When is a picture of atrocity “needed”?

This past March, a painting by white american author Dana Schutz triggered an interesting discussion that ultimately lead to a debate about freedom of expression. The painting in question (featured below) is titled Open Casket and was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, sparking protests (in front of the artwork) and a particular letter, who a particular black artist, named Hannah Black addressed to the curators of the Biennial (and co-signed by other artists), in which she stated the following:

I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket” and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.
[…]
In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because 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.

© Dana Schutz, ‘Open Casket’, 2016. Oil on canvas.
Parker Bright protesting Dana Schutz’s ‘Open Casket’. © Scott W. H. Young (@HEISCOTT)/VIA TWITTER

Dana’s painting, in her tarnished geometric style, evokes Emmett Till‘s disfigured face in his coffin. I won’t pretend to know Emmett’s story, but it was the original photograph of his mutilated body and the story of his mother’s insistence on having an open casket – “she wanted the world to see what those men had done to her son” -, that brought me to this post. Emmett was fourteen-years-old when he was tortured and murdered by white Mississippi racists, back in 1955. But that’s not the full story, for Emmett was lynched because of a white woman’s lies (years latter she admitted that her claims about he sexually assaulting her were false). For what I understood, Emmett’s killers were never punished.

The New Yorker‘s Calvin Tomkins wrote a long article profiling Dana Schutz, where he shares some conversations he had with the artist regarding this particular artwork. According to him, Dana had been interested in Emmett Till’s story for quite some time and she kept questioning herself:

“How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.”

Calvin Tomkins describes the painting, after his first contact with it:

Measuring thirty-nine by fifty-three inches, it is smaller than most of her recent paintings, and more abstract. The buildup of paint on the face is a couple of inches thick in the area where Till’s mouth would be. Although there are no recognizable features, a deep trough carved into the heavy impasto conveys a sense of savage disfigurement, which is heightened by the whiteness of the boy’s smoothly ironed dress shirt. His head rests on an ochre-yellow fabric, and deftly brushed colors at the top suggest banked flowers.

to which he added:

Emmett Till’s murder was implacably real. Trying to deal with this atrocity in visual terms had seemed almost beyond imagining, and “Open Casket” is a very dark picture—but it’s not grotesque. The horror is conveyed in painterly ways that, to me, make it seem more tragic than the photograph, because the viewer is drawn in, not repelled. “There was so much uncertainty with this painting,” Schutz said, quietly. “You think maybe it’s off limits, and then extra off limits. But I really feel any subject is O.K., it’s just how it’s done. You never know how something is going to be until it’s done.”

Two things interest me in this case: 1) the absolutist moral stance taken by sooooooo many artists, who wanted ‘Open Casket’ to be destroyed or burnt (a very distressful idea); 2) and the original event of the death of this young boy (who I knew little about) and that lead to a magazine publishing very violent photographs of his mutilated face. This event and the reproduction of these images fueled the Civil Rights Movement, so there is no doubt that if there was a “purpose” for the publication of the images of this atrocity, namely to let the world know what had been done to Emmett Till, such a decision was able to create its own legacy.

Edition of ‘Jet magazine’, which featured photographs of the murdered Emmett Till.

This is such a difficult subject… but is there anything more important than ethics? Is there ever a moment when pictures of atrocity are “needed”? I would say yes, and I would say the original publishing of Emmett Till’s photographs of his open casket fit that category. My thinking, regarding those, is that their exposure was made with the intentions to expose racism (that was his mother’s intention in exposing the body of her mutilated son, wasn’t it?). But, on the other hand, are we exploiting his existence when we turn this into an icon? Is there ever a ‘need’ for that? Maybe so. Because racism and whitewashing are still a reality, these photographs seem to still carry their powerful message and that’s why I show them here. Still, I have my reserves.

Regarding Dana Schutz’s Open Casket the story is very different. Is there a “need” for her to address the issue in that manner? Maybe not. Is she exploiting Emmett Till’s tragic story for her profit? I don’t think that’s the case. Is her artwork a ‘picture of atrocity’? I wouldn’t say so. So why were so many artists outraged about this? Performance artist Coco Fusco, @ Hyperallergic, addressed the issue, condemning that sort of censorship:

On many occasions I have had to contend with self-righteous people — of all of ethnic backgrounds — who have declared with conviction that this or that can’t be art or shouldn’t be seen. There is a deeply puritanical and anti-intellectual strain in American culture that expresses itself by putting moral judgment before aesthetic understanding.  […] I find it alarming and entirely wrongheaded to call for the censorship and destruction of an artwork, no matter what its content is or who made it. As artists and as human beings, we may encounter works we do not like and find offensive. We may understand artworks to be indicators of racial, gender, and class privilege — I do, often. But presuming that calls for censorship and destruction constitute a legitimate response to perceived injustice leads us down a very dark path. Hannah Black and company are placing themselves on the wrong side of history, together with Phalangists who burned books, authoritarian regimes that censor culture and imprison artists, and religious fundamentalists who ban artworks in the name of their god.

One thing that is clear for me is that in our representation of other people’s suffering we often presume to understand what that pain feels like and that may be problematic, for we might end up giving the wrong message: either telling the viewer that looking at a given image equates with empathizing with the events depicted; either because this sort of exposure may well potentiate people’s passiveness towards the harm we do to each other, for often when people look at ‘pictures of atrocity’ they are addressing their own guilt and they may get the sense that by looking at the events they “know about them” and then “knowing about something” is easily equated with “acting on it”.

Fusco keeps addressing the outrage against Schultz artwork and he makes excellent points, so I’ll finish with his own words:

[Hannah] Black makes claims that are not based in fact; she relies on problematic notions of cultural property and imputes malicious intent in a totalizing manner to cultural producers and consumers on the basis of race. She presumes an ability to speak for all black people that smacks of a cultural nationalism that has rarely served black women, and that once upon a time was levied to keep black British artists out of conversations about black culture in America. Her argument is laced with an economically reductionist view of artistic practice and completely avoids consideration of the visual strategies employed by Schutz. Some of her supporters assert (without explanation) that abstraction in and of itself is illegitimate for representing a traumatic figure, a claim that ignores key 20th-century aesthetic debates about the problems with realistic depictions of extreme violence.

[…]

In citing these examples, I do not mean to suggest that all artistic representations of black oppression by white artists and all curatorial efforts to address race are well intentioned, or that they are all good. However, the argument that any attempt by a white cultural producer to engage with racism via the expression of black pain is inherently unacceptable forecloses the effort to achieve interracial cooperation, mutual understanding, or universal anti-racist consciousness. There are better ways to arrive at cultural equity than policing art production and resorting to moralistic pieties in order to intimidate individuals into silence.

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