Dana Schutz, whose painting Open Casket caused a ruckus last weekend after it appeared at the Whitney Biennial, doesn’t actually want the work to be taken down and profits from other paintings of hers in the show donated to “the Black liberation movement.” A letter circulated from a fake account to the media today, claiming such, is a “fake” according to the Whitney Museum.
The painting’s title makes reference to the open casket funeral of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager who was killed by a lynch mob in Mississippi in 1955. The work (above) though abstract, seems certainly to refer to Till’s mutilated corpse; his mother explicitly chose a public, open casket funeral, a decision that galvanized attention to the brutality of her son’s death and of the Jim Crow south at the time.
But viewers and art professionals protested what they saw as the appropriation of the image of an African-American man slain by whites by a white artist. Artist Hannah Black sent an open letter to the media, while another group blocked the painting from view with their bodies last weekend, wearing shirts that read “Black Death Spectacle” on the back as they stood in front of the piece.
“Those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material,” Black’s letter read, and went as far as to ask that the painting be destroyed so that it could not realize any commercial value.
Schutz and others—specifically the show’s curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew—have defended the choice to include the work at the Biennial. Now someone hoping to stir things up further has sent a fake letter, in a voice not dissimilar to Schutz’s.
Though it was not at all my intention to cause harm, many artists have come forward to announce that my depiction of suffering is in turn causing them suffering. I cannot rightly protect a painting at the expense of human beings. I understand that many have attempted to defend my work in the interest of free speech, and with calls against censorship. However, the artists and writers generously critiquing Open Casket have made plain to me that I have benefited from the very systems of racism I aimed to critique, in a way that blinded me to what my re-presenting this image would mean to Black audiences.
The real Schutz explained yesterday in a statement that her experience as a mother coupled with rising violence against African-American men in America had compelled the work, which she hoped would help make Till’s death not just his own mother’s pain “but America’s pain.” She also assured critics that it would not ever be for sale.
A representative for the Whitney said there were no plans to remove the painting at this time.