Till painting disrespects historical, cultural significance of his death

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City hosts the 78th Whitney Biennial from March 17-June 11. Artwork by white woman Dana Schutz depicting Emmett Till’s open casket faces criticism for appropriating black suffering for her art. (Musikanimal/Creative Commons)

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City will host the 78th Whitney Biennial from Friday March 17-June 11. The Biennial is an exhibition of contemporary American art from a range of well-established and emerging artists. 

This year’s exhibit focuses on “the formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society,” according to the Whitney’s website.

As the American political climate intensifies, issues such as income inequality and racial tensions are becoming increasingly prominent topics of debate. Issues like this often provoke activism in the form of art. 

It’s undeniable that art flourishes in times wrought with conflict and oppression, as it is an accessible way for underrepresented voices to debate and draw public attention to causes. This is certainly the case at this year’s biennial, with many of the pieces centered on issues of race. One work in particular by Dana Schutz has become the target of intense criticism.

Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket,” presents a somewhat-abstracted depiction of Emmett Till’s open casket, with Till’s mutilated face as the focal point of the image. Emmett Till was an African American man and the victim of a brutal murder in 1955 Mississippi, after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. 

The purpose of Schutz’s piece was to emphasize the sentiment of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, who insisted on an open-casket funeral in order to force people to acknowledge the atrocities her son and other black Americans were facing. 

While Schutz’s intent was similar to Mamie Till’s in forcing viewers to confront the persisting violence against people of color in the United States, many black artists have called for the piece to be destroyed.

In a statement by Berlin-based artist Hannah Black, she writes, “The painting 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, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.”

Essentially, Black argues that black suffering is not a medium to be used for the benefit of white artists. While Schutz’s intent was to reiterate the sentiments of Mamie Till’s decision to use the murder of her son to benefit a movement she was involved in, it is not comparable to a white artist exploiting it to create a political statement for her own notoriety.

Despite Schutz’s good intentions, the piece furthers another racist epidemic: the desensitization of citizens in viewing violence toward black people. Nearly every day we are bombarded with news stories and grainy videos of another hate crime or incident of police brutality. Images like Schulz’s perpetuate the normalization of this violence and make spectacle of human suffering. 

Mamie Till’s decision to display her son’s body came at a time when few people understood the extent of the brutality occurring in the South. Now, images such as Schutz’s art inundate the media and appropriate black suffering into “empty formalism or irony,” as stated by Black. 

Although all great art is controversial, if Schutz’s true intent was to create a discourse on race and to use her art as a call to end violence against black people, she must respect the demands of those whose cause she is attempting to further. It is impossible to claim solidarity while ignoring the voices of marginalized groups.