White Privilege

John Haber
in New York City

Dana Schutz and the Whitney Biennial

What a difference a day makes. One day Emmett Till was just a poor child from Chicago, a polio survivor, visiting relatives in the South. He counted white children as his friends. The next he was the victim of bigotry and a brutal murder. The fourteen-year-old became an emblem of injustice and a spur to the budding movement for civil rights.

Dana Schutz, critics note, has had only privilege—the privilege of a white artist from a comfortable Detroit suburb making it in the art world. Yet she, too, has become a symbol. At just forty, she was among the stars of the most widely celebrated Whitney Biennial in memory. Horrified by police shootings of blacks in the present, she looked back to Till's death in 1955 and painted him in Open Casket. Reviews singled it out in a singularly political and diverse biennial. For the city's most influential critic, Roberta Smith in The Times, it "doesn't picture his wounds so much as the pain of looking at them." Dana Schutz's Open Casket (courtesy of the artist/Petzel gallery, 2016)

And then in a day her fortunes, too, had changed. A black artist called for her boycott on Facebook. A black writer called for the work's removal and destruction. They accused Schutz of appropriating the African American experience for the benefit of a white woman. The controversy erupted into the press and consumed social media. What does it say, though, about the role of art in a racist and divided America?

How dare she?

How dare she? The question recalls the furor over The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, but it is all the more pressing now—for blacks and women alike have little to gain and so much to lose in Donald Trump's America. The week of the debacle, a white man traveled to New York City with the sole aim of killing African Americans, and women barely escaped a repeal of Obamacare and its provisions for women's health. It is pressing, too, because has art its own divisions, and many feel excluded. Surely many of the protestors do, and they were acting out that feeling of exclusion in decrying a white woman's success at their expense. They were demanding attention, and for better or worse they got it.

The question is also pressing, though, because it is so puzzling. No one complained when whites joined in the civil rights marches and when white journalists brought those marches alive—although Dana Schutz herself worked from a photograph in Jet, a weekly founded by an African American, and Till's mother's personal account. No one complained when protest singers added their voices, including Bob Dylan with "The Death of Emmett Till," or earlier when Billie Holiday sent chills down the nation's spine with "Strange Fruit," by a Jewish songwriter and about a lynching. Rather than telling whites to shut up, blacks are wondering why Trump will not speak up to denounce that murderer in New York. The women's march after Trump's inauguration welcomed men, and Jews still decry white indifference that turned refugees back to their death in the Holocaust. What makes painting or, more generally, fiction more open to criticism?

It is surely not the nature of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. It is the most open to political art since 1993 and the most welcoming ever, with young Asian Americans as curators. They place paintings by Schutz and Henry Taylor, an African American, off the elevators on two floors, to engage in dialogue and to hammer home the message. Taylor, too, takes inspiration from Black Lives Matter, and Schutz calls another work in the show Shame. Nor is it simply political correctness on the left. Most still believe that any artist of any color deserves to be heard, and such black artists as Kara Walker have taken Schutz's side with eloquence and passion as well.

The question is puzzling in part because, like most political debates, this one veers off topic from the moment it begins. Many focus on the awful thought of destroying art, although censorship does not stop there. Others focus on an artist's freedom to create what she wishes, although that does not guarantee a place at the Whitney—or, for opponents, on the sheer fact that some took offense, but tough, for art worth heeding has caused scandals before and will do so again. The protestors have not helped matters by their obvious hypocrisy. Parker Bright, the artist, got things rolling without having seen the painting, and Hannah Black, the writer speaking up for the African American community, is not American. Her letter of protest also invited whites to speak after all, although she later removed the white signatures.

Still others agonized over the painting, which is not just wrong but also irrelevant. Voices complained that Schutz merely copied the photograph. She did not. They complained that she reduced Till to a mask, which misses the whole point of expressionism in art and representations of death. They wished that she had painted Till as happy and alive, although one could then accuse her of papering over a lynching—and anyway videos of police killings, rather than of a victim's loving childhood, have gone viral for good reason, and Till's mother insisted on an open casket. They wished that Schutz had represented Till's murderers, although that would make the painting generic or obscure.

To my money, she did well, in a biennial with an often bland and upbeat approach to gender, race, and history. A grimly static subject like this does not play to her strengths—in story-telling, bodies in motion, sculpting in paint, and an aggressive sense of humor. Still, she has a talent not to be missed. Here she takes the open casket and unusual proportions from a painting in the Whitney, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti by Ben Shahn, and adds sharper contrasts, earthier colors, more painterly handling, and a stark realism. The murderers beat and disfigured Till before dumping him in the river. If you think this death mask looks unsightly, you should see the photograph.

Means, motive, and opportunity

Besides, the details really are irrelevant. A reviewer can always imagine another painting, but then it is yours and not the one under review. More important, its artist was at issue, not its quality. The only question is whether a white has the right to speak out—or maybe even the obligation. I stop short of the latter, since no one should tell artists what to create, and there remain other subjects, other genres, and other media. Yet I do want to allow artists everywhere to cry out, because I want to cry out, too. I also know how much they can arouse cries in others.

Again, then, what makes painting different? Why should a white artist lose her voice? I hear two reasons. First, Schutz is appropriating black experience for personal profit. Second, she cannot speak for what she cannot experience. I want to argue with them both, although African American artists do indeed have experiences apart that they can communicate, too.

The first accuses her of financial and career motives. That sounds silly on the face of it, because no one in her right mind becomes an artist to make money. Schutz is lucky to have broken out so soon. Fewer still pick and choose subjects to please the market. Dana Schutz's Fight in an Elevator (Whitney Museum, 2015)(Some have pretended to do so to make conceptual art about the confluence of capitalism and art, but that is another matter.) Mostly, though, even someone as shallow and marketable as Jeff Koons takes seriously what he does, and what passed for publicity stunts by Andy Warhol look more experimental every year.

It sounds silly, too, because of its inconsistency. Again, no one complains that Bob Dylan has made a fortune, and no one accuses Pete Seeger of exploiting workers and Hudson River pollution. In art, no one complains that Maya Lin exploited American deaths in the Vietnam War for the memorial in Washington. Rather, one singles them out for praise, and indeed Schutz has refused to put this painting for sale—not just in response to the controversy, but also on its showing months before in Berlin. Besides, the charge would eliminate the chance for any political art at all. It applies just as much and just as wrongly to black artists concerned for black lives.

In any case, so what? Artists should get paid for what they do. Yes, that has them caught up in a huge mess of patronage and influence going back a long way. It has led to the sordid pressures of museum blockbusters, art advisors, and art fairs. It has led to a loss of direction after Modernism and Postmodernism, the death of galleries, and maybe even fewer opportunities for emerging artists. Yet it has also put art in the service of a revolution or two—and it has allowed artists like Schutz to survive.

Artists and others can appropriate the lives of others for motives beyond money as well. Now, I have already mentioned the Holocaust, and no one complains that photographers with the U.S. Army left such searing images. Few, too, bothered to ask about Stephen Spielberg's Orthodox Jewish childhood before admiring Schindler's List. An outraged friend did bring up a novel that made the Holocaust a parable of Christian salvation. That, though, is thoroughly beside the point. Schutz is not declaring herself, much less white America, superior to Emmett Till.

Together or apart

The remaining objection can seem a mere matter of fact, the limits of experience: I cannot know what you feel. Anselm Kiefer gets a pass, because the Nazis are German history, and maybe Schutz can get a pass, too. She has said that, while she cannot know what African Americans feel, she can know what a mother feels at the death of children. I see her point, but I would not put too much weight on it. She does not have to have given birth to bring to life the death of Emmett Till.

On the one hand, empathy can take people only so far before other modes of awareness kick in. Maybe I cannot know what you feel, but I still know right from wrong. On the other hand, empathy is more powerful than that sounds, and it is not at all the same as identification. By its very definition, it is seeing beyond oneself—which, to my mind, is the very essence of making or viewing art. The problem with racism is not that I cannot imagine what it is like for others to live in fear for no reason other than the color of their skin. It is that others live in fear for no reason other than the color of their skin.

Empathy can seem to rob people of their experience by universalizing it, but that is a red herring, too. When the right dismisses Black Lives Matter because all lives matter, the problem is that they turn one truth against the other. A progressive could reply that racism is wrong because all lives matter. In the end, though, maybe the problem of other minds should be left to philosophers. I can worry about how far I can understand Trump supporters or protests against Schutz, but then I can worry with Thomas Nagel (brilliantly) about what it is like to be a bat. I can worry about how far I can understand anyone but myself, and I should, but meanwhile you and I have work to do.

We have work to do because justice or empathy is not a matter of fact, the fact of race or of human nature, but of aspiration and choice. How can art speak to and for others? It comes down to whether blacks and whites can stand together or only apart—and they must stand together, or they stand to die. Had Clinton defeated Trump, the black vote would have made the difference. If blacks are to make progress against racism and police violence, whites had better do more as well. It should be no different in paint.

That seems to leave things where they started, with the enigma of what makes art so different from other ways of communicating. How can people even be arguing about this? Why are they not celebrating Schutz or simply dismissing her? It comes down to two things. First, art is powerful. The protests diminish art as a mere luxury compared to writing, marching, or music, but it sure has them worked up.

Second, art is ambiguous as other protests are not, because it bridges public and private matters. Artists work for themselves and for others, and one person's expression of grief is another person's grievance. They are shaped by their art, by their imaginings, by their joys, by their sorrows, by their histories, by race, by class, by gender, and by others as well. Together, though, those factors empower art, political or not. Art alone cannot ensure justice or empathy, but it can awaken both. Schutz can speak to concerns beyond herself, just as African American art can speak to me.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

The 2017 Whitney Biennial opened to the public at The Whitney Museum of American Art on March 17, 2017. Related articles have taken up political art, vandalizing the headlines, and Dana Schutz.

 

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