What effect can paintings have on politics? It’s a recurring, never-really-resolved question, since as an artform, the history of painting is one in which the question of its power as an agent of social or political comment, comes up against its awkward cultural status – its ambiguous history of exclusivity, luxury and leisure. And while painters continue, more or less self-consciously, to want to assert the medium’s capacity for addressing the political realities of the world, when it comes to picturing human suffering, particularly suffering produced by political violence, their attempts to acknowledge political solidarity often appear to be tokenistic gestures.
That, at least, was the predicament of Dana Schutz’s oil painting Open Casket (2016), on show as part of the recently opened 2017 Whitney Biennial. Schutz is well known for her fragmented, psychedelically weird, often deeply neurotic take on figurative painting. Overt references to the world of history and politics don’t get much of a look-in. So by contrast Schutz’s Open Casket takes its reference from photographs of the disfigured body of Emmett Till, the black fourteen-year-old who, in 1955, was murdered for the alleged slight of flirting with a white woman in a shop in Mississippi. Till was abducted by the woman’s husband and an accomplice, beaten, shot and dumped in a river. Images of his horrifically mutilated and bloated face, on view in the open casket his mother had insisted on for his funeral, would become an icon of the nascent American civil rights movement. Schutz’s painting flattens and schematises the key elements from the various documentary images of Till’s in his casket – his black jacket, the white shirt buttoned up to the neck, and next to it a head made up of a gnarled and bruised contortion of facetted browns, blacks and streaked reds.
In a biennial that declares itself to be arriving ‘at a time rife with racial tensions, economic inequities, and polarizing politics’, and in which half of the artists women or people of colour, you could see how Schutz’s painting might seem relevant. Critics were quick to seize on the painting’s topicality. ‘If you think her work isn’t “political enough”’, gushed Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine, ‘see her thick, sluicing Open Casket… and see if the idea of Black Lives Mattering doesn’t crash in on you.’ The New York Times’s Roberta Smith opined that Schutz ‘doesn’t picture [Till’s] wounds as much as the pain of looking at them.’
However in the era of Black Lives Matter, and the bitterly divisive identity politics of intersectionality, it wasn’t long before Schutz’s painting was being called out for exploiting the suffering of black people, rather than expressing solidarity. So as social media quickly got hold of the image, at stake was Schutz’s identity as a white artist, or as one Twitter post succinctly put it, a ‘White woman profiting off of black murder caused by a white woman’. Another Instagram poster demanded ‘What stakes does this white woman have in this art? She’s not reliving generations of racist violence and trauma’. Soon, images were circulating of artist Parker Bright staging a one-person protest standing in front of the painting with the words ‘BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE’ scrawled across the back of his grey T-Shirt.
It wasn’t long before Schutz’s painting was being called out for exploiting the suffering of black people, rather than expressing solidarity
Social media isn’t the most temperate of arenas for debate, and extreme opinions get full voice (‘this artist should just die’ didn’t get much take-up however). But the responses to Schutz’s painting are typical of the bitter and bleak temper of today’s identity politics, in which different identity groups understand representation to be a matter of disenfranchisement and exclusion of one group by another, so that representation itself – visual representation, of people, events and history – ends up claimed as the exclusive property of one or other disenfranchised group. It wasn’t so much the image of Schutz’s painting that was deemed offensive, but that a white artist might claim it and deploy it. And the idea that working with and presenting such an image is itself a kind of abuse, or at least an act of grave insensitivity, turns on the idea that the artist making the image had no claim to a shared identity of suffering – that the art should be able to ‘relive’ the collective experience of violence and trauma.
By Tuesday, an open letter to the Whitney, written by Berlin-based British artist Hannah Black, had begun to circulate, in which Black requested that Schutz’s painting be removed, with ‘the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum’. There, Black argued that ‘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’. ‘Non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence’, Black went on, ‘should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. 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.’
The Biennial’s curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, quickly issued a response, declaring that ‘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’. Meanwhile, Schutz herself responded in comments to the New York Times: “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… Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”
Schutz’s assertion that ‘Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection’, and Black’s insistence that ‘the subject matter is not Schutz’s’ cannot be reconciled. White artists treating images the suffering of black people is seen as a gesture of misappropriation or theft or even violation, analogous to the historical exploitation of black people by whites, since those images become symbols or stand-ins for the oppression and exclusion denounced in the present. From this perspective, Schutz’s suggestion that the experience of the events of 2016 provoked her to attempt a response to it, that she should be troubled by them enough to try to articulate that in her own work, can only be dismissed as the narcissism of someone who does not authentically share the position of suffering of those which the artwork claims to speak of – and by extension, speak on behalf of. For Black, ‘discussions of appropriation and representation go to the heart of the question of how we might seek to live in a reparative mode’; in other words, not trespassing onto the territory of the imagery that belongs to the oppressed other is a way of making reparations for past injustices.
But such a ‘reparative mode’ means, in effect, that images in the public realm become proprietary, and whole areas of contemporary culture become off-bounds to interpretation, reflection and remaking. It also produces the paradoxical injuction that artists should only make art which speaks of the narrow confines of their own individual experiences; so, presumably, art-school educated middle-class professional artists should only be making artworks about going to openings and hanging out at parties – ironically what Black condemns as an art that ‘dissolves into empty formalism or irony, into a pastime or a therapy’.
But determining the right of an image to speak to people according to the identity of the maker is to put the intention of the maker before the effect of the work – and to deny the possibility of an artwork having a capacity to affect, move or change those who experience it. What’s troubling about the debate over Schutz’s work is that what it might be able to say to a wider public of Americans (or even non-Americans), about the historical moment people find themselves in, should be discounted solely on the basis of the identity of the author, not the effects, or qualities of the work. It’s why, in all the debate, very little has actually been said about the painting itself, of how its visual form relates to the source, except to insist that Schutz’s choices of handling and composition are no more than signs of her indifference and lack of respect.
This isn’t to argue that Schutz’s clumsy attempt to say something relevant about American race politics via painting, or to try to use painting to speak of suffering must be applauded just because she attempted it – there are many better paintings that do this – but rather, it is to insist that it should be considered for what it does, not what we assume its author intends, or their social license to do so. Otherwise, to use the logic of identity politics on other (far greater) paintings of political suffering produces tragic absurdities: Picasso’s Guernica (1937) for example, would be dismissed not for what it looked like, but because as an emigré Andalusian living in Paris, the artist could not have had any real experience of the suffering of those of the Basque town that had been bombed by the Nazis – not to mention the small matter of him being a ‘privileged male’.
there are at least some voices in the artworld who still defend that the possibility of communication (or even empathy) that does not reduce entirely to the limits of one’s particular identity
But if artworks become no more than tokens of their makers’ identity, there’s little chance of them communicating anything to anyone else. At a time where progressive politics needs to think hard about how to form new solidarities, new common identifications, the politics of identity can only continue to turn artworks into totems of division.
Still, there are at least some voices in the artworld who still defend that the possibility of communication (or even empathy) that does not reduce entirely to the limits of one’s particular identity. American artist Kara Walker writes an eloquent reflection on the fearsome painting Judith Slaying Holofernes, by the fifteenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, as an Instagram post. ‘The history of painting’, Walker writes ‘is full of graphic violence and narratives that don't necessarily belong to the artist’s own life … Perhaps, as with Gentileschi we hastily associate her work with trauma she experienced in her own life. I tend to think this unfair, as she is more than just her trauma. As are we all. I am more than a woman, more than the descendant of Africa, more than my father’s daughter. More than black more than the sum of my experiences thus far.’
Walker concludes: ‘I experience painting too as a site of potentiality, of query, a space to join physical and emotional energy, political and allegorical forms. Painting - and a lot of art, often lasts longer than the controversies that greet it. I say this as a shout to every artist and artwork that gives rise to vocal outrage. Perhaps it too gives rise to deeper inquiries and better art. It can only do this when it is seen.’
A version of this article appears in the April 2017 issue of ArtReview