Emmett Till was an African-American boy from Illinois. He was a lively child, a son to Mamie Carthan, a cousin and a beloved friend. Perhaps Emmett would have grown to be so large; perhaps we would have never known his name. What Emmett Till would come to be known for was his death, his murder and mutilation at the hands of two white men who walked free and an accusation by a white woman who would come to admit that, indeed, it was all a lie, with his body sunk deep in the Tallahatchie River.
Dana Schutz is a White-American woman from Michigan. Unlike Emmett Till who could not – brutally murdered at the age of fourteen – Dana Schutz amassed a fine number of degrees from prestigious institutions, before ability and good fortune would find her exhibiting her work at the Whitney Biennial, “Open Casket”, a stylish painting of Emmett in his open casket, before he was lain to rest.
The painting itself makes use of an attractive palette, a pretty rendering of violence by someone who may cite Picasso as an inspiration, art which would undoubtedly find its way on a museum postcard or a pristine marble hallway of a wealthy patron of the arts (if it ever were to be for sale), the young black boy’s face erased, mutilated. Against the backdrop of a bare white wall, “Open Casket” hangs unremarkable. It in no way depicts the true horror of the savagery committed against a little black boy, nor does it hope to embody the brutality against the black mother whose little boy was beaten, bloated, drowned, who leaves a casket open because she wanted the world to see. The horrific death of Emmett is so intertwined with the history and present of anti-black racism, that it cannot merely be contained within the confines of a thirty-nine by fifty-three inch frame; artist and activist Parker Bright staged a protest at the opening weekend of the Whitney Biennial, clad in a t-shirt that read “Black Death Spectacle”, and in an open letter to the Whitney Museum’s curators and staff, Berlin-based artist Hannah Black stated, “The painting must go.” However, the Biennial’s curators remain adamant on upholding “Open Casket”, failing to address the anguish and complexities associated with the painting, and its problem of racial entitlement. The barbarity of Emmett Till’s murder is not the story of any little boy – it is the life and death of a little black boy living in an America in which White Supremacy governs and mandates, a racist White America which has violated and perpetrated violence against black bodies for centuries.
What Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” does convey, however, is the detached spectacle of white guilt in a palatable, pleasing form. For an image so heavy in context and meaning that it gave way to the Civil Rights Movement, Schutz’s cheapens its significance and reduces it to a near caricature. And yet, what is more audacious: the white woman’s interpretation of a kind of cruelty she will never know in her lifetime, or her reasoning for doing so?
Her artist statement reads, “I made the painting ‘Open Casket’ in August 2016, after a long, violent summer of mass shootings, rallies filled with hate speech, and an ever-escalating number of Black men being shot execution style by the police… I don’t know what it is like to be Black in America, but I do know what it is like to be a mother.” It was however not just the summer that was violent, but the spring and the fall and every winter, too.
America’s violence was not of a season or a year, but of a time that predates Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and every black boy and girl, man and woman who lost their lives at the hands of bigotry and intolerance. The foundation of America was built on slavery, the violence of white people against black women, men, and their children so many summers and centuries ago. Dana Schutz’s work mimics the disconnect of her intention – her failure to reconcile and acknowledge America’s violent beginnings permits her the bravery to believe that the white mother’s experiences are similar to that of the black mother’s. Her intent bleeds of an extremely dangerous form of “color-blind” post-racial awareness, that a white woman of her time and place, privilege and access could believe that racialized experiences of motherhood are all and the same, the standard being of white motherhood, of whiteness.
The death of Emmett Till, and Mamie Carthan’s decision to keep the casket of her dead son open would come to expose the world to the cruelty of anti-black racism in America and what it truly means to be a black mother and her son in America, different and distinct in every sense of being. The violence they have faced is generational, historical, a violence enacted upon for simply being, for being black in this world. For Dana Schutz, as a white artist, to feel entitled and empowered to make a spectacle of black violence, black death, black innocence and black motherhood, to liken it to any other experience, and for the Whitney Museum to enable her in her actions serves as a poignant realization, or rather a reminder, that indeed, more than sixty years after the death of Emmett Till and the birth of Civil Rights, America is going backwards, regressing faster than ever.