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? Read More