Protests by some Black artists and other defenders of “identity politics” have been directed at a painting on display at the Whitney Museum Biennial in New York. The painting by Dana Schutz is based on the photograph of the mutilated face of Emmett Till lying in an open casket in Chicago that was printed in Jet magazine.
A quarter of a million people filed by the casket in 1955 after Till’s mother demanded it be opened. “Let the people see what I’ve seen,” she said.
Artist and writer Hannah Black wrote a letter to the Whitney, demanding the picture not just be taken down, but destroyed. “It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” she asserted. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.”
Schutz answered the attacks, explaining she decided to do the painting in the context of the protests across the country against police killings and brutality.
She said she listened to interviews with Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother. “In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain,” Schutz wrote. “I made this painting to engage with the loss. It was never for sale and never will be.”
So-called identity politics is a deadly threat to the workers’ movement and rapidly turns into race-baiting, slander and threats. “I will argue that Dana Schutz’ time spent making it was time spent in the throes of a simulation of the sick, complicated eroticism of white violence against black bodies,” art curator Aria Dean wrote on Facebook, backing the demand for destroying the painting.
Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco answered the calls for destroying the work of art in an article titled “Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go” posted on the hyperallergic.com internet forum.
The calls for censorship are an assault on what working people need most today — the political space to discuss and debate how we can unite and fight effectively against the attacks we face from the bosses and their government as the crisis of their capitalist system deepens.
The idea that Caucasian opponents of racist brutality — or Latinos, Asian-Americans or anyone else — can’t speak out or create art as part of expressing their views weakens our struggle. Art like this painting by Dana Schutz should be welcomed.