

The artist. 
Dana Schutz (born 1976) is an American artist who lives and works in Brooklyn. She is best known for her gestural paintings take on people and situations both real and imagined. In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, Schutz said that she will often try to "capture what it's like to experience multitudes of contradictory things happening simultaneously" and construct her paintings accordingly.

The protest. 
A small-scale protest organized by the artist Parker Bright took place last Friday, when the Biennial first opened to the public. A group of five or six people stood in front of Schutz's painting for hours, blocking it from view until the museum closed for the day. Bright wore a shirt that said "black death spectacle" as he stood in front of the piece. He has peacefully protested in front of the piece multiple times. Bright met with both curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks on Tuesday. Though they were unable to arrive at a resolution, Bright said in a video posted on his Facebook page that the conversation was "very constructive."

Berlin-based artist Hannah Black also launched a campaign, demanding that the Biennial curators remove Schutz's painting from the show and calling for the work's destruction. The open letter was signed by over 30 people including Kimberly Drew, Chrissy Etienne and Hamishi Farah. You can read Black's open letter here.

Aria Dean, the assistant curator of net art at Rhizome, wrote in a Facebook post on the 21st that "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." She, among many others, urges that the painting be taken down and destroyed.

Pastiche Lumumba, a New York-based artist and friend of Parker Bright told Hyperallergic, "There's a history of white people taking pictures of lynchings. In 2017, for us to have a white woman painting that image with no context… that's a grossly deficient way of using one's privilege."

i-D has reached out to Parker Bright for comment.

The Whitney's response.
The curators of the Whitney Biennial, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, released the following statement on Tuesday after numerous complaints about the painting:

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.

Dana Schutz's response.
Artnet News reached out to Schutz for her response to the controversy and in an interview published Thursday, she talks about the genesis of the painting, the issues surrounding it, and how she is dealing with the wide-spread negativity. Schutz said that the painting will not be for sale and that it has completely changed the course of her future artistic endeavors. "The anger surrounding this painting is real and I understand that," she says. "It's a problematic painting and I knew that getting into it. I do think that it is better to try to engage something extremely uncomfortable, maybe impossible, and fail, than to not respond at all."

An open letter asking for the work to be removed.
Late on Thursday morning, an open letter, supposedly written by Schutz, was sent to the Biennial's curators urging them to remove the piece. The author wrote, "out of continued respect for those harmed by the work, I ask that the catalog and the press in the future and retroactively remove all images of the work from circulation, and replace it with images of the work's subsequent protest."

Dana Schutz reportedly did not write the open letter. 
Director of Communications at the Whitney, Stephen Soba, wrote in an email to New York Magazine's The Cut on Thursday that the circulating email was not in fact written by Dana Schutz in a quote saying that Schutz "did not write it and did not know anything about it." Throughout the week, Schutz and the Biennial's curators have been defending the painting's presence in the museum.

i-D has reached out to The Whitney Museum for comment and will update this post as more information comes in.


Text Jo Rosenthal
Image via Twitter

Whitney Biennial
Emmett Till
dana schutz