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“Emet” & Emmett: Why Truth-Telling (like Schutz’s) about Till’s Murder Should Be Ecumenical UPDATED

The Whitney Museum has now composed what is, to my mind, the most succinct, sagacious response to the firestorm of castigation, pontification and rationalization swirling around Dana Schutz‘s powerful “Open Casket” at the Whitney Biennial.

Dana Schutz, “Open Casket,” 2016
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s the statement sent to me this morning from the Biennial’s co-curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Lew, in response to my request for comment about the calls for the removal or even destruction of Schutz’s riveting portrait of the brutally mutilated Emmett Till:

The 2017 Whitney Biennial brings to light many facets of the human experience, including conditions that are painful or difficult to confront such as violence, racism, and death. Many artists in the exhibition push in on these issues, seeking empathetic connections in an especially divisive time. Dana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket, 2016, is an unsettling image that speaks to the long-standing violence that has been inflicted upon African-Americans.

For many African-Americans in particular, this image has tremendous emotional resonance. By exhibiting the painting we wanted to acknowledge the importance of this extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African-American history and the history of race relations in this country. As curators of this exhibition we believe in providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.

I myself could have used a “trigger warning” for two works in the Biennial that may sicken Jews (as I had suggested in my CultureGrrl review). I issued a strong protest against the placement of one of them—the most explicitly violent in the show—in an open area where children might be tempted to view a brutal beating that would be wildly inappropriate for them to see.

But I also believe that if there’s one place that should be censorship-free, it’s an art museum. Feel free to censure, not to censor.

UPDATE: A Whitney spokesperson told me that a sign posted near “Real Violence,” the virtual-reality drama by Jordan Wolfson, states: “Contains violent imagery. Not for children under 17.” He added that “the Museum decided that posting a warning was necessary because children might otherwise be drawn to the VR technology.”

This was my instant take on the Schutz “Casket” fracas, tweeted immediately upon reading Randy Kennedy‘s initial NY Times report:


Various critics, most notably Roberta Smith in today’s NY Times, have examined the Schutz controversy in the context of prior culture clashes that they regard as somewhat analogous. Among artists cited by Smith as having “crossed ethnic lines in…depiction of social trauma” is the Jewish American Ben Shahn, who, in a 1931-32 painting owned by the Whitney, depicted working-class Italian-American immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti, ashen-faced in their open coffins after having been sentenced to death “on the basis of circumstantial evidence” (as the Whitney’s label tells us):

Ben Shahn, “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti,” 1931-32, Whitney Museum

A more telling comparison would have been to the Whitney’s trove of rediscovered images of the lynching and torture of African-Americans, as displayed in the museum’s 2015 inaugural show in its new downtown building.

This was the most shocking image, described by me (in my Wall Street Journal review of the downtown Whitney’s opening) as an “agonizing lithograph, wherein a bleeding, castrated man is lashed to a crumbling post”:

Harry Sternberg, “Southern Holiday, 1935
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As I wrote in the companion blog post for my WSJ review, Harry Sternberg was one of several 1930s artists of diverse backgrounds who created these graphic lithographs “as part of a campaign to end lynching and to promote the passage of an anti-lynching bill in Congress (which, shockingly, failed to pass).” To my knowledge, there was no outcry against the Whitney’s display of these images, perhaps because the injuries were inflicted eight decades ago and the artists’ polemical intent was clear. But they also can be said to “aestheticize” brutality—one of the charges leveled by Schutz’s critics.

As it happens, “emet”—pronounced similarly to Till’s first name—is the Hebrew word for “truth.” Scrutinizing the truth about what happened to Emmett and other victims of injustice should not be denied to anyone on the basis of color or creed. As the Whitney curators say, it’s all about “providing a museum platform for artists to explore these critical issues.”

an ArtsJournal blog