I am running a risk by reproducing a work of art that is presently causing no end of controversy: Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” (2016).
Context is crucial, so here it is. The painting is of a 14-year-old Black boy, Emmett Till, tortured and lynched in 1955 by white thugs in Mississippi after a white woman lyingly accused him of flirting with her. They were acquitted by an all-white jury. His mother insisted that her child’s body be displayed in an open casket so that others could see for themselves the stark reality of racism in America. Photos of his grotesquely disfigured face, transmitted worldwide, played a pivotal role in launching the American civil rights movement.
Flash forward to the Whitney Biennial, where Schutz’s painting has been on display. The problem is that she is a white woman, and this has produced a flood of hostile criticism in this era of identity politics, with some not only demanding that the painting be removed from the exhibition, but destroyed.
The usual lines have been quickly drawn. On the one hand, identity-silo activists who consider the subject off-limits for a white person. On the other, fierce defenders of free artistic expression. I’m not mustering up much sympathy for the polemics of either side. Yet, unlike the recent Niki Ashton brouhaha, a textbook example of political vulgarity, there are arguments here that are subtle and worthy of close attention.
Art does not exist in a vacuum, but in a context. The situatedness of art is a serious issue. Here, a piece of art about Black suffering is brought into being by a white person, in a society virtually defined by hierarchies of racism, domination and oppression. The work acquires value, both culturally and of course as a (potential) commodity. But all of this value is at a considerable remove from the person (and by extension the group) portrayed. Members of that group are objecting to being relegated to mute material that generates value for others. It feels, in a word, like exploitation.
It’s a compelling position. But on the other hand, the painting itself is evocative; the brutal inhumanity portrayed draws in the viewer regardless of the “identity” of the artist. As a visual text it has entered a public space, open to continual interpretation and shifting contexts, divorced from its creator. We still think of authors, their intent, even who and what they are, as hovering over their work somehow—Derrida’s “metaphysics of presence.” But the painting, in a very real sense, is everyone’s property now. No painting is finished when the artist puts down their brush.
It’s not out of bounds to express concern about how a painting’s value is generated, who benefits and who does not. We can easily determine the privilege inherent in notions of “free expression” used to counter the critics. Art isn’t sacred and untouchable. It has its own political economy. But does any of the opposition to the creation and display of this product make the painting itself intrinsically worthless?
The story of Emmett Till needs to be told and re-told. His fate has been, and continues to be, replicated too many times over. Black lives matter, but in contemporary American society that is anything but a given. The painting is another re-telling of the American racist narrative, one that has visceral relevance in this Trumpian era.
Do we not need to share these stories and perspectives across lines that have themselves been imposed by racism? Any one perspective will be incomplete. But empathy braids them together.
What is this empathy? The ability to imagine being someone else. It’s a shaky foundation for social cohesion, to be sure, but it’s all we have. Whites cannot know what it’s like to face unremitting racial oppression on a daily basis. On the micro scale, one person cannot know what it’s like to be another person. And yet our imagination reaches out, searching for the common ground, aligning with, if not duplicating, the perspectives of others. President Bill Clinton has been widely mocked for his comment to an AIDS activist, “I feel your pain.” But he was both right and wrong: he could not possibly feel this person’s actual pain. But he could imagine feeling it, and express a solidarity that runs deeper than an abstract statement.
I’ve always liked this anecdote from the Zhuangzi:
Zhuangzi and Huizi were crossing the Hao River by the dam. Zhuangzi said, “See how free the fishes leap and dart: that is their happiness.” Huizi replied, “Since you are not a fish, how do you know what makes fishes happy?” Zhuangzi said, “Since you are not I, how can you possibly know that I do not know what makes fishes happy?” Huizi argued, “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know what they know. The argument is complete!” Zhuangzi said, “Wait a minute! Let us get back to the original question. What you asked me was ‘How do you know what makes fishes happy?’ From the terms of your question, you evidently know I know what makes fishes happy. I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy, as I go walking along the same river.”
And so too we feel the pain of others as we go walking along the same river. Expressing it should unify us, and yet in this era it proves to be a source of division. Empathy is even seen in some quarters as predatory. I have no solution to offer, only a deep pessimism about the direction in which we are heading. Last word to the painter:
I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother. Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.
UPDATE: (April 8) Getting to know Dana Schutz. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/10/why-dana-schutz-painted-emmett-till