There is controversy over a painting titled “Open Casket”. It is of Emmett Till lying in an open casket that is being exhibited at the Whiteny Biennial, the renowned exhibition of American art at the Whitney Museum in New York. The controversy stems from the subject matter of the painting and the race of the artist. The artist Dana Schutz is white, the subject is black.
Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The brutality of his murder and the fact that his killers were acquitted drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. Till posthumously became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.
The charge of cultural appropriation is being thrown about by 30 plus artists. The leader of the moral outrage is Hannah Black, a Berlin-based artist born in England to an Irish-Caribbean father and a Russian Jewish refugee mother. She attended the Whitney International Study Program.
The problem with this is that Black and her group are demanding that the Whitney not only stop displaying the artwork, but destroy it. As in, burn it. These are dark times indeed if the progressive art community is calling for burning of art in the public square. The supposed defenders of free speech and expression wanting the cleansing of anything they deem inappropriate should get everyone’s attention. The world is upside down.
Cathy Young wrote an excellent opinion at Forward Montage
Of course, creative freedom is not an exemption from criticism, and there is nothing wrong with criticizing an author’s or artist’s treatment of issues related to race, ethnicity or religion (for instance, use of racial or cultural stereotypes, or sugarcoating oppression). But there’s a big difference between criticism and public shaming, let alone calls for the destruction of art. And there’s a big difference between criticizing the treatment of a subject and saying that a subject should be off-limits to some creators because of their identity.
I find it alarming and entirely wrongheaded to call for the censorship and destruction of an artwork, no matter what its content is or who made it. As artists and as human beings, we may encounter works we do not like and find offensive. We may understand artworks to be indicators of racial, gender, and class privilege — I do, often. But presuming that calls for censorship and destruction constitute a legitimate response to perceived injustice leads us down a very dark path.