On the Whitney Controversy

Art, on its own, is powerless to change political realities.

Earlier this week, the video artist and Artforum darling Hannah Black penned an open letter protesting the inclusion of a 2016 Dana Schutz painting in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Titled “Open Casket,” it depicts the dead body of Emmett Till, a teenager who was tortured and lynched after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman in 1955 Mississippi. (His mother, Mamie Till, held an open casket funeral for him, so the whole world could come face to face with the horrors of American racism, hence the title of the work.) A dark episode in the nation’s history, it is a reminder, seven decades on, just how little things have changed.

The letter, which attracted several dozen signatures and a shitstorm of coverage, calls for the immediate removal of the painting from the exhibition and enters the “urgent recommendation” that it not be sold or shown again in the future. But Black isn’t done there. She also demands that the canvas itself be destroyed. Yes, destroyed. From zero to book burning, all in the opening line.

Black’s beef with both the work and its display is understandable; “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time,” she writes. And later: “those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material.”

To her credit, it’s one of the more intelligible things she’s written in her career. After all, she has a point: it really makes you wonder what kind of internal calculus was involved in the decision by Schutz, a white woman and blue-chip artist, to portray this subject matter. Or why, for the love of God, she would try to equate the material agony of African Americans as a people to the hypothetical anguish of a mother who has imagined losing a child in her mawkish, backpedaling response to the scandal. Given that there’s no shortage of contemporary examples of black children and adolescents being killed by racist white men, you probably wouldn’t be wrong in speculating that she chose this incident precisely for its historic distance.

In the dog-and-pony show that is the art world, worthy causes may come and go but virtue signaling is always in style. But now that the damage is done, what are the moral dimensions of this political statement?

Artists would like to think of themselves as agents of political change, but the fact remains: art is a barnacle on the side of capital, which is why it can never be a political platform. The best it can hope to do, then, is comment on the political situation after the fact or, in rare, often purely serendipitous cases, anticipate it. The luxury status of art under capitalism leaves artists in a compromised position, reducing the most urgent debates to the level of internecine turf wars.

“[N]either art nor the artist has a moral responsibility to liberal social causes,” wrote Camille Paglia in a 1990 op-ed on Madonna. (To mansplain for the sake of accuracy, Paglia is referring to those human issues that are foundational to a society based on the principles of liberty and equality for all, not to the current meaning of liberalism, or its many pet causes.) When artists do attempt to act as moral arbiters of the political landscape, the result is usually contrived and almost always cringeworthy. Just look at Shepard Fairey. As a private institution, moreover, the Whitney is under no moral obligation to promote social justice or protect people’s feelings.

As for the protesters, meanwhile, their attitude, “‘This art offends me, therefore it must be removed from public view’ is identical to the stance of Jesse Helms and Rudy Giuliani,” notes Freddie DeBoer (the left, it turns out, is no less prone to censorship than the right). Unlike the Bible-thumping ghouls and Spanish Inquisitors who patrolled the culture debate stages of the nineties, however, they have both morality and a relative lack of power on their side. So while it’s morally indefensible to ban “Piss Christ” on the basis of so-called obscenity, a moral argument can in fact be made as to why “Open Casket” is misguided and, possibly, harmful. Yet the purpose of admitting morally questionable cultural products into the public record is not to protect the right to evil in the name of free speech but to ensure that evil itself does not go undetected. In the most basic sense, it forces us to have hard conversations about inconvenient truths.

Recently, the author announced that she is only letting black people sign the petition from here on out, and has purged the names of any original non-black signees from the list. If the point of the letter is to expose the blindness of white privilege to the materiality of the black plight, lobbing off at least a quarter of the signatories (I counted) sure is a weird way of doing it. It’s not that we ought to feel bad for the excluded “allies.” They’ll find a way to manage. Or, that anyone can tell the remaining petitioners what they should be feeling. They’re right in their suspicion and anger. But that this reasoning serves exactly no one involved. The sort of catharsis that comes at the expense of dissent can only ever be symbolic. “Remember, contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends, so most of what happens in it is politically meaningless,” Black acknowledged in an update to the post. “But the painting should still be destroyed, tho.” This isn’t justice, it’s madness.

Reparations are certainly in order, but they cannot be made by extending special treatment to certain protected classes on the level of culture alone. Even if you think that this is a small price to pay for what black people have endured throughout American history—what’s the destruction of one art work to the destruction of countless lives?—it’s unclear how extracting punitive concessions from glorified market consultants is supposed to help anybody in the long run.

The civilian activists blocking access to the painting or picketing the outside of the museum have good intentions and are justified in their outrage, but they’re just the foot soldiers of an inside-baseball wager among people whose main point of difference isn’t the color of their skin but how many MFAs they have. In the end, everybody wins, and yet no one does. Both Black and Schutz, intentionally or not, get a boost to their brands, while the Whitney goes back to selling tickets, business as usual.

This isn’t to discourage young artists, writers and intellectuals from demanding political reform, which needs the idealism and energy of youth to propel it forward. Only to say that it’s a fool’s errand to expect sincerity or progressiveness from the art world’s institutional gatekeepers. We can all agree that the Whitney’s choice to include the painting in its bland, clunky survey of played-out conceptualism and poverty porn was a bad idea: factitious, insensitive and, all around, perplexing. Cynics might also reason that, given the visibility and rawness of the race question in the national consciousness, the show’s curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, could’ve anticipated the fallout. Predictably, the museum has been slow to take action outside of issuing an extremely potboiler statement justifying itself with a few lines of artbabble about “facets of human experience” and “empathetic connections.”

In the meantime, Dana Schutz’s painting of the defiled and mutilated corpse of 14-year-old Emmett Till remains on display in the chic, minimal galleries of a major art institution for the eyes of jetlagged French tourists popping in on a break from shopping and “critical design” hipsters with thousand-dollar parkas. What better indictment of the folly and myopia of the art world than to let it hang?