At the Whitney Biennial, Paintings of an Open Book Hold the Answer to the Question of Ethics in Painting Till’s Open Casket, but Alice Neel Shows Us Another Way by Bart O’Reilly

I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art with an unusually single-minded agenda: to make up my mind about the now notorious and controversial painting by Dana Schutz included in the 2017 Biennial. I thought, rather than look at the piece exclusively on social media and read the many articles and comments to form my opinion, that I would do it the old fashioned way: standing in front of the piece itself. Isn’t that what I was taught in art school?

As many of you reading this now know, Dana Schutz is a white female American artist with a well established international career. The subject of the work in question is a post-mortem photograph of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black boy who was brutally beaten to death by two white men after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman on August 28, 1955. Schutz has claimed that what drew her to the subject was empathy with Till’s mother as a mother herself.

Emmett Till’s mother chose to put her only son to rest in an open casket and allowed him to be photographed. The powerful and disturbing image that circulated as a result has had a profound effect on the American Civil Rights movement and on American history. This photo bears testament to a mother’s decision not to censor the circumstances of her son’s horrific murder. The image also serves as proof to the power and directness of the photographic image.

So what does Schutz hope to add to this conversation by aestheticizing it as a painting and presenting it to a predominantly white audience in a museum predominantly run by white people? As I stood in front of the painting, all I could think is that you can pretty much aestheticize anything, but that was no revelation. I knew that as an undergraduate student in NCAD in Dublin in the late 1990s.

This reaction was not what I had hoped for, standing in front of the work. I was also appalled to find the painter in me enjoying the craft and technique, my mind jumping to art historical reference points like the contorted face a lá Francis Bacon. Some critics, who I suspect have not seen the work in person, have commented on the face’s flatness, but in person it actually protrudes in relief off the surface of the picture plane. I walked away frustrated. Seeing the work in person had done little to shape my opinion on the ethics of Schutz’s decision to take on the subject in the first place.

It wasn’t until I left the museum that I realized the answer to my question was in the museum, not just in front of the painting by Schutz. My answer was in a series a couple of rooms down in the work of Frances Stark. Also works of painterly appropriation, Stark’s large paintings replicate the text from the 2015 book Censorship Now by punk musician and writer Ian F. Svenonious.

But let me backtrack for a minute. What is the question I wanted to answer? What piqued my interest in the first place? It has to do with painting and its’ long, questioned battle for relevance in our digitally saturated age. At this year’s Biennial, painting seems more than just relevant—but a kind of keystone. As a painter, even before I made up my mind on the ethics of Schutz’s choice of subject matter, I admit that I was glad to see the subject of a painting so hotly contested. For better or for worse, this work has joined an esteemed tradition of paintings that manage to shock their audience.

The only other time I recall this in my lifetime is “Myra” by Marcus Harvey from the now infamous Sensations exhibition in 1997 that brought us the Young British Artists who are now household names. Harvey painted a serial killer of children using children’s hand prints as a marking device. This headline-grabbing piece of shock art did exactly as intended. However, this idea goes back even further to Matisse’s “Portrait of Madam Matisse,” shocking for the crude green stripe painted down the subjects face, obviously a product of more innocent times.

Frances Stark’s piece brings up the issue of appropriation, cleverly enshrining a rather angry piece of institutional critique in all the garb and regalia of painting on canvas, placing them in the center of a world renowned art institution. It also hopelessly points to the hijacking of resistance or critique by the system it purports to critique. Here, Stark’s works demonstrate how the powerful allow dissent and freedom of expression to be sublimated in the art museum, giving them a release valve and ultimately rendering them neutral and ineffective. It is a brilliant move, and among the stand-out work I have viewed at the Whitney Biennial thus far.

It is fitting that this piece holds the key for me, in resolving questions about Schutz’s piece. The text alone answers it partly, but if that were sufficient we could just read Svenonious’s book. The book functions like the original photograph of Emmett Till: it is direct and has far more potential to initiate change than a painting in the Whitney Biennial. Till’s mother chose not to censor the tragedy that befell her son. In doing so she altered the course of American history. She had every right not to heed Svenonious’s call for “censorship now.” She was not trying to make art; she was trying to expose injustice.

As far as Schutz is concerned, I suggest she go into the museum and read every word painted on Stark’s canvases. In an odd way Stark’s demonstration of powerlessness in the face of appropriation gives her piece weight. By chance, it points to the real problem in Schutz’s art: by taking a harrowing, desperate photograph, sanctioned by the mother of a victim of racial brutality and turning it into a pretty picture, Schutz neutralizes its content, sublimating it into a facile, empty piece of institutionally sponsored critique. It has nothing to do with empathy, rather it renders Till’s mother’s brave act as impotent, almost like patting her on the back and saying “I feel you.”

In the age of Fake News it is interesting that the viral Dana Schutz Open Letter that quickly turned out to be a hoax perfectly articulates the position of Schutz’s apologists. The fake letter reads:

I understand that many have attempted to defend my work in the interest of free speech, and with calls against censorship. However, the artists and writers generously critiquing “Open Casket” have made plain to me that I have benefited from the very systems of racism I aimed to critique, in a way that blinded me to what my re-presenting this image would mean to Black audiences.

This is the crux of what I wanted to answer. Does the artist have the right to not be censored? As a young man I would have said yes, but I have changed my mind. The text on one of Stark’s canvases reads, “Art is in a lost state now. It’s a mess, without any idea of why it exists, where it is going, who it is for, and where it has come from.”

Censorship would immediately grant the art a compass, meaning, a purpose, and a direction. Censorship actually gives art its power back. An artist who is “anti-censorship” is essentially waving a white flag and declaring their work to be inconsequential.

For me at least, this settles the case on Schutz and censorship and perhaps, even, on freedom of speech and artistic expression. Who gets to represent what? This is essentially the debate we will continue to argue, over and over again.

If Frances Stark’s work resolved the question of ethics around the Schutz controversy, Alice Neel’s show at Zwirner demonstrates how hollow the Whitney curators’ defense of the work rings. They maintain the work’s inclusion based on the show’s desire to seek out empathetic connections in an especially divisive time.

If you want empathetic connections, it would be wise to exit the Whitney and head up to Zwirner and see Alice Neel Uptown curated by Hilton Als. Here we see a white artist painting black, Latino and Asian New Yorkers with a sensitivity and empathy that digs deep into the heart of their humanity. If Schutz really wants to heal racial tensions in the tinderbox that is 2017’s Donald Trump America, she could do well to ditch the art star game and take a leaf out of Neel’s book. Neel painted living, breathing family, friends, writers, poets, and artists in a way that reveals the sickness behind Post Modernism’s distant strategies of appropriation.

We are tired debating the politics of representation, freedom of speech, and artistic censorship, but with Neel’s work we don’t have to. In this exhibit, we may be able to heal rather than divide and make empty postures. In Zwirner’s press release Hilton Als says this:

Neel was one of the few whites living uptown. She was attracted to a world of difference and painted that. Still, her work was not marred by Ideological concerns; what fascinated her was the breath of humanity that she encountered in her studio, on canvas.

But by painting people of color, as well as white people, Neel broke away from the canon of Western art. She did not limit her view to people who looked like herself, and she focused on their intrinsic humanity. In direct comparison to Schutz, this appears to be an honest, direct and effective artistic purpose, one which includes others and empathizes rather than objectifies. Is this even possible to do in 21st Century America? I guess we will have to wait and see.

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Author Bart O’Reilly was born in Ireland, but is now a Baltimore-based artist, teacher, and writer.