Should White Artists Paint the Body of Emmett Till?

31 March 2017

The image above is a painting by Dana Schutz currently on display at the Whitney Biennial exhibition. Since the painting depicts Emmett Till in an open casket, the painting naturally is attracting some controversy. But does it matter that Dana Shutz is white? Should your race restrict what you're allowed to paint? It's easy to hear this sort of criticism of Schutz—that white people shouldn't produce art about poignant Civil Rights icons, and dismiss the criticism as needless and overdone political correctness. I had this impulse too.

But after reading and reflecting on this letter by artist/writer Hannah Black (co-signed by a number of other black artists), I began to reconsider. Perhaps white artists shouldn't be profitting and gaining prestige on the basis of precious symbols in the black community. While I wouldn't go so far as saying Schutz was exploiting black bodies, I do think white artists should be sensitive to these sort of concerns. Haven't white people profitted from America's racist past enough? It reminds me of Hollywood whitewashing—when Hollywood takes parts clearly made for people of color and gives them to white people. Shouldn't black artists get to profit off of and represent the cultural and historical symbols they hold most dearly?

Here's Hannah Black's letter in i-D magazine:

Also, check out this thought-provoking response to Black's letter from interdisciplinary artist and writer Coco Fusco:


Comments (1)

RepoMan05's picture


Sunday, October 6, 2019 -- 1:25 PM

Firstly, op doesnt know it

Firstly, op doesnt know it but op is racist.

"Race" is a just a reified brirish equivocation fallacy to turn family into a competition to justify nepotism and slippery slope for aristocracy.

There is no race. No starting gun. No finish line.

"Culture" is a social construct. Social constructs do not exist. Cultures are owned by no one person. They cant be copywrited. They cant truly be stolen either; not caporially, anyway.

Someone taught us all to get lost in our codification of reality. This is called subjectivity. Subjectivity does not exist and cannot be stolen. But it very obviously can be misrepresented. Making money off someone elses culture while misrepresenting it is found to be offensive by most people. But offense can be felt at any given time by any given person reguatdless of anything. Your choice to feel offended cannot be a rational motive to feel offended. Everyone also naturally feels offended by offended people. A natural choice to feel offended cannot be a basis for rational stance as to whether or not a credible offense has taken place.

It cant be illegal, but can it be immoral?
Up next: homosexual Captain America and track and field star Harry Potter!

All we can do is misrepresent. There is no perfect representation of anything without perfectly repeoducing that thing. At that point its no longer "representing," it's "reproduction."(not to be confused with biological reproduction)

All art besides "non-objective art" (coincidence) is a representation. Artists can only misrepresent and no matter how much realism they want to put to something.

But what comes to mind on this abstract? The face is smeared. Smeared like someones face in a picture after watching "the ring" tape. Maybe the artist is saying the guy looked down the barrel of a gun. Assasination? Either he or who he was a representation of, his own self? A curse?

I think this piece was meant to be offensive. How could something so ugly not be? But I'd bet the guy was offensive to the artist. How could he not?

What gets attention in art and politics?

~ fhe phantom of a dropuut