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Isn’t a broader, more humane response to Dana Schutz’s painting in the Whitney Biennial called for?

In the face of polarization intensifying in reaction to globalization, we see evidence of this anti-inclusive impulse in political, religious, ethnic and cultural arenas. In the art world, the question of who owns a subject matter has again become a flash point in this move toward retaining and reestablishing borders and boundaries. When is a subject matter off limits? Is it the province of one person or group and not another?

Kara Walker encountered this reaction several years ago when African-American female artists of previous generations stated that she did not a have a right to the subject matter of slavery, being too far removed from it chronologically. Dana Schutz is encountering this question from the standpoint of race as a result of her painting of Emit Till from a famous/infamous photograph of his horribly disfigured face in his coffin. His mother had wanted the world to see the barbarity of his attackers and the almost unbelievable physical result of their hatred. That photograph had a deep effect at the time of Till’s death and convinced many, not able to view his coffin, that such racially motivated violence had to stop. The remembrance of that photograph, rekindled by Schutz’s painting has served as a benchmark, for those who know the photograph, to ask how far have we progressed since Till's death. For others it has brought Emit Till’s death back to life. A young guard at the Whitney, an African American, was not aware of Till until Schutz’s painting was hung in the Biennial.

The protesters against Schutz’s painting have a point in terms of exploitation and the fact that the painting could be sold to a private collector and thus commodify the image’s, and Till’s personal, legacy. Equally troubling is the historical practice of distributing images of lynchings and “sanctioned” hangings to subdue and demoralize African-Americans. In this case however, should the objection to the painting really be that a white person painted it? Should that be the point of contention? The fact that a mother could imagine and empathize with Till’s mother facing the horror of having an innocent son victimized by such deep-seated vitriol lying in wait for an outlet is terrifying and universal. What happened to Till happened in a specific place and time because he was black, he was the other. For us all to consider how far - and whether - society has progressed seems a positive thing to come from such a horrific killing. To resurrect that moment in time, with respect and compassion, and to hold it up as a mirror of reflection for us all, seems not only appropriate but essential if we are to progress. On the other hand, the closing down of an inclusive humanness – not allowing Schutz to investigate the Emit Till tragedy from a mother's universal perspective would seem to impede our progress in healing our collective disease of racism and hatred for others who are “different” from us.

Uncovering our inhumanity is the only way to address this insidious, often hidden hatred. How that happens should be the province of each of us as humans. An example, again from the art world, is Patricia Cronin’s Shrine for Girls first shown in the 2015 Venice Biennale. The Shrine focuses on three examples of extreme exploitation and abuse of women across the globe, from Africa to India to Ireland and the US. During the Venice Biennale, an Indian family checked in to a hotel in the same square as the chapel where Cronin’s piece was installed. They were not in Venice for the Biennale and wandered into the chapel as tourists. Shortly after leaving the installation they returned with a sari to include in the installation. The point from this poignant, personal gesture is that without that installation, this family would not have thought in the same way about what was going on in their own country. To have external eyes on a problem can add to our collective will to end a problem. The same is true with photojournalism as a profession, and with the protests in North Dakota over the Dakota pipeline. The pipeline wouldn't have made the news and been stopped (at least momentarily) if not met with a ground swell of public opinion – common human opinion crossing boundaries of race, nationality, religion and gender. 

Things change only when the injustice reaches and resonates with our collective better natures. We have to find a way to celebrate our rich range of differences and, without prejudice, embrace our common humanity. Dana Schutz is doing this, Patricia Cronin is doing this, Kara Walker is doing this. Let’s allow them to continue to bring us critical issues to be solved and healed.

oregon college of art and craft