Art Dirt 2: Controversy Over a Painting of Emmett Till in the Whitney Biennial

by Glasstire March 25, 2017

In our new Art Dirt podcast, Christina Rees and Rainey Knudson discuss the controversy that’s erupted about Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in the Whitney Biennial. There have been calls for the work to be removed and even destroyed.


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Claire Dewar March 26, 2017 - 12:23

You girls rock! Thanks for the dialogue.

Danae Falliers March 26, 2017 - 15:15

Yup I think you kept all the balls in the air really well. Really starting to count on the smarts and sanity of Glasstire to navigate. Thanks!

Billy Kirkland March 26, 2017 - 16:05

Let’s do cut through the bullshit here. The open exchange of ideas, good ones and bad ones, is, to my mind, the lifeblood of an open and free society. Any group or individual that seeks to set rules or boundaries on what can and cannot be discussed and to control who and who is not allowed to speak on any particular subject, betrays an authoritarian impulse that everyone who values their individual liberty should immediately reject. There is nothing tricky about this. In my own opinion, the statement, near the end of this podcast, “I do think artists of any color get to do whatever the fuck they want in their art and everybody else get’s to have whatever response that they have.” is the only thing that needs to be said about this so-called controversy. Personally, I think the work in question is kind of a crappy painting; as a painting. Regardless of the artist’s intent, I don’t care about it. That is my opinion. You’re welcome to yours.

Danae Falliers March 26, 2017 - 16:40

And she did. And is paying a price for being self-absorbed and/or naive and/ or exploitative enough to put her work and career above ethics. Personally I have often found her work to be slightly cloying, with very good skills. She’s never been particularly deep.

Jeff Goldenthal March 26, 2017 - 21:01

Posted on Facebook with the quote: “People of color don’t really need white people to speak for them in the art world right now.”

I click through and hear– what?– two white women discussing this painting and controversy. Not ironic at all.

Rainey Knudson March 26, 2017 - 21:30

We see the irony as well and acknowledged it during the conversation (minute mark 12:05). The quote, of course, refers to white artists making art about issues facing black people, which oftentimes doesn’t seem to be appreciated by black people these days–witness this very painting. (I quote James Baldwin in the podcast and here again, his remark comes to mind about the “insupportable glibness” of do-gooder white people who exclaim “this is awful!” without questioning why the awfulness is permitted to continue.) People of many ethnicities have commented extensively on Schutz’s painting and we are all free to do so. I liked what Marilyn Minter had to say. I liked what Kara Walker had to say. Like many people, I think the whole situation sucks. I don’t condone Hannah Black’s call for censorship and destruction–that’s Farenheit 451 territory. I think the guy with the “Black Death Spectacle” shirt nails the problem far more accurately and powerfully.

Paul Slocum March 27, 2017 - 04:42

No mention of Donelle Woolford or The Yams? We had this conversation in 2014, but apparently a group of black artists withdrawing from the Biennial wasn’t enough for many people to remember. Turns out we also had this discussion when the Whitney put the Rodney King beating video on a loop in 1993 and credited the random white guy who shot it as an artist. Why does the Whitney repeatedly make these odd, tone-deaf mistakes related to race? The Guerrilla Girls have taken the Whitney to task for their representation of people of color and women for decades, and yet here we are. I could care less about the sanctity of the precious Whitney curators at this point. When did everybody become so institutionalized?

Claiming censorship is short sighted, and claiming a slippery slope to Nazi book burning (as many have) is straight up Godwin’s Law. In the Internet age and this context, Hannah’s call is much more analogous to an unusual copyright claim than censorship, if you want to read it that manner. But it seems off target to focus intensely on that when the meat of what Hannah and many others wrote is everything that wasn’t discussed.

As Ed Halter pointed out:

1953 – white artist actually destroys another white artists work (without asking) = whimsical, puckish neo dada genius

2017 – black artist requests the destruction of a white artists work, spawning widespread discussion (without any actual ability to destroy said work) = the worst, the end of art, fascism, etc etc

I have no problem with the creation of “Erased Dana Shutz”. Some of Dana’s descriptions make it hard to not think of it as a perverse performance, where she talks about how she painted Till’s face then disfigured the canvas with a knife (yikes!). Then it becomes hard for me not to also read it as an inadvertent performance of white savior syndrome and white appropriation. To me, destruction seems like a fitting end to this cringey performance, but obviously the more important thing is that the Whitney finally make the necessary changes so this doesn’t happen again (I’m skeptical)

PS: some of Emmet Till’s relatives are still alive who were in the room when he was abducted to be murdered.

Robert Boyd March 27, 2017 - 08:36

Rauschenberg told de Kooning he was going to erase the drawing. De Kooning then made sure that the drawing he gave Rauschenberg would be hard to erase.

Paul Slocum March 30, 2017 - 11:05

Somebody claimed it was without permission in one thread, but I don’t think it matters to my point. Some quick research seems to suggest that you are right.

Paul Slocum March 30, 2017 - 18:26

Also, I just want to say that Ed Halter did not have the error about lack of permission in his post, I added that from the comments thread of his post. I apologize for the error. Pretty much all of the other information I gave is from major news sources.

Oliver Franklin March 27, 2017 - 11:26

I think too little attention is paid here to the curators, frankly. Cristina’s comment about artists being able to paint whatever the fuck they want is right on! Anyone can and should be able to paint anything. But do they need to be given an audience? Do they need to be on a pedestal and put in this context? As a father (which may or may not qualify me to comment on this) I can appreciate Schutz’ maternal instinct as sufficient motivator for her to paint this, and Rainey’s comments there made sense. Again, Schutz’ can paint whatever she wants. But did the curators have to choose it for the Whitney Biennial for God’s sake? They are the ones who blew it. If I were another artist in the show, I’d be pissed at them, not Schutz. BTW, I also love Cristina’s comment re. white folks shutting up for awhile. That is what Mr. Bright is saying. I have a kindness matters sign in my front yard. For white folks to say “Black Lives Matter” (among other things) is a big step, I think, because we’re telling other white folks, listen, you (nor I) know what the fuck we’re talking about. Listen to the voices in that movement and learn. I am trying and you should too.

Rainey Knudson March 27, 2017 - 11:43

Slightly off-topic, an interesting argument here that arguments about “privilege” are making things worse:

Rosanne Friedman March 27, 2017 - 15:46

This is working. For curators, for artists, for viewers, for response to complete the work (thanks Marcel). I’ll just add this: as the ole grandpappa used to say: keep a particle of sand in both pockets: take out one–you are a particle of sand the beach is huge, take out the other–this is the universe–SEE it.

Michael Bise March 27, 2017 - 18:00

Note to artists –

Check your social media conversations. Every gallerist, non-profit director, curator, writer and fellow artist who supports the removal and destruction of Open Casket by Dana Schutz will support the removal and destruction of your art too.

Prince V. Thomas March 28, 2017 - 07:17

i don’t think most artists believe in censorship. nor that abstraction is an invalid form to represent such serious subjects. and i believe that all subjects are fair game for artists… my preference is acting responsibly with those subjects. i do believe that context is critical… has anyone gone to this biennial? did she only have this one painting in the show? what were the others about if there were more? does she have a history of exploring this subject matter? etc. i don’t agree that the painting should be destroyed…

Obviously this is a complex issue but to oversimplify for this comment: The divisions within this ongoing story seems to me: 1) those that accuse the artist of being racially insensitive; & 2) those that defend the work of art in and of itself without answering #1… and because, i think, both groups are addressing different issues that becomes problematic for having a dialog… one group questions the artist, the other defends the work… two different things.

knowing the context of her work and history is critical, if one is going to analyze her motivations (if that is possible), which seems to be at the crux of the controversy for those that are offended.

Jim Pirtle March 28, 2017 - 08:19

So much to unpack and several pieces of dynamite are in the suitcase without bubble wrap


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