One year after protests and counterprotests erupted around the exhibition of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket at the Whitney Biennial, Aruna D’Souza investigates the fraught history of artists, curators, and institutions invoking free-speech discourse in the interest of entrenching whiteness.
To say that I watched the protests around Dana Schutz’s Open Casket with interest would be an understatement. The decision by the curators of the 2017 Whitney Biennial to include a painting by a white artist depicting the brutally beaten body of the young Emmett Till in his coffin set off debates on social media and in real life, and I watched my Facebook feed fill with both angry condemnations and passionate defenses of Schutz, as well as thoughtful analysis, hilarious and problematic memes, and knee-jerk “get off my lawn you whippersnappers”–style screeds. It was messy, loud, and at times hugely illuminating. What to many seemed a cut-and-dried argument over artistic freedom and free speech was anything but; in fact, if anything, the controversy revealed quite starkly that such values, far from universal, are doled out unequally and provisionally. Especially when the free speech in question comes in the form of protest.
For many of the (largely, but not exclusively) young African American artists, writers, and art historians who first raised the alarm around the painting, the issue was whether it was appropriate for a white artist who had never before grappled with issues of racism in her work to suddenly take up an image that loomed so large in black American experience, and which was also a signal event in the civil rights struggle. What did it mean for Schutz to paint Emmett Till and for the curators to include her work in one of the most-watched exhibitions in the U.S.—especially at a moment when black people are still subject to extrajudicial violence, meted out not only by vigilante mobs operating with the tacit approval of law enforcement, as they did in Till’s day, but also and increasingly by law enforcement itself?
The objections, first voiced in social-media rumblings, gained traction thanks to a direct action by the young artist Parker Bright. Standing in front of the painting with a shirt that read BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE, Bright engaged the Whitney’s visitors in thoughtful conversation about the way dead black bodies were being offered up for consumption to largely white audiences. But when the performance artist and writer Hannah Black circulated an open letter to the Biennial’s curators, the terms of the conversation shifted in crucial ways. The letter, a swift document edited on the fly and eventually signed by forty-seven art-world figures, all black, spoke of the painting in the larger context of continuing violence against black people under white supremacy and capitalism. When distributed through media channels both traditional and social, however, Black’s argument was overshadowed by a single line: “This painting must go.”
The “urgent recommendation” by Black and her cosignatories that the offending artwork should be destroyed stemmed from a desire to prevent the image of black suffering and death from becoming another commodity; as such, it led to vigorous pushback. Those who rejected the protesters’ positions—people ranging from respected art critics, artists, and art historians, to those who had little interest in art per se but objected to complaints by “snowflake” social-justice warriors on principle—largely framed their counterarguments in terms of free speech, artistic freedom, and censorship. (If we measure the strength of an art-world controversy by how deeply it penetrated into public consciousness, I’d say Whoopi Goldberg telling the protesters they needed to “grow up” on The View ranks this one pretty high. Zadie Smith chalking the controversy up to the “cheap” binary of us vs. them politics in Harper’s Magazine and Coco Fusco writing off not only Hannah Black but the historical black arts movement in Hyperallergic were also telling markers.)
To many of these counterprotesters, anyone who objected to Open Casket, simply did not understand art. Much was made of Schutz’s virtuosic technique and daring artistic choices and of the obligation of art and artists to tackle uncomfortable subjects and provoke “difficult conversations.” Those objecting to Schutz’s absolute freedom to paint what she wanted were either characterized as barbarians at the gate, ready to destroy the few and hard-won freedoms that artists still enjoy. Or else they were seen as akin to Senator Jesse Helms and his aggressive, puritanical, and censorial brethren. Black was likened to a literal Nazi more than once (including by the ladies on The View). Schutz’s supporters, however, rarely discussed the question of whether curators should have absolute freedom to exhibit what they wanted.
As the debates stretched into the summer, it became clear how malleable the free-speech and artistic-freedom arguments seemed to be—and how variable the art world’s tolerance for “censorship” was. The same people who defended Schutz’s right to paint whatever she wanted—and the Biennial curators for giving her a platform to show the painting—had no problem signing petitions demanding the Guggenheim to remove a video of fighting dogs from their landmark show of Chinese contemporary art. The same people who abhorred censorship at the Whitney celebrated when the Guggenheim agreed almost immediately and with minimal fuss. To many of the protesters involved in the Whitney debacle, the contradictions were stark and not coincidental. The artist Pastiche Lumumba dropped a banner from the High Line in the early days of the Biennial reading, THE WHITE WOMAN WHOSE LIES GOT EMMETT TILL LYNCHED IS STILL ALIVE IN 2017. FEEL OLD YET? In September, he wrote a Facebook post about the very different outcome at the Guggenheim: “Whitney Biennial hung a painting of a lynched black boy causing huge backlash and criticism but the piece was never pulled? Now we have pieces getting pulled from the Guggenheim for showing potential violence between dogs … YALL CARE MORE ABOUT DOGS THAN BLACK PEOPLE!”
For many observers on both sides of the debates, the obvious precedent for the Schutz controversy was the early 1990s culture wars and the way Republican politicians used the work of feminist, queer, and African American artists to rail against challenges to “white American culture” in the face of multicultural challenges writ large. But there were other, more trenchant histories to cite—ones that don’t force us to see those protesting the Whitney as mini–Jesse Helmses. One was an action by black art-world denizens and their allies against a 1979 show at Artists Space, in which a young, white, male artist titled his series of charcoal works on paper “Nigger Drawings.” A coalition, which included the artists Howardena Pindell and Carl Andre, the critic Lucy Lippard, and the curator Lowery Stokes Sims began a campaign directed at Artists Space and at its funders, the New York State Council of the Arts, objecting to the use of public funds to support such an exhibition. For supporters of Artists Space, the appeal to a state agency to cut off funding, no matter the reason, amounted to censorship. These counterprotesters, including art historians and critics who would go on to become iconic figures in the art world—Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, and many others—deployed the most sophisticated postmodern conceptual tools to argue that the word nigger had no meaning outside its relationship to this artist’s drawings. Since the drawings were abstract, their logic continues, the word was not being used in a racist way. At other times, they argued that the protesters were acting as tools of the state by attacking a gallery like Artists Space, which was one of the last bastions of independence from the art market. The counterprotesters saw themselves as outsiders to an art world compromised by capitalism and bourgeois values, and so they understood anyone attacking them (or the institutions in which they found refuge) to be tools of those same nefarious forces. Ironic, when many of those who showed up to shout slogans and carry signs on the street in front of Artists Space were black artists who were themselves outsiders from the art world as well.
The second trenchant historical precedent was the 1969 protest against the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition, one of the most consequential museum protests in the U.S. It was the first time the museum would recognize American black culture, and the first time it would hold an exhibition made up almost exclusively of photographs. (At the time, photography was not considered fine art, and few museums showed it other than for its documentary or archival value.) It was a show that was consciously undertaken to welcome black folks into the museum, and the curator (a white, Jewish man) hired African American staff members, struck advisory committees composed of influential figures and experts from the Harlem community, and centered the voice of a young black woman in the show’s catalogue. In terms of how we talk about diversity and inclusion in museums today, the Met did a lot of things right.
But to the many advisors who were brought on board to assure the Harlem community at large that this exhibition would center their voices and ideas, it soon became clear that they were only there as window dressing—something that the curator himself admitted many years after the fact in an interview. What black artists wanted from this exhibition was to be admitted, finally, into the hallowed institution. However, other than a handful of photographers, whose work was not considered art as such and was manipulated and uncredited, no black painters and sculptors were included in the show.
Looking back on this history of protest against art institutions for their failure to open their doors fully to black artists and audiences has the potential to be depressing and demoralizing. As you recognize the echoes of arguments made in 2017 in the debates of 1979 and 1969, it is impossible not to think, When will we ever learn? But going back in time, one realizes how productive, even transformative, they were. The protesters of “Harlem on My Mind,” who organized into a group called the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, forced the Met to begin lending parts of its collection to small museums, art spaces, and community organizations in minority neighborhoods around the city, an effort that led to the establishment of the Bronx and Queens Museums. The Artists Space protesters encouraged the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the gallery’s funders, to change the way it distributed fellowships in order to support small organizations. These were not small or inconsequential achievements.
The question of what effect the 2017 Biennial protests will have on the Whitney Museum and the art world at large is yet to be seen. What became clear to many, however, especially in the aftermath, are the ways in which free-speech arguments are often deployed to cut off debate and to silence protest, especially when that protest is coming from people who are asking to be allowed into museums in real and meaningful ways—as exhibiting artists, as curators, and as part of a generously conceived public. What many hear when they listen to protesters is that someone wants to take something away from them—whether it’s our unfettered artistic freedom or our curatorial authority. We’d do better if we could bring ourselves to hear that those protesters are largely asking to come inside.
Aruna D’Souza is a regular contributor to and member of the advisory board for 4Columns and writes for publications including ArtNews and Art in America. Her new book, Whitewalling: Art, Race and Protest in 3 Acts, was published in May 2018.