A painting by a white artist of Emmett Till that has been featured at this year's Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York has drawn protest from black artists, who have called for it to be taken down.
The painting, by artist Dana Schutz, is called Open Casket. It depicts the mutilated face and body of Till, a 14-year-old boy who was murdered in 1955 in Mississippi after being accused of flirting with a white woman. The piece is inspired by the now-iconic press images from Till's funeral, where his mother insisted on having an open casket.
On the first day the Biennial was open to the public, a small group of protesters stood in front of the painting to block other museum visitors from viewing it. Parker Bright, one of the protesters, told the Guardian that "many in the black art community are upset by the work," adding that he chose to protest that day "to confront people with a living, breathing black body."
Hannah Black, a Berlin-based artist, launched a campaign to have the painting both removed and destroyed. In an open letter to the Whitney, Black wrote that Open Casket "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."
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.
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.
The Whitney defended the inclusion of the painting, telling artnet news, "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." The museum called the painting "an unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African Americans."
Schutz herself told The Guardian that the painting would not be for sale. “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," she wrote the paper. "Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension…it is easy for artists to self-censor, to convince yourself to not make something before you even try. There were many reasons why I could not, should not, make this painting … (but) art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection.”