Open Casket, Dana Schutz at the Whitney Biennial
The thing is, it’s a wonderful painting. As many have noted, there is nothing else like it (or nearly as good in my opinion) in Dana Schutz’s oeuvre to date, so how she got there may always be a mystery, even to her.
Open Casket is not oversized as so many of Schutz’s paintings are and the composition is direct and compelling. The central, empty white space of the boy’s shirt offers a space to think and a respite from the pain caused by looking at the wound. The rosette and the ruffles at the top, so economically painted, are also places to rest sad eyes, but not only that, they also show how lovingly Emmett Till was buried and how precious Mamie Till’s son was to her –and should be to us.
What is hard to see in the photograph is that part of the boy’s head is sculpted. Schutz must not have believed that she could convey the full horror of it with paint. The painting is beautiful; that makes us look at it longer– but it’s not at all prettified.
This is not an image cheaply lifted off the internet and mechanically reproduced to create a cultural product that manipulates our feelings and tells us what to think. It’s a painting; it takes time and involves hundreds of decisions and everything that the painter feels and has learned up to that point.
Schutz has been accused of abstracting and aestheticizing the image and that is true; she has used it as the subject matter of a painting. It does not replace the photograph in any way, which is a powerful document, but we can look at the painting and use it to focus our thoughts and feelings in a different way. Suddenly it seems so strange; we can even decide for ourselves if it is a good painting. And we do it all the time with books and movies and plays about horrific events, we talk about whether the writing is good, if the actors played their parts well…
I am thinking about Antigone who buried her brother after the ruler Creon decreed his body would remain on the battlefield unburied. Someone to whom these events would be very raw (Antigone was entombed in a cave and hung herself)—now that I think about it (and I never have before)—would probably not want Sophocles to turn it into a play. The story has another similarity because Creon was declaring, “Look what we do to criminals.” and Mamie Till turns the tables and says, “No, YOU look!”
Mamie Till did become an American hero that day though I’m sure she would never have wanted to be and maybe nobody does ever want to be a hero. Heroes get statues and novels and plays and paintings and they are inspiring to all of us.
I hate the way the overinflated contemporary investment-oriented art market works but it doesn’t mean that paintings aren’t a very important and singular means of communication of information and feelings. Maybe a museum group show isn’t the right place for this particular painting. I’m not sure the museum setting is the right place for a work depicting artists’ debt or dumb banners meant to be dumb or mannequin swimmers standing in a video ocean, either—just to describe a few objects in the vicinity of Casket. That seems to be what we’ve got at the moment, though.
The other question that’s been raised about who gets to paint what has been pretty thoroughly argued. I just want to say that now that a more diverse group of people are painting and being shown—well, I hope that’s true—it would be a pity if there’s going to be proscriptions about their subjects. I hope that artists don’t just paint their political identity or God help us!– think of themselves as controlled cultural producers.
It’s better to look around and at each other than to Gaze in Groups, right?
Notable participants in this argument:
Hannah Black’s letter is included here:
Coco Fusco’s comprehensive answer to many of the arguments:
The World Socialists weigh in:
David Cohen and other commentators:
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