I invite you to look at the image above and get an impression without knowing who made the painting, if you don’t already know. What does it say about the subject and the artist. I’ll credit the artist later, don’t worry.
We should be alarmed, folks. Now, if you are an artist, it’s open season on persecuting you for making a painting. If you make a painting, anyone can come after you, and based on their subjective interpretation of your painting, accuse you of moral crimes of thought which you are entirely opposed to, and seek consequences, including shutting down your show or burning your work. They have not quite succeeded yet. But they are trying to.
We are at a moral crossroads. There are two competing moralities here. 1) It is moral to censor or destroy works deemed offensive, and take further punative measures against the artist. 2) It is immoral to destroy art on unprovable and contestable interpretations both of art and the work of art in question (and reality).
OK, I’m obviously biased. I pick curtain #2, and whatever’s behind it. That may not surprise you. But what surprises me is that the art world has been supporting proposition number one more than number two. That’s startling. In fact, the original protests were launched by another artist in the art world.
“I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum … because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.” ~ artist, Hannah Black.
Stop and take that in. This protest was originally launched by a fellow artist, and is backed by artists. Artists demanding the art of another artist be destroyed on ethical grounds. In any other scenario professional jealousy would be a concern. There is a sense of, “you do not have the right to use this material to advance your career” as well as its opposite: “we are allowed to use this material to advance our careers”. If YOU use it, THAN your painting is white supremacist. If we use it, it’s the opposite. Thus, the meaning of the painting is determined by the biology of the artist.
This indicates the meaning of all art is somehow determined by the biology of the artist, which should be an outrage, I’d think, in the present day. If one has followed any of the brain consciousness science and theory, or dipped into Eastern philosophy, we would be much better off conceiving of people as invisible minds with unlimited potential than as fixed bodies. It becomes much, much harder to divide and categorize people when you are dealing with invisible minds, than with epidermises. The idea that someone’s orientation to a violent murder is determined by their DNA is astounding.
True, they may say they are NOT arguing that, but rather that because of your conditioning since birth you necessarily have a certain relationship to an event (bloody murder is a good example). This is still determinism, but instead of biology doing it to you, events are. Apparently you don’t have free will. You absolutely must have been conditioned a certain way. That’s so last century, B.F. Skinner, cynical, and self-defeating as all hell. The message is that your imagination and understanding are limited by your biology. I offer the opposite view. You are capable of overcoming your conditioning to the extent that your views and orientations are not narrowly determined by your biology. Why strive if it’s hopeless?
“Everyone, including the artist, agrees that Schutz doesn’t know what it means to be Black in America. What’s more disturbing is that Schutz doesn’t seem to know what it means to be white in America.” ~ Ryan Wong (for Hyperallergic)
The person who wrote the insult above, apparently, knows what it’s like to be both black and white, otherwise from what vantage could he know that she doesn’t? We can see blatant hypocrisy here in arguing that Schutz doesn’t know what it’s like to be black, most likely because she’s white, but Ryan knows what it’s like to be white (and black) without being white (or black). This just kinda’ seems like bullying.
This is also one faction of the art world warring on another. This is a family matter, apparently, with much broader implications. It may even matter that Dana Schutz is a figurative painter in the long tradition of fine art painting, and that is often argued as a necessarily patriarchal, imperialist, occupation.
They are advocating censorship (though denying it), and this isn’t Milo Yiannopoulos’ best selling alt-right book of outrageous opinion. This is a painting protesting white supremacy by an artist who was upset about incidences of unarmed black suspects being killed by police. So, her morals are not in question. The problem is the unintended interpretation of her painting. Nobody gives a hoot what she say’s it means. Clue, artists are almost always going to know more about their work than anyone else. Does anyone understand Jimi Hendrix’ music better than he does?
Nevertheless we are going to insist that her art represents white supremacy, even if she’s absolutely against it. We insist her painting is so heinous it must be destroyed. This is stage one. Then we go after a show of her art that does not contain this painting, or anything we can say is offensive or white supremacist. We say it must be shut down so that she suffers “consequences”.
Apply the same rule to any other scenario – Trump interprets your painting as sympathizing with terror or corrupting the youth and seeks to have it destroyed and your career terminated – and it becomes ludicrous.
I say this is immoral for sure, and the art only might be immoral according to certain interpretations, and, as it were, interpretations in accordance with certain beliefs and foregone conclusions.
[Note that many of the same people who think Dana Schutz’ show should be shut down or her painting destroyed also defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish satirical images of Muhammad, without experiencing cognitive dissonance.]
I say the protesters are engaged in an objective immorality in order to fight a subjective immorality, which may in fact be their own creation, superimposed on a painting that says the opposite. It’s hard to prove an interpretation of a painting, let alone reality. Philosophers are giving up. People are starting to embrace the unknown. You can’t nail an interpretation or feeling down as evidence of a thought crime. This is according to psychology and belief, thus entirely subjective with zero evidence.
But I think everyone could understand that an unintended interpretation of a painting should not lead to punishing an artist for espousing beliefs opposite to her own. That’s really severe. And these powers could most definitely be used for evil. I can hardly think of when they wouldn’t be.
I recommend the protesters just let it go. They can make arguments about why they believe the painting is offensive and fight for their interpretation. But because this is so subjective and open to abuse, I think taking action against the artist is wrong.
Read my article in detail:
Apparently a white woman’s paintings are too violent for the public. We can watch Game of Thrones, but we can’t gaze at her abstracted, impasto paintings. Have a look at the Facebook post by Artnet News I saw in my feed this morning.
If you don’t know about the controversy surrounding her art, this should strike you as utterly ridiculous. Someone’s entire body of work – “entire art” – is branded as a “violent artifact”? You look at the image in the post, and, in terms of palpable violence, it has nothing on Leon Golub, Francis Bacon, Paul McCarthy, the Chapman Brothers, Max Beckmann, Picasso, or Goya.
NEWS FLASH: When you see a depiction of violence in fine art you can be fairly certain it is a reaction against it, and does not condone it. The graphic image above does not, for example, promote mercenaries torturing victims. It wants us to be appalled at the affront to humanity. For this reason, artists who address violence in their art are likely passionately anti-violence.
Nevertheless, there’s supposed to be a way in which the violence in Dana Schutz’ paintings is more vicious and dangerous than the blatant violence we see in TV and movies, in the news, in rap videos, and in video games… People who just went to the gallery in question with no preconceptions about the artist would come away with all sorts of impressions, with the probable exception of violence. It’s just not really visible in the work in the show.
The reason Dana Schutz’ paintings are now all tainted with violence is because of one painting she made which was a deliberate and obvious protest against violence, but which was not seen that way by a certain sector of the public. Quite the contrary, and perhaps willfully.
Dana Schutz is the one who made that other painting of Emmett Till in his coffin that was in the Whitney Biennial. The problem with that blatant anti-white-supremacist painting was that, well, the artist is “white”, which we know from looking at pictures of her, and she thus has no right to tackle such issues, cannot possibly fathom the suffering of a non-white person, and should instead indict herself as culpable in white supremacy. That’s fairly textbook identity politics, and I gather Dana didn’t get the requisite courses in her art college or else she would have known the risks of making such an image.
If you didn’t have those courses either – I did, in spades – the basic argument is that white people are necessarily white supremacist to some degree, at least unconsciously, because we live in a white supremacist country or society. White people are more or less guilty until proven innocent by confession of guilt, at which point they aren’t really innocent, but become backseat allies in the struggle against the oppressor, which is “whiteness”.
However, Dana is probably more of an old-school liberal (she is, afterall, a painter) who thinks that unaccountable corporate corruption, wars of opportunity, the more predacious strain of capitalism, and so on, are the real problem. That’s changed. Those are just symptoms of the disease of “whiteness” [even if these problems exist in non-white countries]. They teach this in school now. The real problem has been distilled, and she’s a big-ass part of it. Therefore, for her to make a painting against white supremacy, without indicting herself as an inextricable beneficiary of it is hypocritical, and thus substantiates that which it proposes to oppose. Her passionate painting decrying the violence of white supremacy is ultimately categorized as itself a violent act of white supremacy, hence the petitions and public outcry to destroy the work. I mean, an artwork has to be pretty vile for tolerant liberals to demand it be destroyed.
You might be skeptical and think this is just my own paranoia or something. Nope. Here’s a quote from Hrag Vartanian, editor of the online art magazine, Hyperallergic [bolding is mine]:
The artist appears to have absolved herself by refusing to implicate herself in the image, preferring to let the history of the image, and her painterly additions, make the case for her. Removed from culpability, she has instead used Till’s brutalized likeness as a way to explore painterly technique…
This is a startling and outrageous contention. The artist is culpable (blameworthy) and necessarily implicated (involved) in the murder of Emmett Till! Well, then she is guilty of the crime. Holy shit! She can’t time travel, so, Hrag must mean that she is guilty of these same sorts of crimes today. I don’t suppose he means she’s physically going out and bludgeoning people to death, so, he probably just means that she supports it, somehow. That is a very heavy accusation: you support white supremacist murdering of black people. If she doesn’t even support it, and everyone knows she doesn’t, how then can she be involved and blameworthy?
I think it’s safe to say that Dana Schutz detests racism, abhors violence, and would be absolutely outraged if a person were brutally murdered because of their race. It’s safe to say that because that’s why she made the painting in the first place. Nevertheless she is evil by association, not with her character, morals, beliefs or actions, but with her epidermis. She is automatically guilty of evil because she is white. But make no mistake, that’s not racist. You can’t be racist against the oppressor, just like you can’t censor the oppressor. It’s just critical theory and identity politics. Didn’t you get Xeroxed articles in college? Shiiit. I did. You see, it’s not her race that makes her evil, it’s just some etherial thing that effects all white people, regardless of their beliefs, character, experience, and so on. It’s like a fungus.
Let me back that they are actually making these biological connections to deleterious moral qualities with some quotes.
“Schutz, a white woman, attempted to stir our collective empathy by painting the disfigured body of Emmett Till. But her identity — and, likely, her experience — is actually closer to that of Carolyn Bryant, the white woman whose lies led to Till’s murder.” ~ Ryan Wong.
Schutz’ IDENTITY is “actually closer to Carolyn Bryant”, a vicious liar. What an accusation, Ryan! Why isn’t her identity closer to someone who would never do such a thing? C’mon man. That’s like saying your identity is much closer to Chairman Mao. There’s all kinds of other Chinese men you could relate to, and not all white women are vicious liars. In any case, apparently your identity is determined by your gender and epidermis.
Hrag makes a similar assertion:
“The image is particularly troubling because a white woman’s fictions caused the murder of the young man, and now a white female artist has mined a photograph of his death for ostensible commentary.”
What does it have to do with anything that she’s a white WOMAN? In Hrag’s mind, she’s even more implicated and culpable than, say, Jeff Koons, because she’s a woman. How do people swallow this without choking? Not only is he determining her character and identity by her body, he’s then drawing parallels with the worst examples of her group, not the best.
Dear Hrag. Why not compare her to Juliette Hampton Morgan, an early white female civil rights activist who supported integration, fought against injustices meted out on African Americans, and ended up with a cross being burning on her lawn and committing suicide because she was so ostracized? We don’t we compare the morality of the present day white woman with the morality of a positive moral figure from the same period in the past. We compare her only to the bad woman. That’s somethin’.
[Incidentally, if you happen to be white, this means that YOU are also implicated and culpable for the brutal murder of Emmett Till, and every other racially motivated injury inflicted by a member of your race..] It’s not enough to decry a crime, she must plead guilty to it as well. Significantly, if Hrag had made a similar image, he would not have needed to implicate himself, even though he’s a male, and the murderers were men. Dana must claim responsibility because she’s white, while Hrag is Armenian. Here we see that ostensible race is more important than gender when assigning guilt at birth. I might go the other way if I had to make a choice – men, regardless of race, have been historically more murderous than women – but either way would be an obviously pernicious form of essentialism. This outmoded brand of thinking is decades old and as useful as installing Windows 95 on your laptop tomorrow. It’s time to move beyond fixing ones character and morality to ones DNA, and especially away from blaming one person for the actions of another of the same race. Racial profiling is a problem even when it’s practiced on whitey. Isn’t that one of the most vile characteristics of racism: assigning deleterious moral qualities to someone because of their biology, such as implicating them in a crime they didn’t commit? Two wrongs of racial profiling don’t make a right, and the second is just the same cancer in a different mind, keeping it fat and happy.
I live in a country that had a massive genocide, Cambodia. Injustice doesn’t get any worse, anywhere, only different. But this genocide was within the same race. You must have seen “The Killing Fields” [if not, it’s tied with my all-time favorite movie. Check it out.]. Today, you can’t look at someone and say, based on their race alone, that they have more in common with the Khmer Rouge or with the innocent victims. Race is absolutely irrelevant. Same with the Chinese Great Leap forward and Cultural Revolution. It’s mono-race abomination. The obvious key is ideology and belief, not anatomy. The population is very young here, as most adults were killed, thus, when you encounter anyone over, say, 50, than they somehow lived through the genocide (42 years ago). They might even have had something to do with it, as children were use to turn in their parents as anti-revolutionary (just like in Orwell’s classic “1984”). But you don’t know who was a victim or a perpetrator, so you see them the same. And even if you did know someone was on the wrong side of history, how much could you blame them really under the circumstances? How do you presume to judge? But in Hrag’s article, he IS judging Dana, implicating her as culpable for a horrible action which she is herself directly protesting, and this is because of the configuration of her reproductive organs and hue of epidermis (or the fungus of conditioning which she couldn’t escape, which amounts to the same thing).
Oh, he maybe only meant that she benefits from the legacy of violence against black people in an oblique, diluted, and debatable way, such as the ubiquitous condition called white privilege? In that case, is that bad enough of a thought crime to destroy her work? If all white people have white privilege, can we destroy all of their work if it comes under scrutiny?
[Incidentatlly, white privilege, if you look at the examples given of it (ex., you don’t get pulled over for driving while white), is usually really just black underprivilege. Significantly, the solution to black underprivilege is to elevate blacks, while the solution to white privilege is to beat down whites, which is what we are seeing here. Privilege is something extra, above the average, which people can easily live without. NOT getting pulled over without probable cause is not a privilege, it is the absense of a disadvantage. Call it the latter and people don’t get upset. Call it the former, in flagrant disregard of what the word actually means, and people get ruffled.]
There must be something more. Does Dana get a check in the mail when innocent black people are killed? Who benefits from evil in their society? Maybe for her, whatever alleged benefits she gets aren’t worth it. This reminds me of the classic sci-fi short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas“, by Ursula K. Le Guin. In the story there’s a lovely society called Omelas in which everything is fine but there’s one little kid that has to suffer intensely for this to be so, and some people, the ones who walk away, give up paradise rather than achieve it through the misery of another. Surely if a society permits murdering its citizens because of their race, it is a corrupt and unsafe society, which is part of why I don’t support capital punishment. Thus, I think it’s debatable that aware whites who want to live in a moral society that respects the social contract gain from that society being selectively immoral and brutal.
I don’t know whether to be more shocked by what Hrag thinks, or by what he believes. His conclusions are dangerous – all white people are implicated and culpable for the murder of innocent blacks. What?! Well, if Dana Schutz is, than how is any other white person not? I find this thought scary. If you want to start a race war, this is a grand idea to spread. How would you feel about people who were involved and blameworthy for violence against your race? Let’s plant that seed?! No thanks, man. No thank you. You are exaggerating. Probably about the most you can get is she’s got white privilege (not underprivileged because of her race), which is, incidentally, far out-shadowed by her famous artist privilege. But, she’s not party to any of that other satanic stuff.
There may be some nuts in a trailer park with neck-beards, confederate flags, and a poster of Alex Jones on the wall. No, wait, a poster of, uh, Richard Spencer. And pit bulls that crap on the carpet. What kind of beer do they drink? Pabst Blue Ribbon? I can do better. They have a pet python (that also shits everywhere). Maybe they are who you are after. I doubt they make paintings, though.
Related: See my article on Richard Spencer here: The Sad Racist Specter of Richard Spencer.
Is it OK for me to share the image so you can judge for yourself, or does that make me complicit? Well, let’s just say you have a right to make up your own mind.
My initial reaction to the work, which like most everyone else’s, was influenced by the controversy that introduced me to it, was that the stylization didn’t convey the horror. When I look at it now, honestly, I feel sad, and for the victim. Maybe I’m seeing things, but there look like two eyes with eyebrows facing down, when you look at it straight on (not sideways) and, yeah, it seems really sad. According the critics, the painting is not supposed to be capable of transmitting that feeling, because a white person (and only a white person) is incapable of understanding what it’s like to be black, and thus to empathize, and I’m not supposed to have the capacity to feel it either. I am only allowed to sadistically chortle and throw a high five in the air. Yes, I do know that one of his eyes was gouged out, so there shouldn’t be two (artistic license, yo). And does anyone really think average white people rejoice in that kind of existential horror?! Does anyone think whites are so inhuman that they can’t empathize, as they say, with another human being butchered alive if he or she isn’t white?! Yes they do think that. They insist on it. They have found their evil other, and this may be a much bigger part of the story than anyone is admitting. As it turns out, everyone is vulnerable to the weaknesses of human psychology, regardless of melanin, and nobody should get a free moral pass.
Now protesters want to shut down a solo show of Schutz other work, which has nothing to do with the painting of Emmett Till, on the grounds that her work is inherently violent, or that none of her work should be shown anywhere because that other painting was so heinous. If one work is deemed violent and racist, than, by illogical extension, all her work must be so, even if the work in question was anti-violence/racism. The artist’s career must be destroyed in the name of social justice for the crime of presuming a white person could attack white supremacy without implicating herself as necessarily an inextricable part of it. There’s more to it than that, but that’s a core argument, or rather conviction, which may be difficult for the uninitiated to fathom.
I need to clarify here, this becomes an issue because she painted a black victim of outrageous violence. On the one hand, some black people feel like they don’t need to be reminded of that. That’s a tough one to counter. Most likely no relative of Emmett would want that painting hanging over the livingroom sofa. They say that whenever a white person wants to address white racism, they roll out another black victim, as if they can only conceive of blacks as hapless victims of deadly, morbid violence [admittedly I can’t think of another example of this that I’ve seen]. Why not make positive images of blacks as dynamic, powerful, intelligent, living beings? The latter, incidentally, is part of the motivation behind black artist, Kerry James Marshall‘s paintings [a world-class living painter, by the way, for you lovers of painting].
For what it’s worth, I’m a bigger fan of Marshall than I am of Schutz, but her paintings are growing on me.
If white people want to combat white supremacy, the argument goes, they can do something, anything other than serve up another tortured black body for public consumption. Maybe she could have painted the white brothers who killed Emmett (and put herself in-between for brownie points).
The counter to this is that Dana wasn’t addressing relatively content black lives, but the savage barbarity of historic white supremacy. Still, there is the question of how to address that, and if black people genuinely find depictions of themselves as butchered individuals hurtful, that is not so difficult to understand. White artists who want to get on the social justice bandwagon could learn from this and adjust their sights on the white perpetrators. With hindsight, Dana really could have done a portrait of the half-brothers, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, who murdered Emmett Till, perhaps based on the photo of them smiling after being acquitted. I’m guessing nobody considers this photo part of their sacred history.
That would have been a good painting. Look at those two smug mugs. Not sure how she would treat the image, but there would be any number of ways to let the viewers know these guys were rejoicing in getting away with murder. This could be done with color alone. Imagine, for example, how Leon Golub would have painted them.
Was her painting too obvious, not sophisticated or self-aware enough in terms of racial struggles and racial identity? Maybe. Maybe she made a mistake and stuck her foot in her mouth. People are making that argument in great detail. But these tend to be people who are well versed in postmodern/identity politics, or their students, or followers. It’s a rather incisive argument within a certain perspective or framework, which is, by the way, highly contested.
Let me give you a sample from the letter of protest:
“The institution will be participating in condoning the coopting of Black pain and showing the art world and beyond that people can co-opt sacred imagery rooted in oppression and face little consequence… contributing to and perpetuating centuries-old racist iconography that ultimately justifies state and socially sanctioned violence on Black people.”
Woo-wee! You just had to have taken some seminars in identity politics to either believe or properly entertain that notion. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill. A painting after an infamous photo is now justifying state violence against black people?! [Note: you need to believe that state and socially sanctioned violence against blacks is a real thing in 2017, deliberate, not exaggerated, and that virtually all whites, including Dana Schutz, tacitly support it with or without being conscious of it, even while consciously opposing anything similar.] Also notice the fashion of capitalizing Black, but not white, and ascribing the sacred to black imagery while simultaneously defining white imagery as necessarily, to be concise, evil.
You couldn’t cut the irony with a chainsaw. The poor artist conceived the work out of anger at presumed white supremacy, and now she’s branded as supporting and justifying that very thing, and worse, she’s stealing sacred imagery from black people, reinventing centuries old racist iconography, and upholding all manner of state violence against blacks. And for this high crime against humanity she must pay the “consequences”.
Never mind for the moment what the institution would be condoning if it ceded the protester’s demands. I gather more people would be emboldened to try to destroy other people’s lives over any perceived infraction, even if we all know very well the intent was positive. It sure looks like the protestors have exaggerated their claims to ridiculous proportions to mask that they don’t really have much of anything to be upset about with the new show, and perhaps there’s an ulterior motive.
Wait, there’s more in the letter of protest. They argue that Dana Schutz’ work is:
“in line with a long tradition of white supremacy obscuring and ultimately erasing narratives of the continued genocide of Black and indigenous peoples.”
Genocide?! Genocide?! She is complicit in continued genocide by, um, erasing the narratives that reveal it?! [Note: If the protesters were at all trying to be fair and honest, they would have said, “inadvertently” or “unwittingly”.]
I am as shocked by this as by Hrag’s statement. But here it’s just her, and not all white people to blame. But to accuse someone of somehow aiding genocide is a really serious allegation. Holy shit! Ew, you’ve gotta’ be a really rotten person. Soulless. And supporting state and socially sponsored violence against blacks?! Oh God! WHAT A MONSTER!!
It is so obvious that Dana Schutz has nothing to do with any of that. We have to now believe that she’s so deluded, or stupid, despite being a really good artist, that she believes she’s against racism, but she’s really for perpetuating it. If not, than why pull her show? I really don’t know what is more incredible, that anyone would believe this, that anyone would think it, or that anyone would make punitive demands based on it.
Imagine these accusations were being leveled against you. Assuming you aren’t a psychopathic sadistic monster, it would be like accusing you of being a Martian. There’s no connection with reality. How can you be accused of supporting the things you most oppose? And people are protesting you in your daily life, and trying to hurt your reputation and your living. I wouldn’t be surprised if she were getting therapy to cope with this.
Where is the evidence to justify this persecution? A PAINTING! OMIGOD!
The worst tyranny on art has just materialized. Now people can read whatever they want into an image you make, and accuse you of heinous crimes because of it. That’s as bad as a virus jumping the species barrier. You don’t even have to do anything wrong anymore. People can just make up some shit and attribute it to your art, and then you’re screwed. Noooo thanks. I prefer the old ways of doing things in this instance. Write scathing reviews and opinion pieces, have debates, but no attempts to directly exact punishment on the artist.
To be able to insist that someone’s art has a pernicious social effect because of an interpretation other than that of the artist, and in stark opposition to her intentions? I wouldn’t want that power in the wrong hands. Is this where society is heading? That is a scary direction.
But, you might think I’m exaggerating. Thank you. I hope I am. This seems pretty clear when you pan back. Right, they can’t be saying she needs to pay consequences because she made a painting which they interpret in their way, and opposed to her intentions or interpretation. That’s ridiculous. I shouldn’t be talking about them like that. And I apologize if I am misinterpreting them, and making them sound too harsh. But then I remember that they wanted that painting destroyed, and they are trying to shut down this show. If they don’t believe the scary shit I laid out above, than what other atrocity would justify destroying art and shutting down someone’s show?
Am I crazy? This stuff sounds crazy to me. Either it’s crazy, or I’m crazy. Or both.
Look people. You can’t make serious allegations against someone because of how you interpret their art. Don’t you realize how scary that is? If someone wanted to kill art, this would be a really good way to do it. Everyone will be afraid to make anything.
Imagine if you will that this power goes to Donald Trump. Now is it scary? That dude defends torture. So, uh, let’s back up on trying to crush art or artists because of our highly debatable interpretations of their art.
The protesters know very well what the artist’s stated intent was, and they are conveniently ignoring it. Come on, people. This is almost like a trial. If the defendant is guilty of these very serious allegations, than her painting will be burned and her show will be shut down.
I say the defendant is innocent! Imagine for a moment if she is, and you are demanding consequences. That’s probably not a good thing, right? Doesn’t seem ethical at all. I have to give it the buzzer. No Way!
This is just as bad as if someone could look at your art and say you are a Communist. You’re done, dude. We’re shutting you down. Or how about if the president decided your art was supporting terror, was anti-American, or corrupting the youth? Do we really want someone other than the artist to be able to completely dictate what their art means?
At what point do these outrageous claims become slander, and not just hyper-exaggerated, pseudo-philosophical gobbledygook?
But, let’s give the protester’s arguments a chance.
Their argument, or belief, goes a little something like this: There is a long history in America of whites torturing and murdering black and Native people and taking photos for souvenirs, and thus this image, because it depicts a brutalized black person, is necessarily the same thing and thus revitalizes and continues this atrocious tradition.
By their logic, if someone makes a painting of starving Jewish prisoners of a concentration camp, than they are indistinguishable from Nazis . Or, because Leon Golub made paintings of mercenaries gloating over their victims, he is a sadist in the same camp as the people who took pictures of themselves and their torture victims in Abu Ghraib. Or, Goya’s series “The Disasters of War” proves that he advocates decapitating and dismembering people. Or, anyone who paints a crucifixion hates Jesus, advocates capital punishment and torturing prisoners. The problem with that argument is that we know it’s NOT the same thing. Much more likely it’s a reminder that something terrible happened and human beings can be absolute monsters. Why insist that something is its complete opposite? But they do. Oh how they do.
Beyond that, it’s much more the same thing as traditional fine art painting in the line of Goya, Golub, Beckmann, Bacon, and so on. That’s obvious to anyone who’s had a 20th Century Survey of Art History course. So, while we are insisting that “Open Casket” belongs to a tradition of vicious racist souvenirs, we are simultaneously denying that it much more obviously belongs to the tradition of fine art painting.
Apparently, Dana Schutz is party not just to the genocide of black people, but of indigenous peoples as well. Could she be a more heinous villain? No wonder she needs to be punished.
Mind you, being hounded and demonized are not consequences enough, nor is the personal suffering Schutz has undoubtedly undergone because of this debacle (some say white people don’t suffer, but, if you prick them, they bleed. I’ve seen it. Maybe it was catsup.) I mean, it’s gotta’ suck having all this hatred showered on you, particularly when you are being accused of that which you actively detest. Stop and imagine the pain of being the poster girl for white supremacy, state sponsored violence against blacks, and GENOCIDE. I’d guess her career has already taken a nosedive, and unjustly. If you are so ass-backwards that you are a bonafide racist, than the strong implication is your artwork is reactionary and antiquated as well, at best irrelevant, and at worst pernicious. And who is going to hang one of your paintings in their home and risk being fingered as a racist themselves? What would the protesters say about anyone who displays a Schutz’ painting?
To further complicate matters, in the same Whitney Biennial, there was another painting of black pain. This one was based on the streamed video of the shooting of Philando Castile.
There is no problem here, however, no co-opting of black pain; no revitalizing centuries old racist iconography; no bolstering state sponsored violence against blacks; no resorting to depicting blacks as tortured bodies; no erasing the narratives of genocide and thus promulgating it. That’s because the artist is himself black. And I actually find this one more violent, because while the other was the hideous aftermath, this is the act of killing in action, and it’s much easier to conjure that actual footage if you’ve seen it than it is to link to something that happened before one was born (If you are under 60).
Thus, I think the argument about why Dana’s painting is a thought crime, and this one isn’t, is very sophisticated and complex, and, I obviously don’t understand it enough to agree with it. Keep in mind that the painting was chosen to be part of this year’s socially-progressive-themed Whitney Biennial by the Asian curators, BECAUSE they thought it was obviously anti-white supremacy. How do you go from that to a thought crime in paint?
Is this just a war of interpreting history? I am sure we could have the same discussion without the punitive measures. It is the punitive measures at this point that I am objecting to, more than the views. Even if I disagree with the conclusion – that her art perpetuates racism – I’m fine with you making that argument. You could be right. It could even be that it perpetuates it AND combats it at the same time, especially depending on how you look at it. I prefer to be in the less boxed-in reality. Call me claustrophobic.
After comparing these two paintings [especially if I didn’t know who made them], for me at least, things start getting confusing. I just wanna’ throw my hands up in the air and say, “whatever”. Some might argue there’s a double standard here, and others might say that yes there is and that’s the point. I strongly suspect if we were to put both paintings in a room with a bunch of people, and they didn’t know who painted them, they would not conclude that “Open Casket” was so fucked up the artist needs to suffer consequences, meanwhile the painting of Castile’s death should be celebrated as tackling a difficult issue and undermining racism in America. To come to the correct conclusions you almost need to be spoon-fed them, and then double-check to make sure you got them right.
As far as I know, no white supremacists have come to the aid of Dana Schutz. Of course they haven’t. She made a painting reminding everyone of their atrocious behavior. She’s their enemy. The alt-right just laughs at this and calls her a “snowflake” or “social justice warrior”. So, who really is emboldened by her work to steal sacred imagery from black people, and how the hell does this bolster state sponsored violence against blacks? I think it’s far, far more likely that white artists are going to be scared shitless to get anywhere near sacred black imagery, and will stick to presumed soulless, Wonder Bread, white shit. What a load!
Note that the painting above by Norman Rockwell co-opts black pain (pain has a color) and probably another sacred photo or news clip rooted in oppression. Incidentally, the more I see the painting above, the more it’s my favorite painting by Rockwell. It’s not because I want to throw tomatoes at the little girl, either, thanks. The composition, textures, and colors are incredible. But it’s the girl’s predicament that is so powerfully conveyed. You feel the hatred, the injustice, and the sadness. I’m just going to go way out on a limb here and say that white people can understand how this little black girl would feel, root for her, and despise her assailants. It’s part of being human, and to say otherwise is to dehumanize us.
I’ll gladly grant that some members of the black audience may find “Open Casket” offensive for various reasons. I’d be more persuaded by spontaneous feelings than by foregone rhetorical conclusions based on opaque critical art theory and impenetrable French postmodern philosophy that virtually nobody understands. As far as I can tell, the controversy is mostly about argument within the context of pretty dense critical art theory and identity politics, and issues from people who studied those subjects in college. This is more of an intellectual argument, and an arcane one, than a genuine grassroots public outrage. In other words, this may be more about book-learned postmodernist derived ideas than about painting, or violence, or the real world.
Even if we agree that Schutz fucked up her intended message, and her resultant painting backfired, does this mean that all her work backfires in the same way, or that she doesn’t deserve to have a solo show of her other work? Does this mean that she is an execrable person, and that bad people shouldn’t be allowed to have art careers? Is her crime that her attempt at making politically correct art was insufficiently correct?! This is friendly fire, or as the alt-right jackanapes like to say, “the left eating their own”.
I said the article was uncritical because it didn’t stand up for the artist, or art. Everyone is so terrified of being labeled a white supremacist, automatically, that they allow themselves to be bullied. If the accusations were legitimate, and based on solid evidence, art critics would not have to worry about themselves being labeled. Their fear is based on the accusations being threadbare and arbitrary, which is justifiable in a climate where an artist is being persecuted for making an anti-racist paiting. I too am afraid of being labeled for writing this article, even if I’m arguing for a broader humanity and higher moral perspective.
It’s similar to the 50’s fear of being labeled a “communist”. Everyone was afraid of being labeled, not just actual communists. The red scare is now the white scare. The art world has been completely cowed by the postmodern/politically correct/identity politics & social justice segment of the population and the art world itself (which is fast converting to the same religion). The article not only didn’t criticize the protesters or defend the work, it legitimized the protest and gave attention to those behind it. [Note that a growing number of radical activist art critics, such as Hrag, themselves condemn Schutz on spurious grounds.]
The gallery, the art critics, and the art magazines should just say something to the effect of, “sorry folks, the work you object to is not in this exhibition, and we are not going to punish an artist and destroy her career because of one controversial painting which offended some people.” I might add, if I were feeling plucky, “THAT is batshit crazy, folks, so stop being so strident and angry and, er, violent. Go smoke a fucking bowl and chillax.”
At this point I’m so fed up with the militant strain of the left – AND the reactionary alt-right, AND the conformist old guard conservative$ for that matter, because they are all idealogues – that I think I would prefer to just let people make offensive art, whatever the offense. Conservatives like Jessie Helms, Rudolf Giuliani, and even Donald Trump are infamous for objecting to art which explored terrain they were not comfortable with (Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photos, for example) or which were perceived as critical of conservative values (Andres Serrano’s “Piss Crhist” or Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary”, which incorporated elephant dung into the painting. Yes I realize Ofili is a believer, which just adds more irony.). And now the radical left condemns anything they can successfully project white supremacy, or sexism, or racism, or whatever social offense onto. Let’s face it, they are out looking for anything they can uncover, and if pickings are slim, than we will use tweezers to pluck the slightest thing that might be offensive if you look at it a certain way. You get assignments to do just this sort of thing if you take the right classes in college. You’ve been trained to do this.
Some may object vehemently to my saying that people are “projecting” racism, but, please consider that the most notorious recent cases of art being labeled racist, and being censored, were instances in which the artists’ intentions were very specifically anti-white supremacist. [I’d go into more depth here, and give examples, but I’ve already done that in another article, which I recommend: Censoring and Burning Art in the Name of Progressive Morality.] We have to take this outstanding fact into consideration. We know these artists aren’t racists, and we know their work was intended to fight racism. People aren’t up in arms about the actual and deliberate white supremacist messages in certain white pride type metal or punk bands, nor tackling the overt sexism and homophobia of some rap music. Rather, they are attacking liberal artists who are fighting on the same side of the fence as they are, and for the same cause. Why are these the artists who we are most offended by, and who we seek to censor?
Well, they say it’s not “censorship”, because only the powerful can censor, so I guess I should say the works are not being shown, are being protested, and there are demands for their destruction. This is artist, Sam Durant’s own defense for those seeking to destroy, but not censor his art. You can destroy someone’s work without censoring it, and that’s another fine piece of argument the uninitiated might not quite grasp. Let’s just say I’m not smart enough myself to understand it, so I’ll just use the word censor for convenience, but put it in italics. Is that OK? [Note that in Durant’s case, his art and career are based on social justice, in which case siding with protesters is, incidentally, knowing which side his bread is buttered on. It’s losing a battle [art piece] to win a war [art career].
Part of this is about power, pure and simple. Who gets to be the moral authority? There are contesting models of morality, both liberal. Here the radicals are vying with the classic humanist type of liberals over which paradigm is better. The radicals are saying that Dana Schutz is not allowed to make the argument she is making, and basically needs to shut up for five minutes, because she’s white [she is the oppressor]. That sounds hyperbolic, but they ARE demanding her show be pulled. Do we define morality based on universal standards couched in reason, or do we defer to the feelings of members of marginalized groups, as postmodernism would have us do? Note that this is a case of “what” decides versus “who” decides.
Dana Schutz is just a symbol or example here in a sophisticated and even arcane philosophical war over which narrative is true, and thus paramount, in which case who gets to be the moral authority, including having dominion over art. If the principles of universal morals triumphs, than the radicals do not gain more power. Dana has attempted to address white supremacy within a context of universal moral authority in which case race is less relevant to the authority of ones position. For this reason, she is the ideological enemy. Who other than someone who wants power and moral authority tries to shut down an artist’s show (when they know she is only guilty of trying to be on their side)?
You can see this same scenario playing out in the recent protests at Evergreen college over the false alarm of one of the teachers being a racist, when, quite clearly, he stood for a more comprehensive, inclusive, fair, and universal morality. The radical non-white students ended up barricading the administration in the library and making sweeping demands, and the president of the college is now internet-famous as a gutless wimp for allowing himself to be bullied. The similarity, of course, is the students believing they have the automatic moral authority (as marginalized persons) to chastise the (white) faculty, take power into their own hands, and use it to try to destroy a (white) teacher’s career who did nothing wrong. When we grant moral authority based on biology it’s quite likely to be arbitrary, as it can take a lifetime to have the breadth of understanding, compassion, and knowledge to be genuinely fair. If we give people unearned moral authority, they are as likely to abuse it as lottery winners are to squander their sudden riches. The students then photographed themselves with baseball bats and roamed the campus and surrounding area, even threatening people with violence, in order to protect themselves from imaginary violence. No sense of hypocrisy here when morality is decided by biology and belief, not shared, broad, and reasonable standards.
That is a bit hypothetical on my part – there’s something deeper than just people taking exception to a painting, and this is one guess of what it might be – but consider that the protesters are not from the general public, so to speak, but are academics and radical activists for social change. The arguments are radical, activist, academic arguments. It is not the black community at large that is offended by Dana’s painting, as far as I know (Whoopi Goldberg wasn’t offended), but rather a thin slice of academics who oppose it on ideological grounds. They would oppose the painting on principle without even seeing it.
Speaking of Whoopi Goldberg not being offended: the whole panel of the TV show The View wasn’t offended, but rather thought the protests of the painting were ridiculous. If Whoopi and another black woman were not even offended – Whoopi said the original protester needed to grow up – than the offense may be too subtle, so subtle that only a radical academic nursed on identity politics and critical theory can perceive it? Is it barely there at all, or not at all?
Are we comfortable continuing this persecution of Dana Schutz when Whoopi didn’t even have a problem with her painting, but did have a problem with Hannah Black? Who more represents the general public, Whoopi Goldberg or the radical, academic, activist protesters? That is a bit of the logical fallacy of the appeal to authority, but I’m not saying you must believe what Whoopi Goldberg says, but rather that it is unlikely that she would not even be able to perceive what was wrong in something which protesters are maintaining is unbelievably offensive.Many people believe that the purpose of art is to bring about social change, and that art is synonymous with political activism, cadre. In such a case, you must be a part of the cause, or else you are part of the problem. Art is now a good portion self-righteous propaganda for the cause of ostensible social justice. I say “ostensible” because it is arguably not true justice. I, for one, don’t think it’s just to ruin a painter’s career for apparently botching her attempt at being an ally. Is insufficiently politically radical really enough to hang someone’s career on? And I am not clear that the overarching world view out of which this kind of protest arises is morally and ethically pure, without bias or shortcomings. Which past moral narrative was bullet proof? I find myself not comfortable with any of the narratives I see available. But every artist must promote some political agend to be taken seriously, and if it veers from their conclusions, it’s rubbish.
If you are reading this it’s possible that your salvation, so to speak, is in art. It can reach and breathe beyond the exoskeleton of a belief system, couched in spoken language. Visual art is another language with its own propositions. One of its functions is to undermine the tyranny of spoken language, how reality can be expressed in words and pocketed as conclusions. Visual representation is another model with which to interpret and represent the world, and in that sense serves as checks and balances against reality being defined solely in spoken language, with its limiations.
Under whatever guise, we should be alarmed when spoken language seeks to suppress or crush visual language, when argument insists it overrides mute visual language, which can’t argue back.
When that happens, a painting can have any ridiculous interpretation foisted on it. I once did a digital painting of an alien autopsy. There’s a lot of interpretations one could have of that. It’s retro future, which is partly my prime interest because of the representation of imagined realities. But someone could look at it and say the aliens are immigrants and the autopsy means I want to dissect them. Now they can dissect me. What actually transpired in the past was that someone thought the alien was supposed to be me, and I was suffering and weak like the alien or something. That pissed me off, not surprisingly. The point is that language can impose any goddamn interpretation on an image because the image is mute.
I do not agree that art need be subordinate to anyone’s sociopolitical ideology. Rather, art has its own purpose, which in the case of visual art has much more to do with exploring the frontiers of human visual imagination than making props to illustrate and promote a radical (or reactionary) agenda. [For more on the purpose of visual art, see my article: What is the Purpose of Visual Art?] But if we ARE going to look at art through only a moral lens, than we must make damned well sure it really IS moral, just, fair, open, generous, and kind. The witch hunt of Dana Schutz is none of those things.
Whether or not her painting of Emmett Till was offensive is highly debatable. Is it inherently offensive, or is the designation decided by someone taking offense to it? If it is the latter, than all art is vulnerable to being censored because someone, anyone, becomes triggered by it. And if the far right and the far left ideologues happen to be, at the same time, demanding censoring, de-funding, and destroying art, and get away with it, what is an artist to do? Are artists supposed to fucking walk on eggs their entire lives for fear of offending ultra-sensitive, self-righteous schoolmarms with bugs up their asses?
I say fuck that! When did art become a rigid artifact of ideology? Where’s the fun, the rebellion, the attempt to go outside of the boundaries of moralizing and preaching? Where’s the wonder, the excitement, the transcendence? But noooooo, art must be a dry argument supporting a belief system, meta-narrative, paradigm, radical cause, or what have you.
And to those who think the role of art is political, stop and consider that no matter how innovative, beautiful, complex, well-researched, intelligent or elaborate an artwork might be, if it doesn’t express the correct sentiments, than it is garbage. This completely subordinates art to morality. That pretty much kills art. It’s time to say “no” to the vicious, killjoy schoolmarms and prissy ideologues.
Those who insist art must adhere to their moral strictures are, perhaps, afraid of the unbridled imagination, the unknown, the unconscious that becomes manifest in art, the transcendent, and in general the wild side of art that can’t be contained within words and foregone conclusions. Thus, they seek to tame art by breaking it, domesticating it, and making it a work-animal harnessed to serve their political agenda, which in many cases may be their individual self-empowerment, or rather jockeying for power over others. Art is one of the few places – sometimes the metaphoric window of the canvas is the only place – where an artist can have control, and be free. We should pause when any version of morality seeks to exercise a tyranny over art (in its own quite probable selfish self-interest of squashing anything outside of its purview).
Now, now, calm down. If something is genuinely, incontrovertibly, and intentionally immoral, or actually and incontestably advocates for violence against anyone, that’s a different story. Art or free speech doesn’t mean you can be a vicious, sadistic asshole and nobody is going to criticize you for it.
Art, historically, tends to color outside the lines and offends all sorts of people who need easy answers, clear-cut beliefs, and an ideology that could fit on an info-poster bullet-list. At what point in the past would we like for the rigid minds of the world to have successfully censored the art they found offensive?
People are protesting an artist because of a PAINTING she made, not an actual act of violence, of which there is a daily plethora to take exception to. In our past we protested the actual killing of black people, real violence and murder! Now we are protesting someone who is herself protesting the same thing through her painting, but arguably not doing it well enough!
If you want social justice, go after the people who are actually engaging in hatred and violence, or who we can be SURE are promoting it. There’s plenty to choose from. If we are not really sure, or if it’s ambiguous, or if there are very serious arguments to the contrary, and if the thing in question is just a painting, we are at best wasting our energy on the wrong target, and at worst victimizing an innocent person according to a flawed ideology, in which case we are guilty of what we are accusing. Who wants to go there? My idea of social justice includes protecting innocent artists from ideological condemnation.
I think everyone knows or suspects that Dana Schutz is a good, decent, moral person, and her painting of Emmett Till was well-intentioned. Maybe, maybe, she didn’t understand how the painting could be interpreted from a radical, black, identity politics, postmodern, critical theory perspective. And for this mistake she must be destroyed. There’s really something wrong with this picture, and I don’t think it reflects well on the protesters. If this is supposed to be about justice, it’s a mean, frontier sort of vindictive justice, and it seems like they want to make an example of Dana Schutz.
And if I were in Dana Schutz’ position, do you know what I would fear? What would you fear? I can tell you in one word: violence. If you are targeted as a racist, white supremacist, who promotes state sponsored violence against blacks, and whose work is so violent and offensive that your shows need to be “pulled”, than someone might believe that and act on it in vengeance. Clearly she is the enemy. Dana Schutz is being made a target for violence, ironically, while being labeled violent.
Does that sound like much? Well, I got a threatening letter from a black Muslim hate group dedicating to destroying white art just for defending Schutz in another article. It made me uncomfortable. What were they going to do if I didn’t “stop pontificating!”? What measures would they take? They would likely try to proceed with labeling me a white supremacist and racist, labels which justify all sorts of retaliation. Has the artist received similar threats? I dunno. So, yeah, I’ve been labeled and told to shut up on this issue. I’ve also been banned from an online art magazine (’twas Hyperallergic) for politely expressing my opinions. And if we are going to call a painting “violent”, than is silencing or threatening people also “violent”? Is destroying art or shutting down a person’s show “violent”?
In the end the gallery has agreed to have a placard on the wall notifying gallery goers that the artist was involved in a scandal for making a painting which was deemed communist racist. In short, Dana Schutz needs to be branded a communist racist for attempting to counter communism racism in her work.
Dear irate protesters, chill out on the liberal artists who aren’t progressive enough for your tastes and slipped up when trying to be your ally. There are real assholes and murderers out there, not to mention people in real positions of power that engage in that old school variety of corruption that has very real and deadly consequences for everyone.
Dana Schutz is the least of our worries, especially because we all know she’s on the side of the good to begin with.
When you know someone is innocent or good, and you smear and vilify her anyway as a sacrificial scapegoat to the greater good of your eminently worthy cause, than people might wisely question whether your cause is indeed great, or even good.
Personally, I would steer well clear of a model of morality that censors art, has no forgiveness, no tolerance, and seeks to severely punish individuals for debatable, minor, and unintentional (possibly merely perceived or projected) transgressions. On top of that they exaggerate their claims to ridiculous proportions in order to make their charge stick, and don’t care if this demonization endangers their target.
It looks like they are looking for someone to make an example of. Are they are looking for [metaphoric] blood? That ain’t cool. It’s not playing nice at all.
- The painting at the top of the post is by L. Whittington.
- The second painting is by Z. Azania.
- The third painting is by T. Megalis. That painting was protested and did not appear in the exhibition where it was accepted because the artist retracted it after receiving very strong and personal criticism where it was shared on Facebook.
As always, I’m a work in progress and hope to evolve new understanding and opinions, in which case I can look back and see where I was wrong before. I could be wrong now. Though, keep in mind that those who are most sure they are right are almost certainly wrong.
Lastly, I don’t have an editor, so, please excuse my grammar errors and typos.