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Airing it Out: Issues of Race and Authorship in the 2017 Whitney Biennial

by Joshua Peters

Sitting in front of a few dozen drawings and paintings a Black woman I was very close to said tenderly through tears that I needed to stop. I'm paraphrasing here, as this was in the 90's; she went on to tell me that the White art world wasn't going to accept how my work was dedicated to including people of color and issues of race in America. She also believed Black people weren't going to accept my voice in the chorus for social change. She wanted to give me permission to just stop. On that day, roughly 20 years ago, based on what the world had taught her about race, opportunity and understanding she saw a hard road ahead if I didn’t change. She really cared for me and thought I'd be more successful or perhaps less frustrated if I just did what the art world and music and Hollywood had always done and skirted around the issue of race, of White (ness) and Black(ness). These aren't my natural born issues; still paraphrasing, she said: “Let it go.”

So, in the din of press and media covering the Whitney Biennial, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till and the curators who included it, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, I say to you as tenderly as I said then to that wonderfully thoughtful caring person – “No.”

So, what qualifies one to publish, appropriate or create images that include Black people?

African-American artist, Parker Bright, said in his Facebook Live video of his protest:  "I feel like she doesn’t have the privilege to speak for black people as a whole or for Emmett Till’s family," (NYT March 21, 2017).  Now I can no more speak for Dana Schutz than she could speak for Black people or Till or his family. But I see two great gaps in logic in this statement from Bright. First, images of Black people are only to be produced by Black people. And that if a non-Black person crosses that line he or she is presuming to speak for Black People.  Now the narratives in both American history and the art world have sought to control or exclude any narratives about people of color and the poor for centuries. I see a genuine need to keep a vigilant eye on how the modern narratives are formulating. I think modes of protest and/or “clap back” artwork make perfect sense and my hat is off to Mr. Bright (and others) who took immediate action and helped bring light to the developing narratives at the Whitney Biennial. What I take issue with was Bright “pre-disqualifying” Schutz based on her race. The truth? I think that the painting is callous, conceptually weak and it made me angry straight off. But let’s evaluate the issues in our protest and posts rather than attacking the identity (racial or otherwise) of the maker. Now, I’m not invoking Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high!”  I just wonder tactically and logically if we want to see Black artists and faces in the Whitney and specifically the Biennial, how does attacking Schutz based on her race get that done? I want to see more of both. I’m going to go after the work.

Dana Schutz  Open Casket  from the Whitney Biennial 2017 and detail.

Dana Schutz Open Casket from the Whitney Biennial 2017 and detail.

A Formalized History of Violence

The image of young Emmett Till brutalized and in his coffin is a charged image to most.  Is that specific image one that Schutz had the right to appropriate?  Since Emmett Till’s mother did choose to have an open casket and the media was able to print that picture I would assert the photograph became a rallying point for the civil rights movement and slid into our shared Black AND White American history. Unfortunately, Emmett Till, a victim of heinous brutality, will be forever tied (historically) to his assailants.   And although I wouldn't claim ANY kinship to the two animals acquitted of his disfigurement and murder, as a White male I carry the associations with or comparisons to those filths. Because of the nature of power structures in and out of museums my association with them pales psychologically by comparison to the trauma this lynching must have wrought and still afflicts Black people. But the trauma is shared because the history is shared and the victimized and victimizer are BOTH keepers of it. To the question of "is this history Dana Schutz's to mine?" I say it can be, if done responsibly.  Biennial protestor and artist Bright asserts Schutz can't speak for Till, Till’s family or Black people. That I agree with. But she has the right or "privilege" to deal with issues of race, racial harmony from HER (White) perspective. She could possibly be a speaker for White people, or White women or mothers of the world (the latter is what Schutz flimsily has asserted). And although Bright’s opinions may represent many Black people’s opinion of the work in question they don’t represent all opinions (See Kara Walker’s IG), I wonder if this conversation can be removed from MONOLITHIC White paradigms and MONOLITHIC Black paradigms, or if either side is interested in that? Schutz might be best served by speaking just for herself as she relates to the image. And since she seems to ONLY relate to the image of Till in at best a formal way or at worst as a provocateur, maybe, just maybe, she should have edited herself and found another image to work from.

Dana Schutz's  The Autopsy of Michael Jackson . Via the Blog Oly's Musings

Dana Schutz's The Autopsy of Michael Jackson. Via the Blog Oly's Musings


If that sounds harsh it might be good to read how Schutz’s work was described by Sarah P Hanson in a New York Times Article in 2015

“Ask Dana Schutz, as a reasonable person might, why she painted a man eating his own face — or a gyrating woman simultaneously cooking and urinating in her kitchen, or the autopsy of Michael Jackson, four years prior to his actual death — and her guileless reply often boils down to some variation on: “I wanted to see if I could.” Though she frames these assays as essentially formal challenges, skirmishes between painter and paint, Schutz’s imagination has given rise to some of the most memorably skewed canvases of the past 15 years”

This is proof that she herself was willing and essentially amused by the mutilation of a Black man in work proceeding Open Casket” and that one could expect her to do so, to paraphrase Hanson: “ON A LARK.” Jason Willome, artist and Art Professor at the University of Texas San Antonio had this to say:

Schutz's attitude towards her subjects is typically irreverent, or at least ambivalent, so it's hard to buy her story that she is approaching the image through an attempt to sympathize with Ms. Till as a mother. I don't think that comes across at all. If that was her intention another image would have made more sense. All that gorgeous paint just becomes gross in the context of her other work. I find it cynical and disrespectful to treat an image like that as a mere stimulus, without any reflection upon its context and larger meaning.

I tend to agree with this critique of Schutz and the record of her work in total. On a personal side note: if this painting were painted by a Black person I would still dislike it for the way in which it is painted - the abstraction of the source material and the formal qualities of how the paint is applied are reductive and detract from the original photo's power and politic. If we compare Schutz's Casket” painting to Warhol's Race Riot screen print paintings from 1964 I think we see a scenario where a painting can lean towards formal concerns but simultaneously be timely and through its repetition attempt to MAGNIFY the importance of that moment. To me Warhol's Race Riot reads as "Pay attention to what's happening! This is happening now. This violence on people standing up for civil rights is happening over and over." And Warhol was White.

Installation view of ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964, with Race Riot and Pink Race Riot, both 1963  Photo: Gene Pittman

Installation view of ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters, 1962–1964, with Race Riot and Pink Race Riot, both 1963

Photo: Gene Pittman


What is Schutz saying in Casket”? What might have been communicated if Schutz started making dozens of miniature oil paintings and painstakingly took up photorealism to help mark 400 hours of reproducing the image of Till over and over again like a monk dedicating himself to relearning painting and expressing fidelity to the subject matter? Listen, that’s just how I might go about it. But I hope to make the point that the "how” is as important as the “why” when images of this type, with all their shared history and pain, are used and re-presented to the public. Can Schutz invoke her (White) privilege to bring this image Casket into the public space without considering how HER biography, modes of production and style might offend? I think failing to consider THAT is offensive.  Antwuan Sargent in his article Unpacking the Firestorm around the Whitney Biennial Black Death Spectacle suggests maybe the names if Emmett Till’s assailants or their likeness (perhaps reduced in the manner in the manner Schutz did Till) might have been better directions for Schutz. As a critique, I took this to heart and would like to tell Mr. Sargent I read this and was listening, Sir. Thank you.

From a Good Place: Subverting the Politics of the Other

Hannah Black, an artist and writer who lives in Berlin and was born in London had a more extreme critique of Schutz’s work. She asserted via social media and started a petition to demand the painting should be destroyed. That petition has been amended to dis-include all White artists and Museum workers who had signed it before being taken down altogether. I am against censoring artists and any call or petition to destroy creative work - songs, writings, sculptures, paintings, photographs or other modes of artistic production. I am for DIALOGUE and even powerfully emotional discourses that have the goal of expressing an opinion AND at their heart a search for understanding. I do not dismiss Hannah Black’s emotion or her rallying / enlisting her community to speak out on the inclusion of Casket in the Biennial. I take issue with her call to destroy the work. Additionally, people are too concerned, in this author’s opinion, with what money or cachet Schutz might receive for this artwork.  She is already on the inside, she already has cachet as she has been included in the Biennial and likely gets paid handsomely for what she does. Can one really strip her of her voice, income or platform?  Build your own!

At last that brings me to the fake letter purported to be written by Dana Schutz that made the news cycle yesterday. Part of this letter explained in detail how its author thought the Casket painting should be sold or not, and how Schutz would pay reparations for the painting and amendments to the catalog:

I now join them in calling for the immediate removal of Open Casket.  I have already promised the work will never be for sale, and I will also promise to make it impossible for the work to re-enter the public sphere. I also plan to redirect all funds from the sales of my other paintings included in the Biennial towards the Black liberation movement.  Finally, 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.

At the time, I am writing this I am under the impression that the author of that letter is still unknown. What is known is someone turned cultural appropriation on its head taking it a step further to become impersonation!  Literally speaking "for the other."  This is an ingenious mode of subverting a history rife with people overstepping and speaking for large groups of others - be they men speaking for women, White speaking for Black, etc. This turns the idea of cultural appropriation on its head! By using the anonymity of the digital space, someone was able (before scrutiny and before Schutz had wind of it) to purport to speak in her voice. I can just imagine the person hitting the send button on the computer saying "Alright, see how it feels Dana!" in a world with terms like "fake news" and "alternative facts" the power and timeliness of this interaction with the politics of identity, media and perception is mind-blowing.

White Privilege – Ultimately I am Dana Schutz

I never have ever spoken for Black people. And similarly, I do not speak for a great White monolith. I'm just one person with a specific perspective. I have spoken from my perspective about my peers and our shared concerns. I don't feel or represent that in my work the way that they would feel or act. I feel what I feel, make what I'm compelled to make, and will continue to push hard to include an ever-growing GLOBAL set of people and concerns in my work and see that simultaneously the world is filled with more empathy and justice.

You might have no choice about carrying your specific racial identity around with you. And to you out there feeling the weight of that and perhaps social stigma from that or from your religious convictions or if you are worried ICE is around the corner because of your national origin, I owe you an apology. The thing is, two years into the Obama administration I started to really believe we might be entering a "post-racial" period in American history and I turned my focus to issues of gender and masculinity in my production and for the most part stopped dealing with race as my primary impetus for art production. THAT is perhaps the truest kind of White privilege. I got tired. Tired, I put the yoke down. Because I am White. I don't have to carry it, right? To my allies, I admit I got to a point where I was wondering if the racial nature of my work might be keeping me out of (Black and White) gallery spaces. Could I “broaden” the scope of my work to more universal topics or what I thought were broader perspectives? Well, I'm clocking back in. “45” is president. Synagogues are being threatened with bombs, dozens of little Black girls in DC are going missing, Muslims are being persecuted and daily we are seeing legislation coming down the pike meant to break lower income and underserved communities (looking at you poor Whites).

I approach every painting I do that isn't a self-portrait (and even some of them) AS AN OUTSIDER. Looking in, searching for understanding, hoping for truth and if I get it even close to right or you can say "amen" to it, I am pleased.


Harold Branch III sitting in front of his portrait painted by the author in 2000.