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:

https://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/black-artists-urge-the-whitney-biennial-to-remove-painting-of-murdered-black-teenager-emmett-till

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

https://hyperallergic.com/368290/censorship-not-the-painting-must-go-on-dana-schutzs-image-of-emmett-till/

 
 
 
 

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